press release: Werner Schmalenbach dies

Werner Schmalenbach Dies: The “high-ranking art expert” and Founding Director of the Kunstsammlung NRW was 89 years old

Düsseldorf. “An art and museum expert of international reputation and ranking”: these are the words chosen by Dr. Marion Ackermann, the current Artistic Director of the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, to honor the just deceased Prof. Werner Schmalenbach, Premiere Director of the Kunstsammlung. “As a consequence of his mastery and connoisseurship, our institution owns paintings of international standing, works whose acquisition made the Kunstsammlung one of Europe's leading museums, the ‘national gallery’ of our federal state,” remarked Marion Ackermann on July 6, 2010. “We are all deeply affected by the death of our founding director, which took place just days before the reopening of the Kunstsammlung am Grabbeplatz on Saturday.”

Among the circa 200 acquisitions of the “Schmalenbach era” are entire groups of works by Picasso, Max Ernst, and Kurt Schwitters, as well as key works by Emil Schumacher, Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, and Robert Rauschenberg. Schmalenbach, who headed the Kunstsammlung from 1962 to 1990, died on July 6, 2010 in Meerbusch near Düsseldorf after a long illness. He was 89 years old.

According to the current director, Schmalenbach’s tenure as founding director, which lasted for nearly three decades, was characterized by his unerring eye for artistic quality, his inner independence from shifting artistic “fashions,” and his complete sovereignty with regard to the often far from easy decisions he faced concerning potential acquisitions. “Today, the international esteem enjoyed by our collection continues to rest on this solid foundation,” remarked Ackermann. Trendsetting as well, according to Ackermann, was Schmalenbach’s conception: he never strove to make his museum an overview of art in the 20th century, “but instead to focus wholly on the impact and aesthetic power of outstanding individual works.”

Needless to add, this institution—originally oriented toward the painting of Classical Modernism—opened itself up to innovative tendencies under the directorate of Armin Zweite (1990-2008). Zweite acquired contemporary art, including the collection's first three-dimensional works, among them works by Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, and Imi Knoebel.

“But the high standards of quality established and maintained by Werner Schmalenbach retain their validity in our current work,” emphasized Ackermann, Artistic Director of the Kunstsammlung beginning in September 2009. Schmalenbach succeeded in recruiting a large and enthusiastic public for art through the eloquent and precise language of his numerous lectures and publications. At the “new and opened up” Kunstsammlung, his efforts in this area continue through an expanded menu of public and educational activities, for example in the “workshop” projects, to be overseen by well-known artists. 

Born in Göttingen on September 1920, and raised in Basel, Schmalenbach followed his studies in art history, archaeology, and ethnology by publishing a work on film. Appearing slightly later was his study “Die Kunst Afrikas” (The Art of Africa), devoted to a topic that would preoccupy him throughout his life. Director of the Kestner Gesellschaft in Hannover beginning in 1955, he assumed the directorship of the then recently-founded Kunstsammlung in Düsseldorf in 1962. The core of the museum's collection was a comprehensive group of works by Paul Klee, recently acquired by the Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia. Appearing under Schmalenbach’s name were almost 150 books, principally on the art of Classical Modernism, many focusing on artists like Klee, Schwitters, Schumacher, and Leger.