Ian Wallace, The First Documenta 1955




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Ian Wallace, The First Documenta 1955
A lecture presented by Ian Wallace on the occasion of the symposium on early post-war modern art titled: “The Triumph of Pessimism”; University of British Columbia Department of Fine Arts, September 26, 1987

The First Documenta 1955
Ian Wallace

The Documenta exhibitions of contemporary art held every five years in Kassel, West Germany, are now well known. They are awaited and received with great expectation and occasional controversy. Having established a reputation for historical prognosis and the legitimization of the present, they have become a focal point for ideological as well as aesthetic discourse surrounding contemporary art. In the summer of 1987, Kassel hosted Documenta VIII. But the first Documenta exhibition held in Kassel in the summer of 1955 was not necessarily expected to continue. It was simply called “Documenta: Art of the Twentieth Century,” and in that title lay the ambitions of the project. Occurring mid-year, mid-decade, mid-century, it positioned itself as a fulcrum between the past and the future. It consciously historicized contemporary art in the process of its development and in doing so influenced all such exhibitions since.1 But above all, the conception and execution of the first Documenta crystallized Germany, specifically the decade of 1945 to 1955, during which the contestation for legitimization was fought and won, through the decade of 1955 to 1965 when abstract art was more or less paramount, after which the hegemony of abstraction broke down under the influence of American Pop art and more radical political tendencies.


The excitement and sense of urgency that inspired this first Documenta was the recognition by certain individuals that the time was ripe for a definitive statement on a new situation for post-war German art. The exhibition was proposed in 1954, just after the main organizers, Arnold Bode and Werner Haftmann, had seen the successful Venice Biennale of the summer of 1954, and after Haftmann’s first major survey of modern art, Painting in the Twentieth Century, which formed the outline for the first Documenta project, was published in that same year.2 This historical opportunity came at a time when several threads of political as well as aesthetic tendencies needed a public presence, a public forum of judgment.
The foremost ambitions of this first Documenta were stated by its organizers, specifically by Werner Haftmann who wrote the introduction to the catalogue: primarily that it consolidate the return of modernism to Germany after its hiatus during the National Socialist regime between 1933 to 1945; and secondly that it reintegrate German modernists, specifically abstractionists, into the mainstream of European cultural and political life, in the post-war period. This was accomplished through an intensive rationalization of the expressive and redemptive powers of abstract art by virtue of its links with the language of the self, creative freedom, and internationalism. And a third probably unplanned consequence of this exhibition was the identification of abstract art as the design motif for the emerging consumer culture that pulled West German politics irreversibly into the orbit of Western capitalism during the 50s.
It took the decade between 1945 and 1955 to prepare the ground for the return of modernism in Germany.3 There were many stages to this development, and the importance of Documenta is not so much that it initiated this process but that it crystallized and consolidated it. The ideological thrust of such a history in these circumstances meant something much more than just a recuperation and celebration of the pre-war tradition of German modernism in the context of broader international or at least European developments. It was part of a cultural rehabilitation process that was politically motivated and linked specifically with the alignment towards Western Europe that was pursued by Conrad Adenauer and the Christian Democratic Party which formed the Bonn government with a decisive majority after 1953. Documenta was part of recognition of national rootedness and the role of history and tradition in this process. This was its specific ideological role and the status of abstract art was at the center of it.
The reputation of the subsequent installations of Documenta was based exclusively upon its summarizing of contemporary developments. But the initial Documenta of 1955 performed a unique historical role. Unlike the exhibitions that followed, the first Documenta attempted a systematic recuperation and accounting (but not necessarily a thorough one) of the history of modern art from 1905 to the 1950s, albeit from a decidedly German perspective, and, as I have already noted, from the perspective of Haftmann’s book, which more or less formed a ready-made outline for the Documenta project. It was a historical construction aimed at rehabilitating modernist art, specifically abstract art and the expressionist tradition, from the slur of “degeneracy” it was given by the Nazis when they presented it as “Entartete Kunst,” or “Degenerate Art,” in an exhibition of that title which toured German cities to record crowds in the period 1937 to 1938. The connection between modern art and “un-Germanness” remained as the problematic of anti-modernism and the unresolved inheritance of the Nazi cultural policies in the public sphere in Germany until well after the war. While the fascists had to systematically vilify modernism in their attempt to “regenerate” German culture in the form of a politically-correct academic realism, the organizers of the first Documenta had to reverse this history. They had to resituate the interrupted history of German modernism as the authentic history. Yet still in the shadow of the de-nazification program and the failure of the concept of “collective guilt,” the Documenta organizers could not name the enemy of modernism. It was merely suppressed as an absence, but one which nevertheless still cast its shadow over everything that followed.4
To the little extent that Nazi cultural policies could be divorced from their political policies, the programmatic anti-modernism of the Nazi regime remained as an underlying influence upon popular cultural attitude towards the visual arts throughout the early post-war period. This anti-modernist attitude was defended as well by conservative, primarily religious ideologues such as the influential Munich art critic Hans Sedlmayr, who, in his book of 1948 title Art in Crisis: The Lost Center, argued that “the artistic abortions” of modernism reflected “symptoms of extreme degeneration.”5 Although the theme of spiritual loss and regeneration was shared by progressive critics, Sedlmayr’s language and attitude retains the virulent reactionary flavour of fascism, and it is no coincidence that The Lost Center was written from classroom lectures given in Vienna during 1941 to 1944. The mission of the Documenta organizers to recuperate the history of prewar German modernism from “degeneracy” for new needs and interpretations as the authentic German culture of the post-war period has to be understood in the face of the prevailing attitude represented by Sedlmayr and others like him.
