In brief

The Doerner Institut was founded as the independent ‘Reich Institute for Painting Technology’ in Munich in 1937. Its name-giver was the painter and painting technician Max Doerner (1870–1939), a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, Munich, who had gained an excellent reputation internationally through his work The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting that was first published in 1921. Affiliated to the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen in 1946 and combined with its conservation workshops in 1977, the Institut has received global recognition in the fields of art-technological and scientific research on painting techniques and materials as well as painting restoration.

Directors of the Doerner Institut since 1945:
1964–1974 Christian Wolters
1974–1991 Hubertus Falkner von Sonnenburg
1991–2001 Bruno Heimberg 
2003–2017 Andreas Burmester
2017–2019 Andrea Funck 
since 2019 Eva Ortner

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Before 1937

The early history of the Doerner Institut is closely associated with the names Adolf Keim, Alexander Eibner and Walter Gräff, stretching back to the 19th century. Historicism combined an admiration for the art of the past with an enthusiasm for the technology of the present. Spurred on by a royal research commission – Ludwig I was dissatisfied with the state of the façade paintings on the Neue Pinakothek – Adolf Keim (1851–1913) developed weatherproof mineral paints. The success of his research led to his founding a chemical engineering workshop for mineral paint and mural techniques in Augsburg in 1877 that moved to Munich in 1881. Economic difficulties resulted in Keim’s ‘Research Institute for Painting Technology’ being placed under the umbrella of the ‘Society for Rational Painting Methods’ that had been founded in 1880.

However, it was only after the institute was taken over by the Technische Hochschule in 1902 that its continued existence as the ‘Test and Research Institute for Painting Technology’ was guaranteed. In 1907 the chemist Alexander Eibner (1862–1935) was appointed the director of the research institute that was located on the corner of Luisenstrasse and Gabelsbergerstrasse. It was at this time that Eibner must have met the young art historian Walter Gräff (1876–1934) who had been working as a research assistant at the State Painting Collection in the Alte Pinakothek since 1908. Gräff was a talented amateur photographer who had already recognised the significance of technical photography in the examination of paintings in 1916. Like Eibner he belonged to the board of the ‘German Society for Rational Painting Technology’. In 1930 both of them spoke at a symposium in Rome – something that was unusual at that time – on the scientific examination and conservation of art objects. Eibner’s imminent retirement and the impending closure of the research institute at the Technical University animated Gräff to pen a memorandum in favour of an ‘Institute for the examination and research of paintings and other works in the visual arts’. This anticipated the essential characteristics of the Doerner Institut in its present form. However, as the reaction from the higher authorities was one of caution, Gräff’s paper remained a vision. After his death in 1934 and after Eibner’s death the following year, the research institute was dissolved.

Walter Gräff, Selbstportrait in seiner "Untersuchungsstelle", um 1933
Walter Gräff
Alexander Eibner
Alexander Eibner

Between 1937 and 1945

Soon afterwards Max Doerner (1870–1939) succeeded in turning Gräff’s objective into reality. Himself a painter, the author of the seminal publication The Materials of the Artist and Their Use in Painting and professor for painting technology at the Academy of Fine Arts, he drew up plans in 1934 for the ‘Reich Institute for Painting Technology’ based on ideas put forward by Gräff and Eibner. It was founded in 1937 as the ‘State Test and Research Institute for Painting Technology’, with the addition of the name ‘Doerner Institut’, with departments for physical chemistry, painting technology and art history. Doerner became the director of the new institute that was housed at 3, Leopoldstrasse, next to the Academy of Fine Arts. As a ‘Reichsinstitut’ – a government organisation under the Nazis – it came under the immediate authority of the ‘Reich Chamber of Fine Art’. The early history of the institute was marked by National Socialism. It was opened on 19 July 1937, on the same day as the ‘Degenerate Art’ propaganda exhibition. In the post-war period little was undertaken to review this period in history. Only the important discovery in 2005 of all files related to the Doerner Institut during the whole of the Third Reich, as well as other documents from recently acquired bequests, enabled and instigated the reconstruction of the institute’s history and the pivotal role played by its founding father. In his book of 2016 The Fight for Art. Max Doerner and his Reich Institute for Painting Technology (series of publications brought out by the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen in böhlau Verlag) Andreas Burmester provides a meticulously researched insight into the microcosmos that was the institute under the control of the Reich Chamber of Fine Art, the Reich Chamber of Culture and, consequently, the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda. The publication however covers a greater time span, ranging from 1910 until the mid-1950s – from the end of the German Empire to World War I, from the Weimar Republic to the early years of the Third Reich, World War II and the bombing of Munich, and from the period of de-Nazification and the beginning of re-building to life in a democratic state.

