Birgit Jooss

Arnold Bode’s first plan for documenta: art across national and genre borders

Arnold Bode had a much more comprehensive plan for his first documenta than was realized in the end. In addition to painting and sculpture, he wanted to offer his audience architecture, design, photography, film, music, literature, theater, lectures, and much more.

The wide variety of artistic genres and the presentation of contemporary arts also referred to practices at the Bauhaus. But financial bottlenecks and a lack of time impeded his wishes. Still, in his early plans in 1953 he mentioned the »Bauhaus circle« as decisive for the presentation of works from Germany.

With his exposé of an exhibition in Kassel in 1955 entitled »European Art of the Twentieth Century,« in 1953 Arnold Bode presented an astonishing program for the first documentathat went far beyond the later exhibition. In addition to painting and sculpture, he envisaged other art forms. There was talk of architecture, new forms, new materials, evening music, literary events, lectures, and theater performances.

Impressed by the methods of presentation for a large Pablo Picasso exhibition that Arnold Bode had seen in 1953 at the war-damaged Palazzo Reale in Milan, he wanted to realize an international exhibition at Museum Fridericianum in Kassel, which had not yet been rebuilt after World War II. He had been campaigning for this since 1946.

The »Bundesgartenschau (National Garden Show)« planned for Kassel in 1955 finally offered the prospect of the realization of and financial support for the exhibition Letters from Bode to the Lord Mayor of Kassel, Lauritz Lauritzen, and the Prime Minister of Hesse, Georg-August Zinn, are proof of this. In the exposé, probably written at the end of 1953, and the so-called Bode Plan, penned shortly thereafter, Arnold Bode explained his intentions and named individual artists and groups of artists:

more about Arnold Bode
Index: Persons
more about the first documenta
Index: Organziations
In other words, the exhibition is to show only masters whose significance for the present is undeniable according to the strictest selection, each with a few decisive works of the latest quality. (...) For Germany: the Brücke circle, the Bauhaus circle, and the New Generation.

Arnold Bode: exposé on an exhibition in Kassel in 1955, »European Art of the Twentieth Century,« end of 1953, docA, AA, d01, folder 9, 83–85

The revised exposé for the Lord Mayor included a further addition to the title, which read: »And presentations in the context of the National Garden Show in Kassel.« Thus, it decidedly alluded to the manifold artistic genres and presentation of contemporary arts:

The decisive new aspect of such an event would be that it would not, as is generally the case, show one or more artistic genres in their current stage of development, but the remarkable aim of this event would be to make the roots of contemporary artistic creation visible in all essential fields.

Arnold Bode: exposé on an exhibition in Kassel in 1955, »European Art of the Twentieth Century,« and presentations in the context of the National Garden Show in 1955 in Kassel, docA, AA, d01, folder 20, 6–9

Subsequently, the draft listed the individual genres: The »fine arts« should be represented equally by architecture, painting, graphic art, and sculpture, in order to provide an overview of the »manifestations of the European spirit.« In the »Poetry and Drama« section, modern epics, poetry, and drama would come to bear. The »Music« section would be devoted to contemporary musical production.

Another section was to be devoted to »industrial form« and the »new home« in order to provide information about current lifestyles. Finally, »decisive« domestic and foreign productions were envisaged in the »film« category. The plan was ambitious: Visual art was to be presented across both national and genre borders.

But the plan could not be implemented to this extent. documenta at the Fridericianum concentrated on painting and sculpture2/9. The exhibition had a foundation due to the fact that archaic artworks from all times and continents were shown as photo reproductions in the entrance hall, as well as photographic portraits of artists#b, and examples of New Building from 1905 to 1955#c. The photographs were not works of art in their own right, but were to be understood as documentary evidence.

An overall artistic approach, as Bode had wished, was therefore not realized in the 1955 documenta. And after all, the contemporary arts found a place at the Staatstheater Kassel with the »Week of Modern Theater« and in the Film-Palast with the series »Film Documents from 40 Years.« As parallel events staged by other Kassel institutions, they were not part of the core of the documenta.

The orientation to »industrial form and new living« mentioned in the exposé was not realized at all. It can be assumed that Bode—In contrast to his art-historical advisor Werner Haftmann2/9 — would have liked to measure himself against the designers, trade fair architects, and experimenters of Constructivism and the Bauhaus. Arnold Bode finally implemented these ideas at Frankfurt's Göppinger gallery#h.

The realization of the first documenta had been questionable until the end, and finally the basic idea of a show with the character of a Gesamtkunstwerk could not be implemented. Money and time were lacking. And so the makers concentrated on the academic genres of painting and sculpture. Neither photography nor film—both important genres—were present at the Bauhaus. The position of Johannes Itten and the kinetic art of László Moholy-Nagy, both decisive Bauhaus ideologues who were not integrated into the presentation of the following documenta exhibitions, were also missing.

The first documenta was a tremendous success. Walter Gropius, the former director of the Bauhaus, is said to have praised it based on an unconfirmed anecdote:

An elderly gentleman, very much a personality, says loudly and in a refined manner in the exhibition to his companions: ›The exhibition is very praiseworthy.‹ Whereupon another gentleman in the immediate vicinity contacted me: ›I am delighted to hear that. My name is Arnold Bode. I am the interior designer.‹
The first gentleman says: ›Pleased to meet you, my name is Gropius.‹
Professor Bode could not have wished for a more authoritative judgment.

Friedrich Herbordt: »100 000 sahen die ›documenta,‹«
in Hessische Nachrichten, September 15, 1955

If you would like to contribute, do not hesitate to e-mail us.