The relation of the present to history then was an uncanny paradox. The Documenta organizers had to evoke a memory and suppress it at the same time. Moreover, although much of the Nazi art that filled an overt role in promoting political and militaristic propaganda was confiscated in the denazification campaign, there still remained many highly placed and competent artists who had won a position in the fascist cultural program for their allegorical public sculpture and a countless number who had won a reputation with harmless and very popular genre subjects. For the modernist enterprise represented by the first Documenta, this is one reason among others why those artists whom the Nazis replaced the modernists with during their regime, were not included in Documenta, and thus condemned to a form of oblivion.
In addition to the conservatives and anti-modernists in the Western zones, there was also another even more problematic factor coloring the relations to a reconstructed history attempted by the Documenta organizers. This was the existence of a center and center-left socialist consensus that still was an important factor in West German politics and cultural perspectives up to the early ‘50s. This consensus generally supported what we might call an active anti-fascist recollection registered through forms of social realism and an emphasis upon political subjects. This consensus, while granting a liberal attitude towards creative freedom, felt that the abstractionists who rejected subject matter and insisted upon a suppression of memory and tendentious politics in artistic subjects, were trying to evade the necessity for political engagement and an active accounting for the past in post-war art.6 The fact that most of the important anti-fascist artists of the Weimar period, who were dominantly social realists, Käthe Kollwitz being the most important, were excluded from the historical panorama of the first Documenta, certainly gives credibility to this criticism. This consensus, though, by the time of Documenta, was for the most part locked into an alliance with the East block, and thus could at the time be safely but not legitimately disregarded by the Documenta committee who were bent on consolidating a regenerated modernism from within the ideological direction of the Western alignment.
The earliest tentative steps to re-exhibit the “degenerate” modernists occurred immediately in Berlin at the end of hostilities.7 As early as 1946, the Berlin gallery Gerd Rosen gave solo shows to abstractionists Ernst Wilhelm Nay and Werner Heldt. Socialist artists working in the figurative traditions such as Max Pechstein and Käthe Kollwitz were now featured in the museums. In 1947, the public in Berlin were reintroduced to the “Masters of the Bauhaus” and by 1949 European connections were reconfirmed in such exhibitions as “The French Masters of Today” shown in Berlin, which featured such previously slandered artists as Marc Chagall. Monographs and literature promoting abstract art began to appear in the late ‘40s. German modernists who remained in Germany even though they were prohibited from exhibiting, began to receive favorable attention after years of isolation. The most notable and vocal of these artists was Willi Baumeister, an abstractionist from Stuttgart who won prizes at the Venice Biennale of 1950 and at Sao Paolo in 1951.
Nevertheless, even in the early 1950s, the preeminence of modernism was by no means universally accepted. With the hardening of ideological positions during the onset of the Cold War, the liberal-democratic ideals of the period, generally identified as the “third way” or “the vital center,” had to be more vocal to have an effect.8 The legitimacy of modernism was the subject of a number of debates in this period, and this situation was not limited to Germany alone. It was even an intense issue in America when the anti-communist crusade turned against the New York school and such progressive museum people as Alfred H. Barr had to come to their defense.9 The identification of modernism with individualism and freedom of expression and abstraction with internationalism was a common language of legitimization for liberal factions in both America and Germany.
The urgency of the political situation in Germany, however, necessitated the formation of highly developed philosophical and historical rationalizations, and as often as not, the underlying political dimension of the moment was spoken through aesthetic issues. Given the political division of the country into competing ideologies of capitalism and socialism, the debate over modernism in early post-war Germany was particularly intense. As cold-war positions hardened after the Berlin Blockade in 1948, the original pluralism of artistic developments in both Russian and allied occupied territories came to take increasingly fixed positions by the early ‘50s and this ideological polarization found its aesthetic counterpart in the battle between modernist abstraction and social realism.
