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by Walter Grasskamp

Becoming Global: From Eurocentrism to North-Atlantic Feedback—documenta as an “International Exhibition” (1955 – 1972)

Even though it is today regarded as the major periodical art exhibition of international, if not global, relevance, documenta in its beginnings was not really an international show. It was not even a proper European one, but in fact a very German event, indeed (fig. 1). Though labelled as an “international exhibition” from the start, the claim was questionable for various reasons. In the following I will try to explain why, and the question of internationality will remain the main focus of my paper.[i] More than I will be able to point out in detail, I will refer to a standard work on documenta’s history, Harald Kimpel’s documenta. Mythos und Wirklichkeit (“documenta: Myth and Reality”), which unfortunately has not yet been translated into English.[ii]

Museum Fridericianum with German cars and national flags during the first documenta. Photograph by: Carl Eberth. © documenta archiv

The First documenta (1955)

Let me start with some statistics: In 1955, documenta’s official list of 148 artists was dominated by fifty-eight German participants, adding up to far more than one third of the whole selection. France followed with forty-two artists (about a quarter), Italy with twenty-eight, Britain with just eight, Switzerland in contrast with six, and Holland with but two. That made up a rather surrealistic world map of “twentieth century art” (“kunst des XX. jahrhunderts”), which was what the first documenta claimed to cover; as surrealistic a map as the national pavilions in the Venice Giardini in winter. The official list of participants was displayed prominently in the catalogue on the first double page after the introduction, and it specified six nations, to which all the European artists were allocated, and only one more, the USA, with only three entries (fig.2). Unofficially, though, nearly every Western European and Central European country was present.

That was possible because many artists who lived in Paris at the time were registered as French—no matter if they were born in Barcelona, Budapest, Copenhagen, Lisbon, Malaga, Moscow, or elsewhere. Hence, artists from Belgium (Gustave Singier), Bohemia (František Kupka), Denmark (Richard Mortensen), Hungary (Viktor Vasarely), Portugal (Marie-Hélène Viera da Silva), Russia (Marc Chagall, Antoine Pevsner), and Spain (Juan Gris, Joan Mirò, Pablo Picasso) were all registered as French. If you include these somewhat “Frenchised” artists, this documenta included at least seven European nations besides the officially listed seven, which makes fourteen altogether.

There were inaccuracies, too. Austria, for example, was not even mentioned, though represented by Ludwig Kasper and Oskar Kokoschka, the latter in fact living in Salzburg at the time; both were listed as German. Jawlensky and Kandinsky were listed as German, too, the latter with seventeen paintings, half of which he had made during his time of emigration in Paris. France in return was generously attributed with the German emigrants Max Ernst, Hans Hartung, and Wols. The Gorizia-born Zoran Mušič was listed as Italian as was the Athens-born Giorgio de Chirico, both rather difficult cases of national affiliation.

Official and unofficial origins summed up, artists from around eighteen European nations were present. In fact, each European country west of the 16th line of longitude (touching Stockholm, Vienna, and Messina) was represented—with only one exception, Sweden. But if we look east of the 16th line, nearly every artist of importance was missing: only Russia and Hungary were considered, with five artists altogether (Chagall, Jawlensky, Kandinsky, Pevsner, and Vasarely), all of them migrants and three of them actually living in France at the time. Thus Central Eastern Europe was underrepresented, not to speak of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, of Latvia or Lithuania, Romania or Bulgaria: the horizon of the first documenta was limited to France, Italy, and Germany, with only a few extensions. Thus, it was European only in a questionable way—with prominent omissions, grotesque imbalances, and blurred classifications.

Pages from the documenta catalogue (1955, Prestel Verlag, Munich, reprint 1995) with list of artists

National Affiliations

The omissions were, of course, partly due to the Iron Curtain and the Cold War, and furthermore to a post-war lack of information and to still restricted possibilities of travelling for West Germans, too. So it may appear pedantic to report on the history of documenta with percentages and proportions, as I do and will continue to do, because I am interested in what internationalism meant on the walls and the floors of documenta and in its catalogues—and not what it meant in opening speeches, press releases, and other cultural software of good will and ideology: as sometimes you have to read between the lines, in exhibitions you sometimes have to read between the pictures. Obviously, there was a difference between claim and reality, between official ideology and actual selection, between international validity and national orientation. But in this dilemma the first documenta only was characteristic for a post-war Europe still busy reorganizing its historical features while coming to terms with the Iron Curtain.

With regard to the national identities of the artists, the organizers of course knew that the 20th century had been one of voluntary migration and involuntary emigration. So at the foot of their list, they admitted how difficult it was to denominate the national identities.[iii] In fact, how could they decide then (and how would we decide now)—according to places of birth, academies visited, sites of greatest impact, current residence, or the valid passport? To give an example: Zoran Mušič was born in July 1909 in Gorizia when the city still belonged to the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, before it became part of the Serbian dominated kingdom (in 1919) and then was finally divided into half Italian and half Yugoslavian (after 1945). Mušič, who grew up with three languages—Slovanian, Italian, and German—went to school in Klagenfurt (Austria) but in the early thirties studied art in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, which then tried in vain to become independent from Serbia. He travelled extensively to Madrid, Paris, and Zurich, and went back to Dalmatia, before he moved to Venice, where, as member of the Resistenza, he was arrested in 1943 and deported to a German concentration camp, Dachau, from where he returned two years later to live in Paris as well as in Venice. The documenta catalogue notably listed him as Italian and in its short biography did not mention his time in Dachau.

