Photograph of Joseph Leo KoernerJoseph Leo Koerner

Victor S. Thomas Professor of the History of Art and Architecture

Joseph Leo Koerner teaches the history of art and architecture from the late Middle Ages through the present, focusing largely on the cultures of Northern Europe, especially Germany, Flanders, and Austria. In addition to general surveys of art history—including surveys of Northern Renaissance and Baroque art, a history of Western art conducted in reverse chronology, and a gateway humanities course for incoming undergraduates—he has taught thematic courses on iconoclasm, the Christian altarpiece, landscape painting, European representations of the Ottoman Empire, the aesthetics of the ugly, self-portraiture, visual evidence, Romanticism, memory, monuments, Viennese modernism, Adam and Eve, the concept of the enemy, monuments, and art in a state of siege.  He also teaches monographic courses on a wide range of artists, including Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, Caspar David Friedrich, and William Kentridge.  Many of his courses are object-based and conducted in the Harvard Art Museums.

He is currently Interim Chair of Harvard's German Languages and Literature Department, where he is also a voting affiliate. 

For the last two decades, Koerner has also made documentary films. He is interested exploring the presence of the past—as history, memory, archive, and monument. He has written and presented arts documentaries for BBC television, including the three-part series Northern Renaissance produced by BBC Scotland and broadcast on BBC Four and the feature-length documentary Vienna, City of Dreams. He has written reviews and articles for The New Republic, Frankfurter Allgemeine ZeitungThe New York Review of Books, and Granta, and is Associate Editor of—and frequent contributor to—the interdisciplinary journal Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and raised there and in Vienna, Austria, Koerner studied History, the Arts, and Letter at Yale University (B.A. 1980), English Literature at Cambridge University (M.A. 1982), and philosophy and German literature at the University of Heidelberg (1982-3) before entering the graduate program in History of Art at U.C. Berkeley (M.A. 1985, Ph.D. 1988). After three years as Junior Fellow at Harvard’s Society of Fellows (1986-9), he joined the Harvard faculty, where he was Assistant Professor of Fine Art (1989-1991) and Professor (1991-1999). 1999-2001 he was Professor of Modern Art History at the University of Frankfurt, and afterwards moved to London, where he was Professor at University College London (2001-2004) and the Courtauld Institute of Art (2004-2007). He is currently the Victor S. Thomas Professor of History of Art and Architecture and Affiliate of German Languages and Literature at Harvard. He also serves, since 2008, as Senior Fellow of Harvard’s Society of Fellows. 

At Harvard, Koerner has organized exhibitions of Early Netherlandish Painting (1990), German Renaissance Art (1993), Pieter Bruegel’s engravings (1995), Netherlandish prints 1550-1675 (1999), and Adam and Eve (2018). At the Austrian National Gallery in 1997, he curated a retrospective of the work of his father, the painter Henry Koerner (1915-1991). In 2002, he collaborated with Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel on the exhibition "Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars" at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, and he contributed to Latour and Weibel’s exhibitions "Making Things Public" and "Reset Modernity!"  Koerner’s books include Die Suche nach dem Labyrinth—Der Mythos von Dädalus und Ikarus (1983), Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape (1990), The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art (1993), Unheimliche Heimat—Henry Koerner 1915-1991 (1997), The Reformation of the Image (2004), Dürer's Hands (2006), and Bosch and Bruegel: From Enemy Painting to Everyday Life (2016). 

Koerner was the recipient Jan Mitchell Prize for the History of Art in 1992 and received a Humboldt Fellowship 1991-2 and a Guggenheim Fellowship 2006-7. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (since 1995) and the American Philosophical Society (since 2008), and a fellow of the Royal Society of Antiquaries.  He currently serves as Trustee on the board of the American Academy of Berlin and is a Lifetime Trustee of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. He has delivered the Slade Lectures at both Cambridge University (2003) and Oxford University (2013), as well as the Andrew W. Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery in Washington (2008), the Tanner Lectures in Human Values at Cambridge University (2012), and the Gombrich Lectures on the Classical Tradition at the Warburg Institute (2016). He held the 2018 Avenali Chair in the Humanities at U.C. Berkeley, where gave talks on current research and screened his film project. Koerner was a member of the research group "Poetik und Hermeneutik" in its late phase, and is currently a member Krupp-Reimers-Forschungskolloquium.

Koerner received the 2009 Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Achievement Award, which funded the Vienna Project at Harvard. Through that support, he finished in 2018 the feature-length documentary film The Burning Child, which he wrote, directed, and produced. Shot in Vienna and London, with postproduction in New York and Los Angeles, it explores, through interviews, visual explorations, and music, the dream and nightmare of homemaking in Vienna from the city's emergence as a major metropolis around 1900 through Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938 and beyond:  The project was the subject of an extended conversation between and Professor Benjamin Buchloh published in the Fall 2018 issue of OCTOBER Magazine: Vienna premier of The Burning Child was sponsored jointly by the Friends of the Secession and the Sigmund Freud Museum.  Director's screenings of have taken place at Yale University Art Gallery, the Pacific Film Archives, Harvard University, the Neue Galerie New York, the Tisch School of Art at NYU, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Film Forum Princeton University, and the University of British Columbia. The film was an official selection of the 2019 Jewish Film Festival Jerusalem. The film was released on Amazon Prime in September 2022. For more on the film, listen to Koerner's podcast with Caroline Fowler:

2020-2021 Koerner collaborated again with Bruno Latour on the interdisciplinary exhibition “Critical Zones” mounted at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe in 2020-2022. His contribution to the show consisted of a small experimental exhibition within the exhibition of paintings—borrowed from the Kunsthalle Karlsruhe—related to the Romantic concept of Erdkunde (“earth tidings”) and dialoguing with the art installations adjacent to it. Koerner's current scholarly research concerns art in states of siege or exception, with particular reference to the work of Hieronymus Bosch, Max Beckmann, and Kentridge. He is also collaborating on a exhibition of the art of William Blake, co-curating the section devoted to Philipp Otto Runge. His most recent article, co-authored with Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg and published in Critical Inquiry, recasts—in concrete human terms—the story of Andrea Mantegna's famed Madonna of Victory through hitherto unknown evidence uncovered in the archives of Jewish legal discourse.  Koerner delivered, in January 2022, the delayed 2021 Linbury Lecture at the National Gallery in London. Given conjuction with the major exhibition "Dürer's Journeys: Travels of a Renaissance Artist," the talk will explored "Dürer's Mobility"—the movement of Albrecht Dürer's imagery, person and products. Here's a link to the lecture, which (expanded) will be published in 2022 as a book:

From his early book on Daedalus and Icarus (1983), which explores mythic relations between an artist-parent and his child, via his historical work on subjectivity in the Renaissance (self-portraiture) and Romanticism (landscape painting), through his current work on art in a state of siege, Koerner’s work has a strong autobiographical dimension. However, his personal stories reach towards collective memory as transmitted, most immediately, through family ties, as Koerner explored in his visual essay “Family Portrait”

In the academic year 2022-23, will give the John and Dominique de Menil Distinguished Seminar in Art History at Rice University. He has been collaborating with Jennifer Homans on a project on movement in the visual arts and dance to be launched at NYU's Center for Ballet and the Arts.  In Spring 2023 he will be a Guest Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. 



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