Harald Kimpel

»A pantheon of superior men«: Bauhaus artists in photo portraits

The artist is present: This standard formula of almost every exhibition opening also applied to the first documenta in 1955 in several respects. Arnold Bode had staged the photographic portraits of 45 participants in a programmatic collective monument. The monument was placed in the corrido, directly behind the entrance hall of the Museum Fridericianum.

Integrated into the exhibition’s argumentation, the expressive character heads — among them five Bauhaus artists — looking seriously at the audience. They were supposed to convey the seriousness of the aesthetic concerns of the avant-garde in the first half of the twentieth century.

The first documenta first documenta not only showed works of art, but also artists2/9.

Right behind the entrance hall of the Fridericianum , on the perforated wall opposite the half rotunda, Arnold Bode brought together 45 exhibition participants in the form of black-and-white portrait photographs of approx. 90 x 70 cm. They were shown against a black background in strict order, but in an unsystematic sequence. Some of the portraits extended into the corridor on freestanding metal plates on both sides. As with the photo walls of the historic prelude in the foyer and the architectural illustrations in the upper semicircle, the motifs of this striking monument were also reproduced from common illustrated books.

The Bauhaus masters Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, and Oskar Schlemmer, as well as the Bauhaus students Fritz Winter and Gerhard Marcks, were interspersed in the parade of serious minds.

more about first documenta
Index: Organizations
more about Arnold Bode
Index: People
more about Paul Klee
Index: People
more about Lyonel Feininger
Index: People
more about Oskar Schlemmer
Index: People
more about Fritz Winter
Index: People
more about Gerhard Marcks
Index: People

Ingeborg Sello: Portrait Fritz Winter, 1953
© Deutsches Kunstarchiv im Germanischen Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg / Photo: Ingeborg Sello

unknown photographer: Portrait Oskar Schlemmer
© documenta archiv

Zehrer: Portrait Gerhard Marcks, 1935
© Deutsches Kunstarchiv im Germanischen Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg / Photo: Zehrer

Paula Stockmar: Paul Klee, October 2016
© Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern

Unknown Photographer: Lyonel Feininger

The silent gathering of dignified physiognomies was more than a decorative addition to Arnold Bode’s scenography. Its central position in the building signalized its significance for the exhibition’s argumentation framework. The Gallery of Outstanding Counterfeits was an exhibit that gave the audience a conclusion during their tour and on the way home. It served as an educational aid for one of the primary cultural-political mediation intentions of the first documenta: the »recall« of those artists who a few years earlier had been defamed in Germany as degenerate, mentally disturbed and criminal.

Under the suspicion that the animosities against the aesthetic practices of modernism could still be virulent ten years after the change in political conditions, documenta 1955 erected a heroic collective monument to the loners of twentieth-century art. Looking down on the public in a larger-than-life manner, the individuals were supposed to counteract fascist discrediting methods through the seriousness of their character heads with their expressive facial landscapes and bourgeois clothing.

In order to rehabilitate the hostile artistic strategies, the exhibition made a pathetic commitment to the external appearance of its creators. The impregnation of West German postwar society with the principles of the new art world image conjured up by Werner Haftmann took place under the supervision of those who had designed it during the first half of the century#a.

Contemporary press reactions showed that the message was understood. An example:

It is a pantheon of superior men, of truly spiritual ›minds,‹ and no impartial person will deny the seriousness and incorruptibility of their will and achievements. 

Hermann Goern: Kunst als Abenteuer des Geistes.
In Neue Zeit [DDR], September 30, 1955

Wall with portrait photographs of artists, Fridericianum, first documenta, 1955

© documenta archiv / Photo: Günther Becker

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