It was then—and still is—difficult to characterise art along national lines, but this problem has different historical implications. It seemed easier in the 19th century, when European art was explicitly meant and officially supported to profile and celebrate national cultures.[iv] It started to become difficult and outdated when radical modernism arose from many widespread national centres and mingled in international metropoles like Berlin, Paris, or New York or in provincial art schools like the Bauhaus in Weimar. So the most amazing fact about the first documenta’s official list of artists and nations seems therefore that such a list was still regarded as possible, necessary, and helpful.

It is noteworthy in this context, that (with six exceptions: Feininger, de Fiori, Jawlensky, Kandinsky, Kasper, Kokoschka), all the artists presented as German had also been born in Germany, thus being national in terms of origin. This was true for most, if not all the Italian artists, too. Germany and Italy thus presented national art in the traditional context of birth and origin while the genuine French artists were represented together with a mixture of migrants which Paris had attracted and therefore stood for the modernist concept of internationalism. National affiliation played a role in the display, too: two major halls were exclusively reserved for Germany and Italy each! Germany and Italy had not only the privilege of high numbers of genuine representatives, but also of particular halls dedicated to their younger generation.

Selective Eurocentrism

The predominance of artists of Italian and German origin in contrast to the mixed selection from Paris gives a provincial note to the first documenta rather than a nationalistic one: with 42 artists, France was clearly second to the German and Italian presence that added up to two thirds of all participants. In any case, it was a very unbalanced relation to the rest of Europe that could be regarded as a kind of selective Eurocentrism. With hindsight, the German-Italian predominance could even appear embarrassing, as both countries had been allies of fascism and brothers-in-arms during most of World War II that had ended only ten years before.

But this erstwhile political partnership did not shape this artistic predominance, on the contrary: among the German artists there were five who had spent most or all of the National Socialist years in Italy to avoid persecution at home (Bargheer, Blumenthal, Gilles, Purrmann, Roeder).[v] Especially Hans Purrmann, defamed as degenerate like the others, played an important role directing the Villa Romana in Florence as a kind of safe-house. In a counter-trend to the official fascist axis, Italy had been a half-exile for German artists who at home were—or risked to be—defamed as degenerate. Before the war, modernist German artists had the chance to survive in Italy in an ambiguous state of an inner emigration abroad that Rudolf Levy even made use of during the war before the German occupation of Italy put an end to his life in 1944.[vi]

This Italian connection especially applied to Werner Haftmann, one of the two founding curators of documenta. He had also preferred to spend the years between 1936 and 1940 in Florence, after the modern art he favoured, expressionism, had officially been banned in the “Third Reich”. Thus Haftmann had excellent pre-war contacts with the neoclassical and futurist artists in Italy, some of whom embedded with fascism (but he had obviously no inclinations toward dadaistic and surrealistic Paris, which explains why Marcel Duchamp or René Magritte were missing at the first documenta). In any case, the German-Italian relations had the character of a genuine cultural exchange on different cultural and political levels before and after 1945.

documenta’s Hall of Sculpture with Henry Moore’s King and Queen. Photograph by: Hilmar Deist. © documenta Archiv

Although that gave the Italian-German relationship a good post-war start, enforced by two German academies in Florence (Villa Romana) and Rome (Villa Massimo), an intense and enduring transalpine dialogue was not established for the generations of artists to come. If a cultural exchange between Italy and Germany was maintained after World War II, it was rather in the design of art exhibitions than in fine art itself: the importance of Italian allestimenti for German post-war curators is a rather unknown field of cultural exchange between Italy and Germany, not only with regard to the first documenta: after the war there were two main European sources for the refurbishing of exhibition design, as far as I can see, one being the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the other the Triennale di Milano. Doing extensive interviews with a couple of senior curators of post-war West Germany, I was surprised to learn that in the decade after the war, the Triennale in Milano was much more interesting and important for them than the Venice Biennale, especially in terms of display.[vii]

Besides there also was a short-lived triangle of post-war cultural exchange between Venice, Amsterdam, and Recklinghausen, a small German city in the industrial Ruhr area, where important and innovative art exhibitions had already been made years before the first documenta opened. The key figure in this triangle of cultural exchange was Willem Sandberg—the outstanding and probably most important curator of post-war Europe. Exhibitions his friend Paolo Mariotti had created for the Palazzo Grassi in Venice went to Sandberg’s Stedelijk in Amsterdam and then to the Ruhr Festival in Recklinghausen.[viii]

In 2008, Stefano Collicelli Cagol published a book on Marinotti’s exhibitions in the Palazzo Grassi in the fifties and sixties, so I do not need to dwell further on this subject.[ix] He also introduced me to Anna Chiara Cimoli’s Musei effimeri. Allestimenti di mostre in Italia 1949 – 1963 (Ephemeral Museums: Design of Exhibitions in Italy from 1949 to 1963, Milan, 2007), a beautiful book that fans out a surprising background of inspiration for the exhibition design of Arnold Bode for the first documenta.[x] So I do think that Italian exhibition and fair design from the thirties to the fifties was a special source for German exhibition design and had more influence on post-war Europe than is documented.[xi]

“Occidental Art of the XX.Century”

Back to Kassel: most impressive in the first documenta was, of course, the sheer number of German artists. It must have been a relief for most of them, who had been previously defamed as degenerate, to return triumphantly to the international art scene in an exhibition that, in the hall of painting, ennobled them in the neighbourhoods of Picasso or Matisse, and, in the hall of sculpture, of Henry Moore (fig.3). Of course, only the Western part of the tripartite former German Empire was included, not the communist GDR (”German Democratic Republic”) nor the Eastern part, which became part of Poland as of 1945. Paradoxically, the first documenta was of international significance just because of this exclusion of artists not living in the Western part called FRD (“Federal Republic of Germany”). Thus, it fit into the new “global” landscape of the Cold War—and had the windfall profit to show for it: until 1977, Kassel would be the capital of Cold War Modern, as an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum London would label the period in 2008.

