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Martin Groh

Bauhaus artists at the first documenta, 1955

Although at the first documenta the Bauhaus was not mentioned by name, as one of the essential »group movements« that had shaped the development of art during the first half of the century in Europe, Bauhaus artists were nevertheless astonishingly present.

Numerous works by ten Bauhaus artists, including such famous teachers as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Oskar Schlemmer, as well as their students, including Max Bill, Werner Gilles and Fritz Winter, were on view. At the first documenta, Arnold Bode assigned the Bauhaus artists many favorable positions in the exhibition spaces.

documenta was originally conceived by Arnold Bode as an event accompanying the National Garden Showin Kassel’s Karlsaue from April to October 1955.

The first documenta had three main sections: first, the group movements of twentieth-century modern art from Fauvism and Expressionism to Cubism and Surrealism; second, the art of the so-called »masters of the older generation,« who came to prominence especially in the interwar years; and third, an overview of the situation of contemporary art of younger artists.

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The documenta counted artist associations such as »Die Brücke«, »Der Blaue Reiter«, and »De Stijl« among the group movements that had shaped the development of art during the first half of the century in Europe, but not the Bauhaus school. Nevertheless, the exhibition presented ten Bauhaus artists, among them such famous teachers as Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, and Oskar Schlemmer, but also artists who had been students at the Bauhaus, including Max Bill, Werner Gilles, and Fritz Winter.

Besides much praise, experts also criticized the exhibition program: An overview of international developments in Europe must necessarily remain fragmentary, they said. Ludwig Grote, whose exhibitions of the Blaue Reiter and painters at the Bauhaus in 1949 and 1950 clearly marked individual positions in German art, had done better. Grote had lauded the Bauhaus as »Germany's most important and influential cultural act« in the twentieth century and above all had conjured up the common convictions of the Bauhaus artists.


Werner Haftmann, Arnold Bode’s most important art-theoretical advisor for the first three documenta exhibitions, on the other hand, clearly classified the Bauhaus artists in a hierarchy. He rated Kandinsky and Klee as ingenious, Schlemmer and Lyonel Feininger as »simpler spirits,« while other Bauhaus teachers such as Georg Muche, Josef Albers, and others were thought to be only concerned with applied art and for this reason ranked at the lower end of his scale. He saw the legacy of the Bauhaus consisting in the fact that it had laid the foundation for modern art education.#a.

The rotunda in the museum Fridericianum with sculptures by Wilhelm Lehmbruck, in the back the painting "Fünfzehnergruppe" (1929) by Oskar Schlemmer, first documenta, 1955
© documenta archiv / Photo: Günther Becker

Haftmann’s narrow definition and distinction between higher, classical genres, such as painting and sculpture on the one hand, and merely applied art on the other, prevailed at documenta. This is also evident from the fact that among the total of 17 Bauhaus artists at the first documenta to the third, famous representatives such as Johannes Itten, László Moholy-Nagy, Hannes Meyer, Marianne Brandt, and Marcel Breuer were missing.

Arnold Bode assigned the Bauhaus artists many central positions in the exhibition spaces at the first documenta. He showed Klee and Schlemmer in the rotunda and in the stairway of the Museum Fridericianum. They were grouped around the sculptures of Wilhelm Lehmbruck, as a prelude, so to speak, to documenta's documentation of the roots of contemporary art.

Painting by Paul Klee in a room didicated to him
located in the back of the rotunda of the museum Fridericianum
first documenta, 1955.
© documenta / Photo: unknown

The rotunda in the first floor of the museum Fridericianum with paintings by Oskar Schlemmer, first documenta, 1955
© documenta archiv / Foto: Günther Becker

The rotunda in the museum Fridericianum with paintingy by Oskar Schlemmer, first documenta, 1955
© documenta archiv / Photo: Günther Becker

Painting by Paul Klee in a room didicated to him
located in the back of the rotunda of the museum Fridericianum
first documenta, 1955. The sculpture was made by Wilhelm Lehmbruck, the sketch on the right by Otto Meyer-Amden
© documenta archiv / Photo: Günther Becker

© documenta archiv / Photo: Werner Lengemann

Kandinsky even had his own room on the first floor of the Fridericianum. From the cabinets with the Expressionists one could look directly at his painting »Yellow-Red-Blue« from 1925, the climax of his »cool period« at the Bauhaus in Weimar, hung in front of a black wall.


On the ground floor, Bode placed Max Bill’s 1937 sculpture »Construction« demonstratively on a flat, black square plinth in the middle of the room, so that one had to pass by the work if one wanted to enter the central sculpture hall behind it. In this way, a programmatically important work — it was a prime example of Bill's definition of the relationship between sculpture and space based on mathematics and technology — was once again given a striking location.

Josef Albers’ glass work »Window« hung diagonally behind Bill’s work on the wall between two windows. It was one of Albers’ most well-known cameo glass works. He had made it during his stint as a master craftsman for glass at the Bauhaus in Dessau.

The Bauhaus student Fritz Winter, who participated in Paul Klee’s painting class in Dessau, was given a particularly prominent spot. For Werner Haftmann, Klee was the central link between figuration and abstraction in German and European painting. He saw Winter as strongly influenced by Klee's power and therefore also put this artist at the interface to modern art.

Bode staged Winter’s »Komposition vor Blau und Gelb (Composition in Front of Blue and Yellow)«, expressly created for the first documenta, at one end of the large painting hall on the first floor of the Fridericianum. The large-format work, similar to a mural, hung here as an abstract counterpart, so to speak, to Picasso, whose famous painting »Girl Before a Mirror« from 1932 adorned the other end of the hall.


The painting "Komposition vor Blau und Gelb" (1955) by Fritz Winter at the eastern front wall of the "großer Malereisaal" (bid painting room) in the museum Fridericianum, first documenta, 1955
© documenta archiv / Photo: Günther Becker / Fritz-Winter-Haus, Ahlen

The other Bauhaus artists at the first documenta, Lyonel Feininger, Werner Gilles, Gerhard Marcks, and Georg Muche, were represented on the first floor of the Fridericianum with works from various creative phases of their lives. Finally, Arnold Bode had installed a wall in the rotunda of the Fridericianum with large-format photo tableaus of famous and groundbreaking architecture, including buildings by Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

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Georg Muche: Fließendes Rot (Kompositon vor blauem Grund) (1916),
shown at the first documenta, 1955 with the title "Nr.7 (Komposition vor blauem Grund)"
© Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin / Photo: Kunstmuseen Krefeld - Volker Döhne - ARTOTHEK

Werner Gilles: Ikarus (around 1930),
shown at the first documenta, 1955
© documenta archiv / Photo: Erich Müller / Bildarchiv Foto Marburg / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019


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