This came out for instance in the debate between Georg Lukács and Theodor Adorno over the political legitimization of realism and modernism as competing artist formations.10 In his book titled Realism in Our Time, published in West Germany in 1957, Lukács attacked the decadence and alienation in modernist literature, which had become a prevalent theme in existentialist writing in the West. He implied that the normative values of socialist realism were the product of a superior healthy society offered by Socialism. In his review of Lukács’ book, Adorno defended themes of alienation in modernist literature and noted that a healthy society cannot be ideologically or institutionally ordained.11 Moreover, Adorno spotted in Lukács’ concept of the “socially healthy” those conformist attitudes which “flare up again” after having “survived the epoch of Hitler, when it was institutionalized” and which reflects indignation at “what is unnatural, over-intellectual, morbid and decadent.”12 In the same essay Adorno articulated the fundamental tenets of the modernist position in his statement that “social truth thrives only in works autonomously created” and “art does not provide knowledge of reality by reflecting it photographically or ‘from a particular perspective,’ but by revealing whatever is veiled by the empirical form assumed by reality, and this is possible only by virtue of art’s own autonomous status.13 Adorno’s arguments here were shared by all the major apologists of modernist art in post-war Germany. This emphasis on the autonomy of modernist art, and especially the apparent autonomy from subject matter offered by abstract art, was an independent and more ideologically determined German version of the same affirmation of modernist autonomy that had emerged from American critics of the same period, Clement Greenberg being the most prominent. In Germany the issue of autonomy was conditioned by two specific historical experiences: the first being the overbearing subjection of art to politics during the Nazi regime, which created an instinctive distaste for “socially responsive” art amongst a sector of modernists in the post-war period; the second being a habit of silence and seclusion, a flight to the inner self amongst the prohibited modernist artists who remained in Germany during the Nazi period – an experience known as “inner emigration.”14
This debate between the modernists and the traditionalist realists was the central issue of an event in 1950 known as the Darmstädter Gespräch or Darmstadt Dialogue, a symposium held on the occasion of an exhibition focusing on the theme of “The Image of Man in Our Time.”15 In this symposium the conservative critic, Hans Sedlmayer, who had gained considerable attention through his 1948 book, The Loss of the Center, which formulated a vigorous attack on Modernism, met with equally vigorous resistance by the abstractionist Willi Baumeister, who had published his polemic in defense of abstraction in 1947 under the title of The Unknown in Art.16 In contrast to Sedlmayer’s indignation at the “artistic decline” which accompanied the “huge inner catastrophe,” Baumeister proposed that the viewer is enriched by the enigmatic primordial forces released by artistic creation thus allowing the spirit to overcome decay. Baumeister was specifically defending a form of calligraphic mystical abstraction that had evolved in the late ‘30s under the influence of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee, and which was similar to tendencies surfacing in the New York school at the time.
Also present at this symposium was Theodor Adorno who had just returned to a professorship in Frankfurt after a long exile in America. Adorno’s defense of modernism was based on the critical powers of dissonance offered primarily by the model of music, and he urged the modernists to refuse to become the tool of the manipulative mass media, or the “culture industry” as he called it. Adorno’s perception of the values of negativity created by the effect of dissonance in works of art was somewhat more radical both politically and aesthetically than the progressive supporters of modernist abstract painting in a language of redemption, reintegration and affirmative silence.17 Although Adorno and Baumeister both came down in favor of modernism, their positions remain different in character: Adorno’s “negativity” contrasts with the redemptive tone of Baumeister’s “positivity,” and this contrast sets up comparisons with the question of pessimism and optimism.
Although it featured traditions of figuration as well as abstraction, the first Documenta decidedly positioned contemporary abstract artists as the legitimate future of the modernist tradition and thus consolidated and legitimated modernist abstraction as the dominant trend for the next decade – a tendency that was reaffirmed in the next two Documenta exhibitions of 1959 and 1964.
The importance of the first Documenta for the promotion of modernism and abstract art had implications outside of Germany as well as inside. Werner Haftmann, who wrote the catalogue essay and directed the selection of painting for the first three Documenta exhibitions, was the instrumental figure in this ideological process. The subtitle of the first Documenta, “Art of the Twentieth Century,” echoes Haftmann’s book, Painting of the Twentieth Century, published in Munich in 1954 by Prestel-Verlag, the same publisher of the Documenta catalogue itself.
Haftmann’s book of 1954 was eventually translated into English following the inclusion of contemporary American abstraction in Documenta II in 1959. The publication of a revised text in England in 1960 and in New York in 1965 not only established Haftmann’s book as one of the standard texts of modernism but was also instrumental in transmitting post-war European art to America for a generation of students between 1960 and 1968. This influence was enhanced further when Werner Haftmann, along with Alfred Hentzen, who selected the sculpture for the first Documenta, were co-curators of a major survey of post-war German painting at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1957.18 We will return to Haftmann’s essay for the Documenta catalogue after we identify a second key figure and describe the exhibition itself.