This leads to a surprising paradox: while the Western landscape of the Cold War was clearly dominated by the United States, the first documenta included only three American artists, two of them first-generation German émigrés, Josef Albers and Kurt Roesch, Alexander Calder being the only participant who in fact was of long-term American origin.[xii] Of any detail, this one is apt to point out that the first documenta was European mainly because there were no artists born on a different continent—Calder being the only exception, accepted primarily, it seems, because he had lived in France for a couple of years. This attributed another provincial note to the first documenta, as modernism in between had become a North-Atlantic phenomenon.

For neglecting American art in the first documenta, Bode and Haftmann were excused later on with the argument that modern American art was little known at the time and hard to obtain, but this was not true: Kassel was situated in the US occupation zone, and for the post-war generation the libraries of the so-called Amerika-Häuser were popular and rich sources of information, the most famous situated in Hessian Frankfurt, some 120 miles south of Kassel. Moreover, already in 1948 Peggy Guggenheim had presented her collection in Venice, and in 1950 Willem Sandberg had organized an exhibition of American paintings in Amsterdam, among other events. So American art was neither beyond knowledge nor beyond reach.

Yet no excuse was necessary, because it was the deliberate decision of the curators to concentrate merely on European art as we now can read in Bode’s Collected Writings posthumously published in 2007.[xiii] Whenever Bode specified any American contribution for the first documenta by name, these were the names of German émigrés (including George Grosz, by the way, who in the end did not make it to documenta fame in 1955). Finally, it is telling that the registered society for the founding of documenta originally had been baptized “Gesellschaft Abendländischer Kunst des XX. Jahrhunderts” (“Society for Occidental Art of the 20th Century”)—even then an outdated, if diffuse, synonym for the selective Eurocentrism of the first documenta.

Eurocentrism, of course, did not yet have a negative reputation at all, not even its label: Europe had no doubts about its priority in the world and still felt like the homeland of civilisation, culture, and (modern) art.[xiv] After two World Wars that had started out as national conflicts, the notion of Europe was summoned as a utopia through which to unite and pacify the troubled continent—a utopia for which Werner Haftmann, in his foreword to the catalogue, took modern art as an anticipation. As a concept of the future, the idea of Europe substituted the historical reference to the Occident, the latter notion never to play a role again in the public relations of the first documenta after the opening.

Resuming these short considerations on the first documenta, it could be said that the themes of origin and affiliation, nationality and internationalism, nation and migration, overt and inner emigration, Eurocentrism and transatlantic relations were undercurrent motifs of the exhibition, background music to the artworks. While those themes were not officially dealt with in the catalogue, they rather delivered a distinguished subtext—implications that did not have to be explained then, but would have to be nowadays: as is often the case, yesterday’s answers are still today’s open questions.


If the absence of American artists at the first documenta was already somewhat surprising, this is nothing compared to the omission of Jewish artists of classic modernity who had been forced to emigrate after 1933 and then were murdered in concentration camps after their countries of exile had been occupied by Germany: the first documenta did not show a single one of them, not even Otto Freundlich, whose sculpture Der Neue Mensch (The New Man) had been depicted on the cover of the guidebook to the Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937.

After the European-wide genocide orchestrated by Germany, it may well have been difficult to find works by Jewish artists, whose families, gallerists, collectors, and heirs had likewise been forced into exile or killed. In any case, none of the artists Jankel Adler, Rudolf Levy, Hermann Lismann, Maria Luiko, Arthur Segal,or Gert Wollheim were rehabilitated in Kassel in 1955; nor was Felix Nußbaum’s now famous Selbstportrait mit Judenpass to be seen (Self Portrait with Jewish Identity Card, 1943). Ludwig Meidner, who had survived in his exile in Britain, had returned to West Germany already in 1953 to the city of Wiesbaden, some 120 miles from Kassel, but obviously not to the knowledge of the makers of the first documenta.

Important representatives of political emigration were likewise left out, such as Josef Scharl, John Heartfield, or George Grosz. Karl Schwesig, who in 1933 had been severely tortured by the SA for three days in their notorious “Schlegelkeller” headquarters in Düsseldorf, was caught again by the German invaders after his escape to Belgium and brought to concentration camps in Southern France, where he may well have met the equally detained Felix Nußbaum. Schwesig survived and returned to Düsseldorf in 1945 and died just a month before the first documenta opened, where his very impressive series of “Schlegelkeller” drawings would have told a story not welcome to a post-war West German art audience.[xv] It had its reasons that the first documenta clearly put emphasis on modernism only in the form of the artwork, not in content! Omissions like these let the panorama of modernity staged in Kassel in 1955 appear in retrospect like a post-war idyll of political oblivion, however meritorious its contributions to rehabilitate the formerly “Degenerate Art” were.


As if to compensate for a lack of true internationality, the first documenta offered the notion of art’s universality: the entrance hall was decorated with photographs of African tribal masks, archaic Greek portraits, Pre-Columbian sculptures or Mesopotamian castings that offered a suggestive visual essay, preparing the visitors for the modern artworks to come (fig.4). The notion of art’s universality has its own history that I can only touch on here, its plausibility being an issue of its own. I have analysed and discussed this problem extensively elsewhere with regard to André Malraux and his musée imaginaire.[xvi] Not very convincing nowadays, such analogies between modern and ancient or non-European practices were thought to authorize modern art with the amplification of anthropology. Being universal situated art in history and anthropology rather than in actual political geography, and hence infused it with an internationalist humanism (be it one of primitivism—a notion, by the way, Bode and Haftmann would not use for tribal artefacts, but for naïve painting, nowadays labelled outsider art).

