Archive for the Research of Material Iconography

Posted on Wed, 09/24/2008 - 10:00

Prof. Monika Wagner

Dept. of Art History, University of Hamburg



Since Plato and Aristotle, European art history has paid little attention to the materials of which artworks are made. Aesthetic theory has long regarded material as the medium of form and not something meant to be consciously perceived as part of the meaning of the artwork. In 1996, The Archive for the Research of Material Iconography was established at the University of Hamburg. The primary purposes of this archive are to research the iconography of materials used in modern art and to help establish a new angle in the perception and analysis of art (particularly contemporary art since 1945).


Even today, art is basically measured by it’s power to transcend the material – by its “Vernichtung“ / destruction (Schiller), “Aufhebung“ / abolition (Hegel), or “immaterialisation” (Lyotard) – through form.  Consequently, material has been marginalized as a mere necessity, while form has developed into a central category of aesthetic theory.  The analysis of form is extensively exercised by art historians while the analysis of materials is practiced in the restoration workshops and in the rather isolated field of chemical and technical observation.


For centuries, only a limited number of materials was used for the realization of artworks. As long as art laid claim to eternity – the work was at least meant to outlast its maker or patron – the materials used had

to be permanent. Even if it is true that Michelangelo himself was commissioned to produce a sculpture in snow, such a capricious excursion into the world of ephemeral substances was possible only on the foundation of eternal works in durable materials such as stone or bronze.


Avant garde movements in the early 20th century began to shatter the foundations of the artworld in their attempt to break down the border dividing art and life. Marcel Duchamp’s Ready-mades as well as Vladimir Tatlin’s program for a "new material culture” attest to this effort to adjust the materials of everyday life and art. Industrial materials became worthy of art and with them connotations of industrial production and daily application invaded the sphere of art.


Since 1945, artists have devoted themselves to a radical questioning of form as being central to the comprehension of art.  In Germany, this questioning had a particular twist in its reaction against the propagation of traditional materials and the nationalization of wood or granite during the Third Reich. Unstable, changeable, and amorphous materials gained a programmatic meaning and form. No longer were they merely regarded as the invariable outcome of artistic expression. The expression itself could then be recognized as the result of certain material qualities.


While the fine arts thus quit their pictorial function, the material (which was once regarded only as the medium) now became the artwork. At the same time contemporary artists were questioning this relationship between form and material, first approaches were also made in the field of art history to analyze material as a “Bedeutungsträger“ / carrier of meaning (Bandmann). Lately, several M.A. and Ph.D. theses on the meaning of materials in contemporary art have originated at the Art History Department in Hamburg in connection with the Archive for the Research of Material Iconography. The Department also produces the "ABC des Materials“ /  Alphabet of Materials, a collection of little pamphlets, each devoted to a single material. (Translation Sebastian Hackenschmidt)


The Picture Archive

by Sebastian Hackenschmidt


In the Picture Archive, the meaning of materials in 20th Century art is documented with the aim of registering changes and developments in the use of these materials. So far, about 10.000 color reproductions of artworks have been filed in the archive under more than 50 keywords provided by the applied materials from air to zinc.  For the pictures, monographic and thematic catalogues have been collected, sorted and indexed, as well as (mainly German and American) art magazines of the 1980s and 90s. A database with more than 1000 titles of secondary literature on contemporary as well as historic art expands the possibilities of research.


The archive allows you to discover a multitude of tendencies in which the traditional materials of art are being exchanged for completely new ones: In our capitalist society, industrial materials such as steel, plastic or concrete have long since replaced marble and bronze.  On the other hand, artists have also reacted to the ways of the industrial nations, their products, and artificiality by making art out of cheap or poor materials like coal, felt, straw or wax.  Huge amounts of earth and dirt have invaded the white cubes of the galleries.  Room corners have been poured with lead or smeared with fat.


Recently, more and more living plants and animals seem to question the status and the utilization of nature; in the age of genetic manipulation a lot of so-called natural products have proved to be synthetic. Especially the human body serves as an inexhaustible source of materials that had not previously been used in art: Finger- and toenails, hair and diverse bodily fluids. From Andy Warhol’s “Piss Paintings” to Piero Manzoni’s “merda d’ artista”, almost all the body products find their use.


A rather important category of the archive is the confrontation of materials.  Different material qualities and possibilities – hard and soft, light and heavy, temporary and everlasting, cheap and valuable – are juxtaposed in many works of art: A lettuce between two blocks of granite or diamond jewelry around a cattle bone. Even the immaterial pictures of the electronic media are being confronted with actual objects and concrete materials: The digital glow of the screen is hidden behind a brick wall, covered with earth, or grown over with greenery.


For further information, please visit the website (German language):

Archiv zur Erforschung Materialikonographie