A globally recognized seismograph for contemporary art

The documenta is one of the most important and prominent contemporary art exhibitions worldwide. It was called into being by the artist and art teacher Arnold Bode in Kassel in 1955. Following the years of Nazi dictatorship, the aim of the show was to confront and reconcile the German public with international modern art and with the demise of German Enlightenment in the Nazi period. At that time, no one would have thought that the exhibition, often referred to as the “museum of 100 days”, would become an un-paralleled success. The documenta’s singular character has been preserved. Every five years a new head is selected by an international committee and approved by the supervisory board. As a result, the exhibition is reinvented, so to speak, each time, a concept that has proven successful. In the year 2012 at dOCU-MENTA (13), 905,000 visitors were counted. Under continually changing direction, and in a leisurely yet relentless rhythm of five years, the documenta has become a globally recognized seismograph for contemporary art. In its own way, each documenta has left its mark on interna-tional discourse about art. The art mediation institution -documenta presents current art production and explores above all – and each time anew – the question of the mean-ing and purpose of an exhibition. It has established itself as an undertaking going far beyond simple presentation of contemporary art. The engagements with the documenta and the dynamism of the discussion about the respective documenta reflect society’s expectations about art.

The power of a driven man Arnold Bode – the father of the documenta

He was small and restless. Arnold Bode must have been a nightmare for politicians. For right after they had accepted and agreed to support one of his suggestions (most of which meant spending a lot of money), he formulated his next wishes and demands. Up until the year of his death, Arnold Bode remained on the go, always pressing on, never satisfied with what he had achieved. He devoted more than half of his welcome note to the documenta 6 catalogue not to the current exhibition, but to his ideas about documenta 7. The text ended with the sentence “Yes, I’m dreaming that I shall be able to witness it as a spectator!” But he died a day after documenta 6 ended, on 3 October 1977. Developing ideas and making plans – that had been his raison d’être ever since he returned home from war and war captivity at the latest. In his autobiographical notes, the painter and erstwhile handicrafts teacher Arnold Bode wrote in 1946: “Continue to starve – how to make a living? What work to do?” But already on 3 May 1946 Bode wrote “International Exhibition” under point 5 of the agenda of the Hessian Secession he had cofounded a short time before. The idea that surfaced here for the first time would take shape in the documenta nine years later. Bode was infatuated with the idea of an international art exhibition. Only someone who was obsessed could dream of a cross-border show at a time when Kassel lay in rubble, destitution prevailed everywhere and Germany was divided into occupation zones. He couldn’t let go of the idea. In 1947 and 1948, Bode engaged in extensive correspondence in which he aroused the impression that an exhibition with American, English, French, Swiss and German participation could be mounted in just a few weeks or months. Naturally, the idea came to naught. But given this background and in light of the fact that in the 1920s Bode helped organize exhibitions in the Orangerie, where Bauhaus artists and other representatives of the German avant-garde showed their works, it is only logical that Bode was electrified when his colleague from the School of Applied arts, Hermann Mattern, developed the idea of combining the German National Garden Exhibition planned for 1955 in Kassel with an art exhibition. Arnold Bode had many comrades-in-arms. Friends of his in Kassel had founded an association called Society for 20th Century Western Art, which was the official organizer of the first documenta. In the art historian Werner Haftmann, Bode found a companion for the exhibitions in 1955, 1959 and 1964 who underpinned the concepts with theory and made a substantial contribution to quality assurance. However, it was Bode himself who had the strongest impact on the docu-menta. He discovered the Museum Fridericianum, which had been destroyed in the war, as an exhibition venue and spa-tially designed and staged the exhibition in a way that was nearly as important for the success of the documenta as the selection of artists. As the founding father, Bode achieved much more than he could have dared to hope in 1955. He changed the city and the art world. But he was sad that he could not implement two of his plans: the ‘documenta urbana’ was mounted only five years after his death and differently than he would have wanted; and to date no docu-menta has been mounted in the octagonal palace below the Hercules monument.

Translation: Burke Barrett

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