Installation View of Ground Floor during the first documenta. Photograph by: Günther Becker. © documenta archiv

Modern art did not only have to be legitimated in anthropological relations, but in academic terms as well, a role that was undertaken for the first three documentas by Bode’s co-curator Werner Haftmann, whose widely read history of Painting in the Twentieth Century was published a year before the first documenta, in 1954. Today, it may be hard to understand why modern art demanded such an amount of scholarly legitimation, but such public treatment endowed it with a degree of seriousness that today can make a writer nostalgic. The impulse of legitimation was eventually replaced by the growing market value of modern art that we worship today in pilgrimage sites such as Art Basel Miami Beach. (Little is it known, by the way, that the first documenta also served as a marketplace: many artworks were on offer, the most expensive, as reported by the German tabloid BILD-Zeitung, for 10,000 Deutsche Marks—a great deal of money at the time.)

documenta II (1959)

The following three documentas can be regarded as variations and alterations on the themes the first one had established. The most important fact is that the second documenta in 1959 managed a crucial and paradoxical change of focus, which would remain typical for the ones to come: it reduced its focus in time but expanded it in space—something that became documenta’s law of motion. If the first one claimed to represent “twentieth century art”, the second restricted itself to “art after 1945” (“Kunst nach 1945”), but included many more states than before—and now even the United ones! In the second documenta, France produced more than one quarter of the artists invited and thus was by far the dominant nation, while Germany’s contribution was corrected to one fifth only. Of the 339 participants, seventeen were women, which is exactly 5%. (Among the guards, by the way, was a young student of the Kassel art academy, Hans Haacke, who made beautiful photographs of other employees as well as visitors in the white cubes of the exhibition, since published in a small book.[xvii])

Pages with artists list from the documenta II Catalogue (1959, DuMont Schauberg, Colone)

Above all, those in charge of the second documenta decided to no longer display art in schemes of political geography. The topic of nationality obviously had been discussed among the organizers, who decided on a change of focus. They now stressed the international character of modernism on display, too, by arranging the artworks in combinations that obeyed aesthetic guidelines instead of national representation. The list of artists in the catalogue was now neutral and alphabetical (fig.5). Yet there was one prominent exception from the brand new rule: artists from the USA.

Installation View of Museum Fridericianum during documenta II with paintings by Jackson Pollock. Photograph by: Günther Becker. © documenta Archiv, Jackson Pollock

Their selection had not been carried out in Kassel, but instead Porter McCray from the MoMA had been asked to select and ship an American contribution independently, which he did. Reportedly, the pieces arrived rather late and surprised the organizers by their sheer number and size, demanding much more space than had been reserved. With around forty artists, this was to become a prominent entry in the second documenta indeed. As a result, the floor plans had to be changed hectically: two halls were completely vacated for the large US formats, and thus the US contribution was the only one to be presented according to a national logic—a rather ironic twist to the story. The American paintings surprised the organizers in terms of their subject matter as well. Two combine paintings by Robert Rauschenberg found their way into the exhibition’s parcours, but the third one, the unmade “Bed”, was thought of as being too provocative and was discreetly banned to the secretary’s office.

Rauschenberg was not yet the star of this second documenta anyway, but the late Jackson Pollock was, who had died three years earlier: his all-over paintings clearly dominated one of the halls. However troubled they might have been by this invited invasion, the curators could have regarded it as a kind of re-import: Not only because some of the artists from the USA had been taught at their US art schools by European emigrants like Josef Albers, George Grosz, or Hans Hofmann and others had adopted dadaist and surrealist inspirations brought to New York by European emigrants, but also because, as Abstract Expressionists, the American artists combined the names of two European innovations from the beginning of the century—abstraction and expressionism—thus their return could be regarded as a kind of amplified feedback. Involuntarily, Adolf Hitler had been successful in internationalizing modern art by forcing its representatives into exile as far as the USA and thus had changed the map of modernism irreversibly; finally, documenta took notice of that.

With the American extension, the second documenta followed the partnership also prevalent in politics, the economy, and consumer culture; it gave up its Eurocentric image of the world in favour of Northern Atlantic one. This was inevitable, as a solo exhibition of Jackson Pollock and group exhibitions of artists from the USA had already travelled through Europe after the first documenta and had made a great impression on the public, especially on some of the younger West German artists.[xviii]

The second documenta thus did not only expand in scope with regard to the number of countries from which artists were invited, but above all in ideology: if the first one had propagated the idea of art’s universality, the second one propagated abstraction as world language—without a doubt one of the catchiest and most debatable slogans of twentieth century art. This notion has its own history, too, which I can only touch upon.[xix] It is difficult today to appreciate the unreflecting enthusiasm in this pretension of abstraction as a world language. It seems full of traditional Eurocentrism and the politics of colonial monopoly. With this claim, however, the second documenta extended its geographical frame of reference to a supposedly global reach in exactly the same way that the artist Victor Vasarély, one of its stars, had already spoken of abstraction as “planetary folklore”.[xx]

But anyone who may have expected that, following this slogan, more non-European artists would have been invited to Kassel was bound to be disappointed: the slogan was not intended to end the predominance of European art nor to upvalue art made outside Europe. It rather offered up the latest European aesthetic recipe to the rest of the world—not in a franchise way but to be used unlicensed; global freeware, so to speak. If this sounds generous, note that there was no guarantee of re-import—and only very few of them in fact occurred. Europe may have exported the art museum as a cultural model throughout the world, but it was still reluctant to accept in its own museums contemporary art produced in non-European countries.

