Documenta's journey from post-war to post-modern to pre-millennial

A history of how Documenta has changed with the times

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Documenta has been described by director Catherine David as a “new/old exhibition”, one which actively covers new ground but also reflects upon historical issues. In her “Documenta Documents 1”, the first of three working papers charting the progress of the exhibition she has been planning since 1994, she characterised the event as “somewhere between an experimental space and an arts bazaar” and questioned whether such an art event could now fulfil its remit of confronting “the complexity of aesthetic experience today.”

That remit—of turning the German town of Kassel into a modern Mecca for looking at challenging avant-garde art—was the brainchild of Kassel artist and university professor Arnold Bode. He founded Documenta in 1955 as an attempt to fill post-war Germany’s cultural vacuum and bring his country back into the mainstream of international art after the years of Nazi rule. In particular, he sought to bring the work of young German artists back into the international art fold. In collaboration with Werner Haftmann, one of Germany’s most distinguished art theorists, Bode organised a radical exhibition, installing works of art from the past fifty years in the war-damaged Museum Fride-ricianum. The inaugural exhibition included artists such as Picasso and Warhol and drew crowds of 130,000.

Since then, Documenta has recreated itself every four or five years, reflecting the social and political trends that have fed into the art world and gradually becoming much more than the sum of its many parts. As its name suggests, literary and philosophical ideas and the relationship between text and image have been a recurring theme of Documenta. Successive curators have not been content with simply bearing witness to the work produced at a given moment in time. Instead they have put their stamp on the event by emphasising certain themes, reacting against previous exhibitions and providing points of reference for the art world and its public. Throughout its half century history, Documenta has always aimed to provoke strong public reactions to the works of art on show, a policy which seems to generate audiences: since its inception, viewers have increased almost six-fold and the exhibition has extended from the Fridericianum to encompass the main parcourse of the city.

By the time Documenta II came around in 1959, the success of its predecessor had transformed the experimental exhibition into an art institution. A company was formed to run the event and it was organised by a panel of art historians led by Bode. The show expanded beyond the Fridericianum into the bombed ruins of the Orangerie, where Bode organised an impressive exhibition of sculpture. Haftmann placed the focus of this show firmly on abstraction, which he saw as the international language of modern art. This also fitted into the American Cold War ideology of the time, which viewed Abstract Expressionism as a statement of democratic freedom in opposition to the social realism of the Communist regime less than 100 miles away across the East German border.

Documenta III in 1964 was planned by Bode as a tribute to the masters of classic Modernism, selecting artists for their “relevance” and “quality”, rather than presenting a general survey. He referred to this Documenta as the “museum of 100 days” and incorporated an exhibition of modern design and a section called “Aspekt 64”, which, like the Venice Biennale Aperto, showed young, up and coming artists.

Documenta IV in 1968 was again organised by Bode but the most important section, painting, was curated by the Dutch Jan Leering who included large-scale American Colour Field works. Leering’s show provoked anti-American controversy, in part because of the large American contingent there and in part because of the mounting protests against the Vietnam war. In true 1968 communal spririt, the exhibition was organised largely by a committee of twenty-three. The Neue Galerie showed artists’ environments, Fluxus happenings broke traditional definitions of art and debate about Documenta’s artistic policy and its future raged. 207,000 viewers attended.

Documenta V in 1972, under the new leadership of Harald Szeeman (now director of the Lyon Biennale), underwent a dramatic change of direction. Szeeman’s offbeat, hippyish idealism preached the beginning of a “post-art market age” and opposed to any comprehensive vision of art. His theme “Questioning reality: pictorial worlds today” was more concerned with processes of making art than the finished product and championed conceptual art, psychiatric art and artistic interventions into everyday life, such as advertising and design.

Documenta VI in 1977 was directed by Manfred Schneckenburger, who tried to make it as different as possible from the preceding exhibition. Its theme returned to art and society. He attempted to present a panorama of different artistic media, including a large retrospective of photography, film and video. A highlight was the “vertical kilometre” by Walter De Maria in the Friedrichsplatz and the exhibition attracted audiences of 355,000

Documenta VII in 1982 was led by Rudi Fuchs, who affirmed a “Post-modern” style of painting and sought to liberate the exhibition from theoretical and ideological concerns. A key player in the show was Joseph Beuys, who participated in every Documenta from 1964 through 1987. In Beuys’s “7000 Eichen”, the artist planted 7000 oak trees during the exhibition to replant and restore a decimated forest - a metaphor for restoring and growing new life in Germany (there will be tours to the Beuys project three times a week during the course of Documenta X). It attracted 380,000 viewers.

Documenta VIII in 1987 was once again organised by Manfred Schneckenburger and reacted against Fuch’s show by focussing on “historical and social dimensions of art”, performance and video work. With its massive installations and blurring of the borders between architecture, design and art, it attracted almost half a million visitors.

Documenta IX in 1992 was organised by Belgian curator Jan Hoet, who organised “a Documenta of places” and focused on individual approaches to art around the world. In charge of the first Documenta after the fall of the Berlin wall, the first to be bereft of a Cold War context, he looked geographically outward, using the theme of “otherness” to go beyond the traditional East/West European axis and incorporate more third world visions. His exhibition attracted over 600,000 visitors in 100 days. Hoet admitted to being frustrated in his quest for art in Africa, finding it devoid of the Western infrastructures which make art happen: “I did not find any houses of the well-to-do containing contemporary art, nor any press providing artistic and cultural information,” he wrote. But he noted, “In spite of everything, there is art. Isolated traces of expression without any suggestion of academic references...Its basis consists of spontaneous commentaries and personal experiences...”

Documenta X, 21 June to 28 September

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