The exhibitions that take place in Kassel every five years (initially four) since 1955 under the name documenta have a powerful founding myth. They were initiated in response to two forms of totalitarianism: they rehabilitated German artists who had been banned by the Nazis as “degenerate” and they showed up the repressive cultural policies of Communism by flaunting daring Free World art. A powerful myth indeed, but is it true? The yeses and the nos.
Some of the best moments of my visit to documenta XII I spent in bed. Even though Loekie and I had decided this time not to try to see everything and to spend as much time on a display as we wanted, and even though we stuck to this strategy and enjoyed the exhibition all the more for it, still our four days there were demolishing. In bed, all else aside, I extended the experience by reading about documenta. Not only about the current edition, but especially about the origins of an institution that has been part of our lives for a quarter of a century, since we visited Rudi Fuchs’s documenta VII in 1982.
It’s a good thing I was lying down when I read the two competing interpretations of the genesis of documenta that I had picked up from the remainder tables at a Kassel bookstore and the museum of Wilhelmshöhe. If I hadn’t been, I would have been knocked off my feet by the extraordinary discrepancy between them.
Gerhard Richter, Arnold Bode, 1964
Kassel, Staatliche Museen
Richter portrays the great man behind documenta, Arnold Bode, slightly out of focus, the way most people saw him.
First I read a splendid little book by Harald Kimpel, documenta: die Überschau, Cologne (Dumont) 2002. Kimpel’s reconstruction of the origins of the five-yearly exhibition is an exciting tale of Denazification and Cold War conspiracy. The first documenta, in 1955, was simultaneously “a counter-demonstration against the defamatory methods of German fascism” and – because Kassel lay so close to the border of East Germany – “an advance post of Western civilization,” as Kimpel quotes Albert Schulze Vellinghausen. I was somewhat prepared for this, after having read Serge Guilbaut (and read about Max Kozloff) on the ties between modern art and the Cold War. The sheer energy and boldness of modern art was thought by Western intelligence services to be emblematic of the freedom one could only enjoy in their countries and therefore worth public and clandestine support. It was hoped that abstract expressionism would make the command audiences for Socialist Realism so much more miserable than they already were that they would overthrow their regimes.
It was a revelation to me that documenta I was intended not to present contemporary art but to rewrite the history of pre-World War II art. “Of the 58 German artists represented in Kassel, 31 of them had been abused by the notorious Third Reich exhibitions.” Documenta was set up to rehabilitate these artists.
One thing bothered me about Kimpel’s argument. Adding up these elements, he declared that the Kassel documenta may have been the idea of one man, the formidable Arnold Bode, but that it was “the result of an historical necessity.” This is not my idea of how history works. Historical necessity may exist on some vast semi-geological scale, but I do not see it determining the conception and location of a series of art exhibitions. Nonetheless, considering the strength of Kimpel’s evidence, I believed him.
Then came the short, dry but eloquent chapter on documenta in the exhibition catalogue Arnold Bode: Leben + Werk (1900-1977), Kassel (Staatliche Museen Kassel, Neue Galerie) 2000:
Arnold Bode und der Impuls zur documenta,” by Dirk Schwarze. Schwarze does not deny that Cold War values played a role in the success of documenta, nor that the exhibition paid honor to artists who were humiliated by the Nazis. But he demonstrates with powerful arguments that none of this played a role in the initial stimulus for the shows. “The first documenta drew political favor because it was held in the devastated city of Kassel, near the [new] border and because it made it possible to see art that had been defamed by the Nazis. But” –and this is a great big but – “the original aim of the circle of friends around [Hermann] Mattern and Bode was to organize an art exhibition that would make clear how [German] postwar art stood in European context.
Forty percent of the works shown, Schwarze quotes Ulrike Wollenhaupt-Schmidt as saying, were made after the war. And of the prewar artists in documenta I, nearly all of them, including Bode himself, had been shown in a series of impressive Kassel exhibitions that preceded the Nazi period. Between 1922 and 1929, Kassel hosted four exhibitions in the Orangerie and other buildings that were later used for documenta. The international ambition of documenta was adumbrated in these shows. So was the emphatic combination of visual art with architecture and the use of atmospheric Kassel locales. Moreover, many of the artists that Kimpel found in the Nazi exhibitions of “degenerate” art had already been featured in Kassel in the 1920s. Now I believed Schwarze.
Where have we been going all these years? To a post-Nazi-era-Cold-War experience or to a denial of the same, an attempt to pick up where the Weimar Republic left off? (Weimar itself and its Bauhaus, another source of inspiration for documenta, being one of the nearest neighbors to the east.) I’m afraid the answer is: to both. My feeling, after reading about Arnold Bode, is that he used politics and let himself be used by same if he thought it would help his main aim, which was always artistic.
If that is the case, it illuminates the documentas we have seen. You have the outspokenly political ones, like Okwui Enwezor’s of 2002, the ones that make believe politics doesn’t exist, like Fuchs’s in 1982, and mixed forms like the present one, under Roger Buergel and Ruth Noack. Another time on what I saw in Kassel out of bed.
© Gary Schwartz 2007. Published on the Schwartzlist on 10 September 2007.
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