That was the stance of documenta for a long time, changing noticeably only in 1992 with documenta IX. Artists who originated from Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America remained excluded with few exceptions and were clearly underrepresented for over thirty years in an exhibition that proudly adopted the label world exhibition of art. Starting out as an action of self-help in a war-destroyed land, the first documentas preferred art from already aesthetically established neighbours and allies that enhanced the value and legitimacy of the once defamed German artists. But after two world wars, a world language was a more than welcome utopia and could therefore be regarded as an idyllic, if naïve, notion.

Installation View of the Orangerie during documenta II with Sculpture by Henry Moore. Photograph by: Hilmar Deist. © documenta Archiv

This idyllic impression was reinforced with the ruin of the Orangerie transformed into an attractive outdoor area, turning parts of the second documenta into a summer festival. Numbers of solid sculptures were displayed in the ruins and between whitewashed provisional walls in front of the Orangerie (fig.7). Though this outdoor sculpture section conservatively confined many of its modern exhibits to an open-air white-cube, facing a huge park, it had a revolutionary Italian offspring in Spoleto: during the Festival dei Due Mondi, Giovanni Carandente, who had visited the second documenta, arranged an exhibition of modern sculpture in 1962 that was groundbreaking because the artworks were spread throughout the city and not restricted to the classical playgrounds like public parks or the gardens around art museums. Thus, Spoleto became an influential model for urban outdoor exhibitions of sculpture. documenta, in contrast, hesitated to invade its city until 1987, when Manfred Schneckenburger curated documenta 8 and eventually conquered the public sphere of Kassel, probably through the influence of another internationally renowned German exhibition, Skulptur-Projekte Münster, founded in 1977 and explicitly dedicated to outdoor sculpture.[xxi]

documenta III (1964)

With the third documenta in 1964, nothing much changed; it rather seemed to suffer from a certain perplexity of its own success. It still claimed to present international art, but no longer specified which period. While the first had explicitly covered the twentieth century and the second art since 1945, the third documenta likewise only claimed to be an “International Exhibition” but had in fact significant blind spots. Like the second documenta, the third had special spaces for masterpieces reaching back beyond the second documenta’s limit of 1945. These special areas could have allowed some retrospective additions of artists overlooked by the first documenta, but only Otto Freundlich and George Grosz were now included. Planned or not, with this politics of oblivion documenta not only launched post-war careers, but helped to forget pre-war ones. It took another two years for the returnee Ludwig Meidner, a crucial figure of German expressionism admired by the Brücke artists, to be given his first post-exile show in 1966—in Recklinghausen. Again, an appropriate formula was launched when the third documenta adopted the slogan Museum of 100 Days”, and that in fact best summed up its mixture of 20th-century modern classics and post-war contemporaries.

The emphasis was still on Europe: Germany and France delivered about one third of the 361 artists respectively, the remaining third were mainly shared among the USA, Italy, and Britain, with roughly thirty participants each, and overall only ten of them women, leading to a decrease to less than 3% of the total.[xxii] Yet statistics, I finally have to admit, never tell the whole story—talking about exhibitions, one of course has to look at the staging as well. This can be pointed out by the British contribution throughout the first three documentas. Already in the first documenta it was small by numbers but impressive in appearance: it dominated the main hall of sculpture, where Henry Moore’s King and Queen were enthroned (fig. 3). When the second documenta was augmented with outdoor sculpture, it was Moore, again, who was at the centre of it, in this case the Orangerie’s ruins, flanked again by Kenneth Armitage, Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, and Barbara Hepworth, and, as a new participant, Eduardo Paolozzi (fig.7). When the outdoor sculpture section was repeated in 1964, the third documenta again set Moore at its the centre. This illustrates that not only do the numbers count in an international exhibition, but so do the positions in the exhibition space.

After Bode's legendary gift of staging had reached its peak with the controversial ceiling installation of Ernst Wilhelm Nay's paintings during documenta III (fig. 8), he was busy and successful, as before, in convincing politicians and donors of the necessity of a follow-up, which took place in 1968 as documenta 4. This success turned out to be a defeat, however, because during the fourth documenta Bode lost his influence, and the exhibition was completed by a group of younger curators headed by Jean Leering.

Installation View with Painting by Ernst Wilhelm Nay installed on the Ceiling at documenta III. Photograph by: Günther Becker. © documenta Archiv

documenta 4 (1968)

The fourth documenta (which by the way, only featured five women, which once again makes 3%) was the first to raise the claim that would become typical for the ones to follow, namely to inform about and present only art of the preceding couple of years, stressing the contemporary aspect and neglecting, with few prominent exceptions, any retrospective task. This, of course, meant more or less adopting the formula of the Venice Biennale, which was some seventy years older and now had to face a younger competitor that had abandoned national representation as a structuring principle.

documenta’s switch of concept was only possible because all the other representatives of the former three documentas had either left the board or been disempowered already before Bode: all of the veterans had wanted to stick to the combination of older art with contemporary work and would not agree to only show present-day artists. The fourth documenta’s turn toward the contemporary was the result of a decisive battle behind the scenes that also changed the logo from Roman to Arabic numbers to mark the transition. The curators of a younger generation probably thought that modern art no longer needed any support of historical legitimation, after the majority of the German population seemed, if not to like, then at least to tolerate modern art, like the European public in general did. It was likely more important that one year earlier, in 1967, the first international fair dedicated exclusively to contemporary art had been founded in Cologne—by a former member of the documenta committee, the gallerist Hein Stünke, together with Rudolf Zwirner, who had been general secretary for the second documenta and then became a gallerist as well. As a model for all the influential and popular art fairs to come—in Basel, Chicago, London, Hong Kong, Madrid, Miami Beach, or elsewhere—the Cologne fair changed the perception of contemporary art in the long run probably more than any documenta still had a chance to do. In any case, contemporary art has since then developed enough legitimacy in itself, be it one of market value, social prestige, or media coverage.

