On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Bauhaus, a project with four facets was developed in Kassel in order to examine the two best-known German cultural brands of the 20th century — Bauhaus and documenta — in parallel. In addition to an exhibition at Neue Galerie in Kassel devoted to the theme of »Vision and Brand« (May 23 – September 8, 2019), a symposium dealing with the question »Never been modern? Bauhaus and documenta in true affinity« (June 14 – 15, 2019), and a comprehensive accompanying book, the virtual exhibition explores the question: »How much Bauhaus is in documenta?«



Taking an art-historical approach, the investigation traces the extent to which the first four documenta exhibitions referred to or were influenced by the Bauhaus. The most important participants, the institutions involved, the exhibited works, the understanding of art, and the visual identity of documenta are explored.


In 1955, documenta picked up on both historical and contemporary developments in art. After the experiences of World War II, one of the main concerns was to rejoin international modernism. As a result, the exhibition organizers eagerly absorbed all the ideas they found in concepts from the period before National Socialism as well as in international postwar modernism.

The Bauhaus was ideally suited as a reference, as it enabled the rehabilitation of art ostracized by the National Socialists and at the same time stood for international art. It was closed by the National Socialists in 1933, and many of its protagonists had to go into exile. Thus, documenta was able to participate in the rebuilding of a liberal democratic society through a kind of artistic re-education.

At the first four documenta exhibitions, around 300 works by 17 Bauhaus artists—students and teachers—were on display, some of them very prominently located. In addition, the typographical designs, including the use of small letters and modern grotesque typefaces, also reveal similarities between Bauhaus and documenta.

Arnold Bode, the founder of documenta, was not an art historian, theoretician, or author, but a designer, artist, and art educator. As a doer, he thought visually and not in terms. He gladly took existing ideas—including those of the Bauhaus—and adapted them for his own concepts. His approach was unacademic and ahistorical, as one of his widow’s memories illustrates:  »Yes, Klee and Kandinsky fascinated him most of all at the time, especially all the Bauhaus people, particularly Schlemmer. The whole idea inspired him, including the architecture.«

For Bode, the Bauhaus represented an idea, a myth, even a brand with positive connotations that ideally suited his own interests and underpinned them. He did not distinguish between the various emphases of the former art school and the different concepts of Walter Gropius, Hannes Meyer, and Mies van der Rohe. Even a distinction between Bauhaus and Werkbund remained diffuse in his statements.

While Bode advocated equal rights for fine and applied arts at documenta from the very outset, which, however, was never realized due to a lack of time and money, his theoretical companion Werner Haftmann stood for an unconditional orientation towards abstract modernism. In view of the propaganda art of National Socialism and Socialist Realism in the Eastern Bloc, both were concerned with asserting individualized approaches. Hence they did not explicitly refer to specific art movements, not even to the Bauhaus as a school. Instead, they emphasized individual positions of individual artists, including Bauhaus artists. They viewed their works as contributions to the overarching cultural progress that led to abstraction, the most progressive and simultaneously most universal form of artistic articulation.


From a critical point of view, however, the question arises whether the early documenta exhibitions, with their traditional understanding of art, lagged far behind the media and conceptual experiments and offerings of the Bauhaus.

After the Bode/Haftmann era ended, the Bauhaus no longer played a role for documenta. It was only recently that Bauhaus works appeared again as historical references or were appropriated and ironically transformed. An example of this is the work »Dog Run« by the Canadian artist Brian Jungen at documenta 13. In 2012, he used Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Chair to furnish a dog playground, which was regarded as a critical comment on the fetishization of the Bauhaus heritage.


Birgit Jooss