Arnold Bode, a designer and teacher of exhibition design at the Werkakademie in Kassel, was the original conceiver and designer of the exhibition itself. Stimulated by plans for a national garden show in Kassel, Bode took up the challenge by the mayor to “reflect where art stands today” and called in a team to create an exhibition that would make a definitive statement on the current situation.19 Bode was above all excited by the process of putting new life into the ruined shell of the Museum Fredericianum which was built in the mid-eighteenth century as the first public museum building in Europe. Badly damaged by air raids in 1942–43, the Fredericianum was still in ruins in 1955, standing as a ghostly reminder of a culture overtaken by the barbarism of the twentieth century. Bode, who was a strong believer in the significance of the modernist movement, foresaw that such a location for an exhibition of “art of our time” would persuade the many opponents of modernism in post-war Germany of the significance of abstract art and the modernist tradition for the regeneration of cultural health in Germany.
But Bode’s excitement was not purely an act of redemption or regeneration. It offered an opportunity to experiment with new display techniques. In an interview in 1977, Bode remarked upon his inspiration at seeing an exhibition in Milan in 1952, in which a large Picasso was hung on steel scaffolding in front of a rough wall.20 Bode’s borrowing of this concept is clearly visible in the installation shots of the first Documenta. Judging from the photographic record, the installation gave an open atmosphere of relaxed and dignified contemplation. The rough, unfinished walls of the damaged Fredericianum were given a fresh coat of paint. Its spacious rooms and high ceilings were accented with a variety of false walls, some painted white and others in black and shades of gray, which were strategically placed for maximum visual effect. Lighting was unobtrusive and hidden by special suspended beams. Natural daylight entering the large ground-floor windows was filtered with white plastic curtains. The floor was left as rough unfinished concrete which made the color of the works and the white brick-work of the walls stand out dramatically.21
Bode made a stunningly modern installation in the context of a ruined palace. The image of potentiality and regeneration could not be overlooked by the audience in its time. Bode’s aesthetic of modernist design extended from the banners on the exterior to the design of the catalogue cover. Both used typography as an abstract graphic design element in the manner of the Bauhaus school. This was most evident on the cover of the catalogue where the enlarged clean shape of a lower case sans-serif “D” forms a graphic architecture that signified modernity.
These graphic aspects are important. They announce an aesthetic framing which conditions expectations and the readings of the work inside. Thus the variety of work, from the figurative-expressionistic work from the pre-war years to the post-war modernists, was unified under an installation aesthetic that was spectacular without being theatrical, and which allowed each work to speak for itself, yet be seen in harmony with the others.
And in the main hall, a large 1955 abstraction by the Kassel artist Fritz Winter was hung opposite a major Picasso, Girl Before a Mirror, 1932, borrowed from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This was an eloquent attempt to counterpoise a contemporary work by a local Kassel abstractionist with the accomplishments of a major artist of the modern period. Such contextualization was consciously employed in the installation and used to create an atmosphere to legitimate contemporary German modernists in the light of a glamorous representation of key historical works by modern masters such as Picasso, Klee, Fernand Léger and others. This designing of visual spectatorship in the end certainly contributed to the unique success of the exhibition: the legitimization of contemporary modernity in the light of a tradition of modernity, redemption in dignity, spectatorship as a public act of judgment-sharing, a public form of consensus in the form of a public display of individual judgment. This carefully designed theater of redemption was a great success with the public. This was likely helped by the presence of the National Garden Show centered around the Orangerie nearby, but the pictures of crowds and the attendance figure of 130, 000 over the two months of the exhibition (between July 15 and September 18) put the seal of approval on Documenta, placing it on the level of the long-established Venice Biennale.
A statistical gloss reveals the scope of the exhibition at a glance.22 There were over 670 works by 148 painters and sculptors. There were 58 German artists, about one-third of whom were established in the post-war period; that is, in the few years preceding Documenta itself; 42 French artists, again one-third from the post-war period; and 28 Italians also of whom one-third were post-war. There were two Dutch artists, Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesberg, but the COBRA group and Karl Appel were, surprisingly, missing. Six Swiss artists of the “Concrete Art” school were included, and eight post-war British artists including Henry Moore but missing Francis Bacon who was a big hit in Documenta II, which followed in 1959. In retrospect, however, the biggest surprise was the fact that there were only three Americans: Alexander Calder, Joseph Albers, and a painter, Karl Roesch, who was a student of Karl Hofer in Berlin in the ‘20s, and who immigrated to America in 1933. This absence of Americans was corrected in the next Documenta of 1959, which featured the work of Jackson Pollock, who died in 1956. What this absence of American art underscores, however, is that post-war abstraction in Europe, even the work that has close affinities to the abstract-expressionists of the New York school, such as that of Willi Baumeister or Fritz Winter, was an independent development with its own ideological motivations.
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