Most conspicuous in the tour of the fourth documenta was the presence of North American artists, who represented colour-field painting, hard-edge painting, and—most striking—pop art and minimal art (fig.). Making up one third of all the artists invited, the American contribution earned the fourth documenta the nickname documenta americana. And that was only half the story: it also meant that American collectors could stay at home, which they did. In an interview with the late Johannes Cladders, he told me a very illustrative anecdote: when he ran around Paris in the autumn of 1962—like everybody had to, because the galleries opened for the new season and Paris was still the place to go—he met the very influential Iris Clert standing in front of her gallery somewhat perplexed. Without greeting him—a regular and important visitor she knew well—she said Pas d’américains à Paris! And for a while she said nothing more.[xxiii]

No Americans in Paris of course referred to the collectors who had previously been regular customers. This marked a decisive moment in European art history, just as important as the first European travelling exhibition of Pollock a decade earlier: from that moment on, the North American collectors preferred to shop at home and no longer estimated their home-grown collectibles inferior to European art. They rather exported them, and that was manifest in an exhibition that took place in 1969, just one year after the fourth documenta: When Attitudes Become Form. Sponsored by a US tobacco corporation, this exhibition, curated by the great Harald Szeemann, presented a lot of North American artists that the average visitor of the fourth documenta a year earlier not even had heard of: in the mid-size towns of Bern and Krefeld, Szeemann managed to outplay documenta in its own newly chosen game, that is, presenting the latest and most advanced contemporary art! Like in 1956, when the exhibition This Is Tomorrow at London’s ICA must have made the first documenta (of the preceding year) look old-fashioned, When Attitudes Become Form did this very trick one year after the fourth, but with much greater consequences.

Installation View with Group of Visitors during documenta 4. Photograph by: Heinz Pauly. © documenta archiv

documenta 5 (1972)

One of them, of course, was that Szeemann became the next artistic director in Kassel. documenta 5 changed the face of the place probably more than any other except for the first one. What Szeemann did not change was the importing of North American art. On the contrary, “his” documenta was the one that should have been labelled americana: with nearly 90 participants, for the first time more than one third of the (generally reduced number of) artists came from the USA. And theirs was a generation that no longer relied on European models or traditions, but instead surprised the visitors with genuine innovations like Conceptual Art, Happenings, Installations, Land Art, Performance Art, and Photorealism, not to mention photography itself, or film, which up to then had never been regarded as art in Kassel! (Out of the 234 participants, 11% were women, thus their number quadrupled.)

But a decisive change also affected the role of the curator. As already noted in 1982 in a text for the special issue “Mythos documenta” that I edited for the German magazine Kunstforum International (fig.10),[xxiv] originally documenta was eager to promote the modern artist as hero. This was all the more necessary as modern artists had been among the victims of National Socialist discrimination. But documenta 5 (1972) changed the game: instead of venerating the producers, behind whom the documenta organizers of the first and second editions had retreated, the triumph of the new heroes, the mediators, was heralded. Szeemann was prepared for it, as his first feat, the exhibition When Attitudes Become Form, had already proved that not only artists but also art mediators could become stars of the art world if they presented the right artists at the right time in the right context.[xxv] His contradictory notion of Individuelle Mythologien (Individual Mythologies), the slogan of documenta 5, is possibly the best password ever invented to lead into modern art's field of force. It gave documenta 5 the intellectual and artistic features necessary to secure its enduring fame as the most important documenta apart from the first.

Pages from “Mythos documenta” with Walter Grasskamp’s essay “Modell documenta”. Courtesy of Kunstforum International

Incidentally, this notion changed Haftmann's strategy of legitimation, because it did not historicize the artistic material but characterized it by labelling it: Haftmann's strategy had come to an end because the fast market changes in new tendencies made it obsolete. By calling the central section of the fifth documenta Individual Mythologies, Szeemann had appropriated a different way of producing art history without historical concepts, or national ones, for that matter. Although Szeemann was not thanked for his achievements during and after the closing of his documenta 5, but instead sued for having overdrawn the budget, his example influenced and changed the world of art mediating in many ways and foreshadowed today’s importance of the curator.


But now I have come to the end of my statistics and proportions. I hope they have given you some impression of what we talk about when we talk about internationality in art, not to speak of globalisation. And I am sorry if it sometimes sounded like the European Song Contest. When we look back on the formative years of documenta, the then-famous issues—the universality of art or abstraction as world language—today they rather make us smile than convince us or inspire awe. Coming generations in return might find amusing what we today take for granted, the global art world for instance, or post-structuralism; museum size in contemporary painting or curatorial studies; the iconic turn or the notion of copyright—who knows? They may even look back with contempt on the idea of the contemporary and find it too commercial, and may favour slow art instead. An ironic photograph circulating on the internet shows a group of demonstrators holding a transparent that says “NO TO CONTEMPORARY ART. TOGETHER WE CAN STOP IT.” These could be themes for discussion in half a century, just before documenta 23 in 2062. I definitely will not be there, but some of you youngsters among us may—so take care.


