50 years at the cutting edge of art - Germany's documenta
By Michael Evers Jul 12, 2005, 0:00 GMT
Kassel, Germany - Regarded today as the most important display of contemporary art in the world, Germany's documenta grew from humble beginnings half a century ago.
When the documenta first opened its doors to the public on July 15, 1955, it was a sideshow to the federal garden exhibition in the modest central town of Kassel.
The event was the brainchild of art professer Arnold Bode, a man determined to show the public modern 20th century art of the kind reviled by the Nazis.
To the amazement of organisers visitors from home and abroad flocked to the show held in the ruins of the Fridericianum Museum destroyed during World War II. It seems the art show touched a nerve in a bombed-out Germany anxious to show the world a different face.
Over the past 50 years 11 documenta exhibitions have been held and most managed to spark controversy. The next show, documenta 12, takes place from June to September 2007.
Artistic director, 42-year-old Roger M. Buergel has promised a multicultural bonanza, with artists from South America, the Arab world and eastern Europe, the "post Soviet environment", as Buergel calls it.
The early documenta years were marked by retrospectives of modern masters such as Picasso, Mondrian or Klee - all of whose works had been branded as "degenerate" during the Nazi era and removed from German galleries. Around 130,000 art lovers came to view the first show with paintings and sculpture by 148 artists.
Encouraged by the success of the event the organisers decided to hold the documenta once every four or five years. Art lovers came to Kassel in their droves and the documenta soon began tackling social issues of the day as well.
Theme of the 1964 event was the world of consumerism, 1972 saw politics play a key role. In 1977 paintings and sculpture were joined by film, photographs and video.
The documenta truly left its mark on the town in 1982 when Germany's Joseph Beuys had 7,000 oak trees planted in Kassel in a symbolic act of afforestation. The documenta courted controversy in 1992 by declaring a shed containing a portable toilet to be a work of art.
As the documenta grew in stature so did many of the artists who exhibited at the show. The works of Beuys were on show at five different documenta events and without the forum in Kassel he would probably never have become such a potently symbolic figure of modern art.
"The Museum for 100 Days", as it became known, helped artists gain recognition but did not always boost their market value. Adding spice to the proceedings down the years has been the ritual selection of the documenta artistic director - a sometimes unexpected choice that has always generated great interest even outside the art world.
For many years the documenta was accused of being pro-Western and some critics saw it as an instrument of Cold War politics. It was not until 1977 that artists from what was then still communist East Germany were allowed to take part - several western contributers removed their works in protest.
In 1997 globalisation was the theme and in 2002 the first non- European artistic director, Nigerian-born Okwui Enwezor, devoted the documenta to the situation in the Third World in the wake of colonialism. More than 650,000 people came to see the show but it was criticised in some quarters as being too politically correct.
For the rather humdrum town of Kassel, which lost much of its regional significance after the postwar division of Germany, the documenta has proved to be much more than just a moneyspinner.
Kassel has earned itself place on the global art map alongside Paris, New York or Duesseldorf even though the townsfolk remained ambivalent about the big event for many years.
In the initial postwar period many local burghers simply could not understand why so much taxpayers's money was being spent on showing "obscure" art. These days Kassel is proud of its artistic heritage and uses its status as the home of the documenta to attract visitors the whole year round.
The townspeople seem genuinely proud of their art show even when they are standing in front of the exhibits scratching their heads in astonishment.
The passing of 50 years will be marked in Kassel with a jubilee exhibition featuring 65 of the 2,000 or so artists who have so far taken part in the event. Among those names who have offered to loan works for the show from September 1 to November 20 this year are such luminaries as Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Joseph Beuys, Richard Hamilton and Claes Oldenburg.
The jubilee show is not meant to be a purely nostalgic revue, say the organisers, but rather a wideranging exhibition which invites visitors to rediscover and reassess works of art past and present.© dpa - Deutsche Presse-Agentur