The name of this reference work is Allgemeines Kuenstler-Lexikon: die Bildenden Kuenstler aller Zeiten und Voelker, which means Universal Encyclopedia of Artists: the Visual Artists of all Times and Peoples. The title is no exaggeration. It is the most extensive, up-to-date, authoritative tool for research in the history of art and is acknowledged by scholars, art historians, museum curators, gallery owners, collectors, etc. as the definitive work in the field of visual arts.
The ancestry of the encyclopedia goes back to the end of the 19th century when it was first published and consisted of three volumes. This small edition formed the foundation upon which three famous scholar-editors, Ulrich Thieme, Felix Becker and Hans Vollmer, built to bring out their venerable editions, familiarly referred to as “Thieme-Becker,” published between 1907 and 1950, and “Vollmer,” between 1953 and 1962.
The present edition is published under the aegis of the Comité Internationale d’Histoire de l’Art, who appealed to its members around the world to contribute and share knowledge and expertise. It continues the impeccable scholarship and scientific integrity of its predecessors and will be the largest, most authoritative, international publishing enterprise in art history. The first volume, with an authorship of 630 scholar-editors, came out in 1991.
At this point 56 volumes, covering letters A to Go, have been published. They include artists active in every imaginable arena of the visual arts: architects, engravers, painter, sculptors, restorers, calligraphers, goldsmiths, jewelers, set and scenery designers, artists in mosaic and enamel, photographers and many others. “Inventore,” is used as a label for some artists, primarily of the Italian Renaissance, who worked in many areas and whose genius transcends any classification. The editors admit that there is at times a fine line between artist and artisan, but reserve the right of selection.
They are also aware that the Allgemeines Kuenstler-Lexikon is eurocentric, that the artists of central and western Europe predominate. The explanation offered is that simply more information exists on European artists, more original data and more documentation about their works. Every effort is being made now correct this imbalance and scholars all over the world are asked to contribute their knowledge and insight and truly make the Allgemeines Kuenstler-Lexikon an encyclopedia of all peoples and all times.
How to Read Individual Biographies
To condense the monumental volume of information and make it manageable, pages upon pages of intimidating abbreviations were necessary, made twice as forbidding because they are in German. After some perusal and a little practice, though, many reveal themselves as self-evident and are easily recognized. By way of example, Chersiphron, the architect and builder of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of antiquity, was active during “l.H.6.Jh.v.Chr.” which translates to “1st half, 6th century, BC.”
The entries for each artist follow a uniform pattern. They begin with the artist’s name, in bold print, with all its variant forms and with sufficient detail to differentiate him from others bearing the same name, followed by pseudonyms, maiden names and the names of previous false attributions, then nationality, if applicable, and the profession or professions in which he was active. This is followed birth date and place, denoted by an * and death date and place indicated by † symbol. For Russian artists birth and death dates are given in the Julian as well as the Gregorian calendar.
The biographical detail, needless to say, varies. For artists from the ancient world or non-European regions it can be sparse, information simply does not exist or is difficult to come by. On the other hand, European artists have been studied, discussed and written about and the knowledge about them can be extensive. The entries cover the writings of contemporaries, family chronicles, letters, the artist’s diary, centuries of analysis and deductions by art historians. In some cases the editors have unearthed new, previously unpublished information.
After the personal information a series of small symbols aid in an easy, clear overview of the various sections of the rest of the article.
A symbol that must be a museum , is followed by the locations of the institutions and museums that own works of the artist. Original titles are given, if in a major language, and listed in alphabetic order. Where appropriate, a chronological order is used or works may be collected into distinct groups.
The next section is identified by an almond like shape, a mandorla, with a dot in its center. It announces exhibitions. Mandorlas with an “E” indicate one-man exhibitions, with a “G” they identify group exhibitions or a participations in exhibitions.
Finally, a symbol of a tiny open book introduces the bibliography along with references to unpublished sources. Articles without attribution have been written by the editors under the direction of specialists listed in each volume.