It is my assertion that looking at the exchange and discourse between European art, with an emphasis on French and German artists, German culture was revived. Through dOCUMENTA’s aims to regenerate the traditions of modernism and German modernist art, the exhibition acted in opposition to what had been deemed degenerate art from 1933-1945. The context of the first dOCUMENTA situates the exhibition in the post-war, post-Nazi era as a response to the enforced anti-modernist Nazi hegemony of the previous decades. dOCUMENTA emerged in an era faced with the challenge of resituating German identity with modernity. Walter Haftmann said of dOCUMENTA 1’s intention, “It should be seen as a broad, if initial attempt, to regain international contacts across the board and thus at home re-engage in a conversation that has been interrupted for so long, as it were.” This interruption he refers to is the separation of artistic discourse that has existed mainly between France and Germany. The Franco-German border represents an “underground connection”, a pact he describes central to the evolution of abstract art. It is this cultural exchange between French and German artists that needed to continue and became the focal point of dOCUMENTA in order to reinstate Germany into the “European whole” by way of modes of art representative of political and individual freedoms.

The exhibition featured artists from seven European nations, but had the largest collection of German and French artists (fifty-eight Germans, forty-two French). The artists included in dOCUMENTA 1 reflect on their experience of modernity, and ultimately situate Germany within the context of abstract art’s expressiveness and graphic language that promotes internationalism. The question I propose is how fundamental was modernity to West Germany’s reintegration, and how were these modernist values represented in the revival of Franco-German discourse at dOCUMENTA 1?

It was necessary to the founders to regenerate the memory of Germany’s past and traditions of European modernism. The thread of modernity seems to be running through my project and uniting the various agents involved. They are a part of the modern experience, and with this exhibition modernism and internationalism become central to West German identity. The word “dOCUMENTA” itself was chosen because it was a symbol of transnationality, the name is an invented word that emphasizes how each exhibition will reinvent itself and to be a documentation of modern art. It is important to remember that the turning toward art as a means of self-identification belongs to a bourgeois/elite class and cannot be said to apply to the entirety of the population. But I hope to show how modernist values in art, such as the freedom of the individual and expression of this, art as self-reflection, and rejection of the artistic canon, became a part of reaffirming German values in culture.

dOCUMENTA 1, created by Kassel-born artist Arnold Bode and art historian Walter Haftmann in 1955, situates the exhibition in Kassel, West Germany. Kassel was chosen by Kassel-born found Arnold Bode as the site of what has become one of the world’s most renowned international contemporary art exhibitions, but the location presents an interesting series of questions regarding the city’s significance within German reintegration. Kassel was largely destroyed in WWII, and even the Museum Fridericianum sustained heavy damage, which to the benefit of the exhibition’s organizers elevated the industrialist-minimalist aesthetics of the exhibition’s display. Kassel is a city bearing the scars of German history, and what can this mean within the greater sphere of reforming identity? It is the intention of the exhibition’s organizers, in keeping with their mission to revisit German history, to locate a politically neutral territory that situates the exhibition within a reflection of German history. It both acknowledges and accepts this history as informing the works presented.

Further investigation of the subject matter will reveal the transnational links across the Franc-German border, and how these connections manifested in artistic production of the first half of the twentieth century, with a specific emphasis on the post-war era. It is important to understand the origin and implication of the first dOCUMENTA, and the political context it emerged in. This is one of the first international contemporary art exhibitions, so it is important to question why it was created specifically then, why what purpose, and analyze the farther reaching affects of such an institution on German character and identity.

Project Proposal