“We are green with envy”

Unanimous acclaim for the first documenta
“The documenta is one of the big events we will remember for the rest of our lives.” The critic Doris Schmidt wrote this sentence in the Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung in the sum-mer of 1955, summing up a sentiment shared by many: the documenta was an exceptional event, an exhibition which took stock of half a century in a well-founded way and adeptly brought the masters of modernism face to face with the young generation of artists. The selection was limited solely to Europe, however, with a focus on Germany, France and Italy. From today’s perspective, it is hard to imagine what this exhibition meant at the time. Many museums lay in rubble. Collections had suffered when the Nazi regime removed modern artworks from museums, dubbing them “degenerate art”. As a result, the collections had to be arduously built up again. And there were no contemporary art exhibition halls in Germany where, at least temporarily, overviews of twentieth-century art could have been shown. Thus the documenta closed a painful gap. But Arnold Bode and his fellow organisers did not only seek to compensate for Germany’s failings. They intended to artistically take stock of the first half of the 20th century from a European vantage point in order to show where they saw the roots of “contemporary art in Europe”. Thus, they did not only want to reappraise art history. Rather, on the basis of high-quality works they aimed to show how the young generation of artists was picking up on the achievements of the pioneers of modernism. Swiss critics viewed their efforts as being successful, too: “Even experts on contemporary art who have kept them-selves informed through the major exhibitions of the last years or through the Venice Biennales are very impressed by the documenta”, wrote Hans Curjel in the Zürcher Weltwoche newspaper. And Friedrich Dargel wrote in the Berliner Telegraf: “We are green with envy. We would like to have something like that for our future festival weeks.” Bringing together paintings and sculptures by artists from Pablo Picasso to Alexander Calder was a tremendous achieve-ment. But it was only thanks to the exhibition architect Arnold Bode and his artful presentation skills that visitors found the exhibition so compelling. Bode worked with the contrast between black and white as in half-timbered buildings. The daylight was softened by curtains. While some paintings and sculptures were exhibited in front of raw whitewashed brick walls, others were shown in front of alternating black, grey and white sheets of plastic. Bode also played with the effect of the paintings by affixing many of them slightly slanted on iron frames attached in front of the walls, thus giving them a three-dimensional air. The documenta not only collected masterpieces of modern art, but created new visual experiences.
Translation: Burke Barrett

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