Prof. Dr. Walter Grasskamp, born in 1950, held the chair in art history at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich from 1995 to 2016, where he was vice-rector from 1999 until 2003. Co-ordinating editor of German Art in the 20th Century: Painting and Sculpture 1905 – 1985 (Royal Academy London, 1985) and author of numerous essays and books dedicated to modern and contemporary art (with a focus on post-war West Germany); to the history of art museums and art unions, exhibitions and curating (with a focus on documenta); to art in the public sphere (with a focus on Sculpture. Projects in Münster), as well as to pop culture and consumerism. Latest publications: The Book on the Floor. André Malraux and the Imaginary Museum (Getty, Los Angeles, 2016); Das Kunstmuseum – eine erfolgreiche Fehlkonstruktion (C.H. Beck, Munich, 2016).

[i] This is a revised version of the paper I contributed to “Conference on the Way to dOCUMENTA (13)” to which Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev had invited former curators of documentas 5 to 12 to the Castello di Rivoli in Turin in September 2009. I was invited to speak as a historian on the first four editions.

[ii] Harald Kimpel documenta. Mythos und Wirklichkeit, Diss. Univ. Kassel 1996, DuMont, Cologne, 1997 (with comprehensive bibliography). Also see Walter Grasskamp, “'Degenerate Art' and documenta I - Modernism Ostracized and Disarmed,” in Daniel J. Sherman and Irit Rogoff, eds., Museum Culture: Histories, Discourses, Spectacles, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1994, pp. 163–194; Walter Grasskamp, Documenta art du XXe siècle. Exposition internationale au Musée Fridericianum de Kassel du 15 juillet au 18 septembre 1955, in Bernd Klüser and Katharina Hegewisch, eds., L’Art de l’exposition. Une documentation sur trente expositions exemplaires du XXe siècle, Editions du Regard, Paris, 1998, pp. 211- 226; Michael Glasmeier and Karin Stengel, eds., 50 Years documenta 1955-2005, 2 vol., Steidl, Göttingen, 2005; Walter Grasskamp, To Be Continued: Periodical Exhibitions. Documenta for Example, Tate Papers, No 12, Landmark Exhibitions Issue, 2009; Hans Eichel, ed., 60 Jahre documenta. Die lokale Geschichte einer Globalisierung, Siebenhaar, Kassel, 2015. A special treat are the four volumes dedicated to each of the first four documentas displaying most of the artworks and installations with superb contemporary photographs. Edited by Harald Kimpel and Karin Stengel for the documenta archive Kassel, they were published in chronological order by Edition Temmen (Bremen) in 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2007. 

[iii] “Die einzelnen Länder sind mit den in der vorstehenden Übersicht aufgeführten Künstlern beteiligt. Durch die politische Emigration aus Rußland und Deutschland ist die nationale Zugehörigkeit bei einer Reihe von Künstlern unsicher geworden; sie wurden je nach dem Grad ihrer Wirkung ihren Heimat- bzw. Gastländern zugeordnet.” documenta. Kunst des XX. Jahrhunderts, Munich, 1955, reprinted 1995, p. 27. Exhibition catalogue.

[iv] Walter Grasskamp, Das Europa der Kunst. Zwei Jahrzehnte der Akademie der Bildenden Künste München, oder: Vier Jubiläen und eine Utopie, in zeitblicke 5, (2006), No. 2.

[v] There were other German artists not present at the first documenta who had spent most or all of the Nazi years in Italy, like Max Peiffer-Watenphul. For Purrmann, see my essay “Hans Purrmann als Europäer betrachtet. Über Kunst und Migration,” in Felix Billeter and Christoph Wagner, eds., Neue Wege zu Hans Purrmann, Gebr. Mann, Berlin, 2017, pp. 352–365.

[vi] That could include war service, as in the case of Eduard Bargheer, who was drafted and worked as an interpreter from 1942 to 1944 and was then included in the “Kunstschutz” (art conservation) program in Florence until 1945. This could also include exhibitions in more liberal art institutions, such as, in this case, the Kunstverein (art union) Hamburg, where Bargheer was included in the 1936 exhibition Kunst im Olympiajahr (art in the year of the Olympic Games), which is reported to have been closed down by the political authorities a couple of days after the opening.

[vii] Thomas Grochowiak Interviewed by Walter Grasskamp, Walther König, Cologne, 2009; Johannes Cladders Interviewed by Walter Grasskamp, DuMont, Cologne, 2004.

[viii] The city of Recklinghausen had been the home of the Ruhrfestspiele beginning in 1947, the early years being devoted to theatre only. Nearly from the start, the annual Recklinghausen shows were early examples of themed art exhibitions, a category later made famous by Harald Szeemann. In addition, they also advanced exhibition design. As Grochowiak (who had been responsible for the annual exhibition as of 1950) told me (page 60 of the book mentioned in the footnote above), Arnold Bode was a regular visitor of the annual exhibition in Recklinghausen, like almost everyone interested in modern art in post-war Germany, before he invented documenta. Bode must have been the first to recognize the importance of the Ruhrfestspiele’s experiment in exhibition design and concepts. He is even said to have asked if he could be the guest curator of one of them before he started his own enterprise in Kassel.

[ix] Stefano Collicelli Cagol, Venezia e la vitalità del contemporaneo. Paolo Marinotti a Palazzo Grassi (1959 – 1967), Il Poligrafo,Padua, 2008.

[x] See issue on allestimenti, Rassegna No. 10, 1982.

[xi] Cagol and I share the supposition that these innovations would have reached London as well and may have inspired the groundbreaking exhibition Parallel of Life and Art that was staged at the ICA in 1952, and furthermore the innovative exhibition designer Richard Hamilton. Anyway, the Independent Group could have known about the Milano Triennale via the magazine Domus or other sources of migrating images.

