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Behne, Adolf

    Image Credit: Wikipedia

    Full Name: Behne, Adolf

    Gender: male

    Date Born: 1885

    Date Died: 1948

    Place Born: Magdeburg, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany

    Place Died: Berlin, Germany

    Home Country/ies: Germany

    Subject Area(s): architecture (object genre), art theory, and sculpture (visual works)


    Architectural social-art theorist and historian. Behne was the son of architect Carl Behne. At age one, his family moved to Berlin where he grew up in the Centralviehhof district. After graduation from the local Gymnasium, he attended the Hochschule in Berlin-Charlottenburg intending on a career in architecture. In 1907 he switch to art history, studying at the Friedrich-Wilhelm Universität. After research in Italy in 1911, he completed his dissertation (granted in 1913), Der Inkrustationsstil in der Toskana (The Incrusted Style of Tuscany). His teachers included Heinrich Wölfflin and the philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel (1858-1918). He joined the faculty of the Hochschule and, as significant, began teaching in the adult education program, the Volkshochschule, part of a growing impetus to educate the populous outside the traditional academic system, the Volksbildungsbewegung. In his articles and lectures Behne urged the study of art for the less privileged classes of society. He was closely associated with Friedrich Naumann (1860-1919) and socialist journal Die Hilfe. In 1913 he married Elfriede Schneider, whom he met at a mathematics club at the university. Behne belonged to a group known as the Choriner Kreis (Chorin Circle), whose members included Max Beckmann and the architect Bruno Taut (1880-1938). Behne was one of the early writers to produce articles on the architect Peter Behrens (1868-1940) and Taut. Behne’s articles also appeared in the progressive journals Der Sturm, Dei Weltbühne, Sozialistische Monatshefte and Das neue Frankfurt. In 1915 Behne produced his first book, Zur neuen Kunst, a major treatise on modern art and particularly the nascent movement of German Expressionism. Behne’s 1917 essay “Das reproduktive Zeitalter” appears to anticipate the better-known (and later) theories on mass-produced images of Walter Benjamin (Bletter). He also wrote on the relatively new medium of the film. Like many intellectuals, Behne also embraced the First World War and its ideals for Germany. In 1919 he founded and headed the Arbeitsrat für Kunst (Dialogue for Art) with Taut, Walter Gropius, Julius Meier-Graefe, Karl Ernst Osthaus, Wilhelm Worringer and others, a group that lasted until 1921. The group turned their attention toward experimental Soviet art of the era. He visited Russia in 1923, co-founding the Society of the Friends of the New Russia and participating in the first German art exposition in the Soviet Union. He was also the correspondent of the British magazine The Studio. During the same time he Behne remained highly interested in the functional structure of Architecture. In 1925 he published Der moderne Zweckbau (The Modern Functional Building, English translation, 1996), part of the series Die Baukunst, edited by Dagobert Frey. Zweckbau elucidated the many ideologies behind European modernism of the 1920s, such as Functionalism, Rationalism, etc. In 1929 he became the editor of the magazine Das neue Berlin which brought him familiarity with social artists such as Heinrich Zille. Behne’s Socialist thought apolitical stance was criticized by some. He himself engaged with Paul Westheim in questioning the museum policies of Ludwig Justi as too German-centric. Behne remained in Germany during the Nazi era, where he published books in Potsdam the series Kunst der Gegenwart. After the war Behne was recruited by the painter Karl Hofer to be professor at the newly reopened Hochschule für bildende Künste in Berlin. Behne summarized his findings on art, art history and the methods in the preface of the catalog of the 150 years exposition of social developing art in 1947. His lecturing included a book Entartete Kunst, an exposé of Nazi propaganda and defamation of the modern movement. Der moderne Zweckbau sets the contexts for modernist polemics of architecture. Unlike later theorists such as Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Philip Johnson, and to a lesser extent Gropius, who all saw modern architecture as a “style” ( i.e., the International Style), Behne emphasized functional building as a set of ideologies. Der moderne Zweckbau draws on modernist architectural traditions from across the genres of the early twentieth century. Behne also criticized the heavy-handed socialist art of John Heartfield as being too political. For Behne, art had to appeal to the masses through psychology and not through the political straightjacket of propaganda.

    Selected Bibliography

    In Stein und Erz: Meisterwerke deutscher Plastik von Theoderich bis Maximilian. Berlin: Deutsche Buch-Gemeinschaft,1940; Das politische Plakat. Charlottenburg: Verlag “Das Plakat,” 1919; Entartete Kunst. Berlin: C. Habel, 1947; Die Wiederkehr der Kunst. Berlin: K. Wolff, 1919; Moderne Zweckbau. Munich: Drei Masken Verlag, 1926, English, The Modern Functional Building. Santa Monica, CA: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1996.


    Bletter, Rosemarie Haag. “Forward.” Behne, Adolf. The Modern Functional Building. Santa Monica, CA: Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1996, pp. 1, 4-8; Metzler Kunsthistoriker Lexikon: zweihundert Porträts deutschsprachiger Autoren aus vier Jahrhunderten. 2nd. Stuttgart: Metzler, 2007, pp. 21-23; Stonard, Jean Paul. Art and National Reconstruction in Germany 1945-55. Ph.D. dissertation, University of London, 2004, p. 258.


    Contributors: Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen


    Emily Crockett and Lee Sorensen. "Behne, Adolf." Dictionary of Art Historians (website).

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