Harald Kimpel

Werner Haftmann, the gray eminence of documenta

documenta was the invention of Arnold Bode, but it has always been the result of a collective effort. The most successful academic consultant for documenta 1 to 3 was the renowned art writer Werner Haftmann in those days. His theses on the evolution of art in the twentieth century — in which the Bauhaus played an important role — shaped the art-historical statements of the early exhibitions.

Supported by documenta’s image of objectivity, abstraction was to be established as an internationally binding »world language.« In 1964, the gray eminence of the documenta, together with Arnold Bode, was awarded the Goethe Plaque of the Hessian state government for his merits in this respect.

In 1964 Arnold Bode and Werner Haftmann received the Goethe Plaque of the Hessian state government. The photo shows (from left to right) minister Ernst Schütte with Arnold Bode and Werner Haftmann at the award ceremony in Kassel city hall.
© documenta archiv / Photographer unknown

Although it is the result of collective efforts, each documenta is highly personalized. In public perception, it is equated with its artistic direction. This was already and especially true of the first documenta, which is usually reduced to Arnold Bode as the founder and sole initiator of the exhibition series1/9.

While the invention of documenta would be unthinkable without Arnold Bode, its realization would not have been possible without Werner Haftmann. As the most important art-historical advisor, he shaped the first three exhibitions in Kassel.

Bode took advantage of Haftmann’s prestige and theses, while Haftmann used documenta 1955 to visualize his ideas about history. The previous year he had published his standard work on »Painting in the 20th Century«: a programmatic »history of the development of art« since the end of the nineteenth century.

His core thesis emphasizes the »immensely consistent« replacement of the »reproductive« by an »evocative« reference to reality. What is meant is the »undoubtedly very uninterrupted development« from a practice depicting the visible to a practice making the invisible visible, which leads to the ideal of »world art.«

For Bode’s vision of »reconnecting« with the avant-garde movements of the first half of the century, which were essentially represented by the Bauhaus, Haftmann was the right man:

We will have to reconnect with Bauhaus ideas if a fundamental modern art education is to be resurrected at schools and academies. 

»Nicht nach der Natur, sondern wie die Natur. Die Maler des Bauhauses,« In Die Zeit, May 25, 1950.

His continuity thinking was also welcome because it downplayed National Socialist cultural barbarism as a »very strange case of iconoclasm« without consequences.

By making his developmental theses those of the early Kassel documenta exhibitions, he had the opportunity to illustrate his historical conception with real works of art. The developmental history published in 1954 without illustrations can therefore be seen as the actual catalog for the first documenta.

In Haftmann’s aesthetic theory of evolution, the »comradeship« of the Bauhaus plays a central role, as »a very vibrant organism of extreme vigilance and receptiveness« and »an unified center of action« for Germany on the European path to abstraction. He also paid tribute to the main representatives in other publications. Leading figures such as Oskar Schlemmer, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Lyonel Feininger could not be missing at the first documenta2/9.

more about Oskar Schlemmer
Index: People
more about Paul Klee
Index: People
more about Wassily Kandinsky
Index: People
more about Lyonel Feininger
Index: People

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