[xii] Lyonel Feininger, in contrast, a second-generation émigré, was identified in the catalogue as representing Germany.

[xiii] Heiner Georgsdorf, ed., Arnold Bode: Schriften und Gespräche, B & S Siebenhaar, Berlin, 2007.

[xiv] Not only of art, by the way, but of architecture as well, where what would become crucial to art only few decades later had already happened: the European origin was generalized and distributed worldwide as international style, an expression already coined in 1932 for the eponymous MoMA exhibition. Exponents of the international style in architecture were included in the small selection of photographs Bode exhibited on the margins of the first documenta.

[xv] Karl Schwesig, Schlegelkeller. Mit einem Vorwort von Heinrich Mann, Frölich und Kaufmann, Berlin, 1986.

[xvi] In Germany, it became topical at the beginning of the twentieth century when the recently discovered cave paintings of Stone Age were used to justify modern art’s expressionist and abstracting features. It became international through the emigration of one of its major protagonists, the Austrian Ludwig Goldscheider. Goldscheider was the founder of the Phaidon Verlag in Vienna, where in 1934 his book Zeitlose Kunst (Timeless Art) appeared, delivering the first analogies of modern and traditional art. When Goldscheider had to emigrate to London in 1938, he founded the still famous Phaidon Press and published a more radical English version of Zeitlose Kunst that sharpened the argument already in its title: 5,000 Years of Modern Art or: The Picture Book of King Solomon, London, 1952. Already in 1948, the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London had staged the exhibition 40,000 Years of Modern Art: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern. It was a very modernist way of defending modern art with ancient (and exotic) examples, because it used the strategies of the museum and photography, both of them foundations and outstanding features of modernity, also to be used by André Malraux in his musée imaginaire. See my recent book, The Book on the Floor: André Malraux and the Imaginary Museum. Getty, Los Angeles, 2016; German version, André Malraux und das imaginäre Museum. Die Weltkunst im Salon. C.H. Beck, Munich, 2014.

[xvii] Walter Grasskamp/Hans Haacke: Photographic Notes documenta 2 1959, Deutscher Kunstverlag, Berlin/Munich, 2012.

[xviii] Sigrid Ruby, Have We An American Art? Präsentation und Rezeption amerikanischer Malerei im Westdeutschland und Westeuropa der Nachkriegszeit, Diss. Univ. Bonn 1998; Verlag und Datenbank für Geisteswissenschaften, Weimar, 1999.

[xix] Obviously, it was not invented by Werner Haftmann, the ideological mastermind of early documentas, but promoted by a richly orchestrated book published by Georg Poensgen and Leopold Zahn in 1958, one year before the second documenta, called precisely (in translation) Abstract Art - A World Language. Yet, it already contained an anthology of appropriate quotations edited by Haftmann, whose aesthetic convictions it matched, while it of course also flattered the artists included.

[xx] I owe this reference to Vasarely to Wolfgang Ullrich, whose book Bilder auf Weltreise. Eine Globalisierungskritik (Pictures Travelling around the World. A Critique of Globalisation) was published in 2006 by Wagenbach in Berlin. There is anecdotal proof, by the way, that nationality in art was still a European topic of relevance in 1959: visiting the second documenta convinced the Danish collector Knut Jensen, who only had bought Danish art up to then, to change his guidelines and open his collection to international art. He even managed to get a small selection of the second documenta to travel to his beautiful Museum Louisiana near Copenhagen after the gates had been closed in Kassel.

[xxi] Walter Grasskamp, “Art in the City: an Italian-German Tale,” in Florian Matzner, ed., Public Art, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern-Ruit, German/English edition, 2001, separate English edition, 2003.

[xxii] There was another addition to the concept that was not successful and remained an exception: a separate exhibition in the Kassel art school (Werkakademie) presented applied art, contemporary design of products, and posters, including the just retired director of the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum, Willem Sandberg, with his typographical work. Different from Recklinghausen, the first documenta had not combined applied art and fine art, much to Bode’s concern, I guess; nor did the second. His indispensable companion Werner Haftmann, the chief ideologist of the first three documentas, appears to have insisted successfully on his rather traditional academic notion of art, restricting it to painting, graphic works, and sculpture. Thus, documenta was innovative in its contemporary choices, but very conservative in its restriction of media, rejecting photography as an artistic media up until 1977 and, above all, ignoring design and architecture with few exceptions. dedicated to contemporary art, it stuck to the academic media. Being familiar with the Bauhaus concept, Bode, Grochowiak, and Sandberg were inclined to combine applied and fine art, but Haftmann obviously was not.

[xxiii] Johannes Cladders interviewed by Walter Grasskamp, p. 50.

[xxiv] Walter Grasskamp, “Modell documenta oder wie wird Kunstgeschichte gemacht?,” Kunstforum International, Vol. 49, 3/1982, April/May, pp. 15-22. A revised English translation was published as “For example, Documenta or How is Art History Produced?,” in Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne, eds., Thinking About Exhibitions, Routledge, London, 1996, 2.Ed. 1999, pp. 67–78.

[xxv] Walter Grasskamp, “Der Kurator als Held. Harald Szeemann,” in Wolfgang Ullrich, ed., Ein Urlaubstag im Kunstbetrieb. Bilder und Nachbilder, Philo Fine Arts, Hamburg, 2010, pp. 71–100.

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Issue 33

the documenta issue

by Nanne Buurman & Dorothee Richter

by Vesna Madžoski

by Ayşe Güleç