The central figure in the first few years was Max Doerner. Burmester describes him as a gifted artist of Bavaria’s alpine foothills, as an extremely modest, solitary ‘fighter’ figure afflicted by a number of illnesses. At the same time he was a charismatic teacher of a whole generation of artists, admired without reservation by his pupils, hated by his opponents. In his institute, the complexities of the founding period were followed by years of fruitful activity on a variety of topics, including a regulatory work on artists’materials, in particular: following the ‘signs of deterioration of the system era’ German artists should finally be given everything they need to know so as to avoid the mistakes in painting made in the 19th century. Other subjects covered the identification of forgeries – including of works by Guardi, Spitzweg and what was supposedly a Raphael for Hitler – as well as prominent restoration projects in Naumburg and at Wartburg Castle. Adolf Ziegler, in the eyes of leading Nazi figures the aritst who embraced their ‘ideology’, was discovered and endorsed by Hitler and was responsible for the ‘degenerate art’ campaign in the second half of the 1930s. Doerner’s death in 1939 gave him the opportunity to claim the direction of the Doerner Institut for himself. He proceeded to fire ‘uncomfortable’ members of staff without delay, robbing the institute of much talent and steering it towards a dark future up until his detention in Dachau concentration camp in 1943. Changes to regulations governing artists’ materials that were ‘essential to the war effort’, the quest for substitute materials during the wartime economy, assisting the ‘Ahnenerbe’ (ancestral heritage; a research facility run by the SS), art-technological research on cultural property ‘appropriated’ by the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce, and plans for a restoration class for artists with war disabilities were determining key tasks carried out until the end of the war. The study of painting technology research and its mastery as a sign of artistic quality was all too easily instrumentalised for Nazi ideology propaganda. While Max Doerner had already battled against art without painting technology, Adolf Ziegler misappropriated this to revile contemporary artists as ‘incompetent’.

Max Doerner, 1930er Jahre
Max Doerner (1870 - 1939)
Das Doerner Institut vor dem Zweiten Weltkrieg
The Institute before 1937

Between 1945 and 1977

The institute, which was administratively incorporated into the Bavarian State Painting Collections on 31 March 1946, changed its range of subjects: plans for a school for restorers under Reinhard Lischka fell through, staff such as Heinrich Neufang were seconded as restorers during the reconstruction, others such as the art historian Dr. Fritz Haeberlein or the chemist Dr. Friedrich Müller-Skjold had to leave the institute as politically incriminated. Only the laboratory headed by Dr. habil. Heinz Roßmann flourishes: After a lively activity in materials testing and painting technology, among others for the American military government, he ends his work in the mid-1950s, and the painting technology department is dissolved in 1962. 

In 1964 Christian Wolters took over the management of the Doerner Institut, which at that time consisted of a small laboratory and a restoration workshop. Wolters was extraordinarily successful in orienting the institute towards art technology and brought the institution worldwide recognition. In 1974, the restorer and art historian Hubertus Falkner von Sonnenburg succeeded Wolters as director of the institute. Thanks to Sonnenburg's initiative, the restoration workshops of the Bavarian State Painting Collections were merged with those of the Doerner Institut in 1977.

From 1977 to the present day

After the completion of the new building for the Neue Pinakothek in 1981, the Doerner Institut moved into the rooms there that its still occupies today. The institute faced massive challenges following the acid attack on paintings by Albrecht Dürer in 1988 in the Alte Pinakothek. This necessitated restoration measures that were to take several years. These had, howoever, been preceded by the development of new scientific treatment concepts based on ion exchangers. In 1990 Bruno Heimberg took on the direction of the institute. Under his leadership the scope of responsibility was expanded to include building maintenance and security; the depots, the carpentry shop and frame restoration became affiliated although still not integral parts of the institute itself. In 1994, for the first time, the Doerner Institut presented the findings of its art-technological research at the Dürer exhibition in the Neue Pinakothek.

Continuously improving methods of examination has always been at the focus of research work. One milestone was the development of the so-called VASARI scanner in the 1990s for high-resolution analogue and later digital infra-red reflectography, in cooperation with the National Gallery in London. Since 1998 the institute has closely cooperated with the Chair of Conservation-Restoration, Art Technology and Conservation Science at the Technical University of Munich and is, as such, involved in the training of restorers at university level. In 2003 Andreas Burmester became the director if the institute. Since early 2004 all the depots, frame restoration, museum and exhibition technology and the carpentry shop belong to the Doerner Institut. The number of staff increased as a consequence to more than 50. Preventive conservation was introduced as an independent field of activity.

In 2017 Andrea Funck took over the management of the institute for a brief period and introduced the modern mission statement. In August 2019 the long-standing head of the restoration department, Eva Ortner, became the new director of the museum and research institute with its long tradition that is unique in Germany.

Nach dem Säureattentat auf Werke Albrecht Dürers in der Alten Pinakothek
After the acid attack in 1988 on works by Albrecht Dürer in the Alte Pinakothek
Der ehemalige Direktor des Institutes, Bruno Heimberg, beim Restaurieren von Dürers Paumgartner-Altar
The former director of the Institut, Bruno Heimberg, during the restauration of Dürer's Paumgartner altarpiece