Documenta exhibition explores how politics and art intertwined in post-war Germany

·2-min read
"Documenta: Politics and Art" looks back at the first 10 editions of the prestigious German art event, Documenta.

In some ways, museums are like history's storytellers, not only of the objects in their collections, but also of the countries in which they are located. The Deutsches Historisches Museum is looking back at the era of Germany's rehabilitation after the Second World War in a new exhibition, focusing in particular on the role of the five-yearly contemporary art event, Documenta.

With the 15th edition of the show due to be held in 2022, "Documenta: Politics and Art" examines how politics influenced one of the most popular arts events in Germany. Visitors to the exhibition are transported back to 1955, when Documenta was first held in the ruined city of Kassel.

The country was moving on from post-war hardship, and on its way to becoming a major economic power. In this context, Theodor Heuss's government also wanted to make Germany a global cultural force. "You can't make culture with politics, but maybe you can make politics with culture," said the former West German president in the years preceding the inaugural edition of Documenta.

The fair hoped to show the world that Germany had drawn a line under the Nazi era. The organizers of the first edition decided to focus on modern art, which the Nazis had labelled "degenerate" and banned from museums. But these good intentions hid a darker reality, as "Documenta: Politics and Art" shows.

Drawing a line under Nazism

Indeed, almost half of the team that organized the first Documenta had formerly been members of the Nazi Party, the Sturmabteilung (SA) or the Schutzstaffel (SS). Among them was Werner Haftmann, whose links to the Nazi party and war crimes in Italy were recently revealed by the historian Carlo Gentile. According to Dr Raphael Gross, Haftmann's ideological convictions had a direct impact on the artistic vision of the four Documenta events he directed. "It was no coincidence that works by murdered Jewish artists had no place in the image of modernism as Haftmann chose to stage it," explains the president of the Deutsches Historisches Museum.

"Documenta: Politics and Art" features paintings by the German Jewish painter Rudolf Levy and other artists who were victims of the Holocaust. They are presented alongside emblematic works from the first 10 editions of the exhibition, by Joseph Beuys, the Guerrilla Girls, Seraphine Louis, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Fritz Winter. The last part of the exhibition is dedicated to three artworks that Loretta Fahrenholz created especially for the Deutsches Historisches Museum, informed by her artistic research on Documenta.

"Each Documenta was accompanied by promises that were not kept. Yet all the greater were the demands made of the next Documenta. Driven by this dynamic, Documenta never ceased to be a political arena that owed its exciting atmosphere in part to the competition between different forces,'' note the exhibition curators Dr Lars Bang Larsen, Prof. Dr Julia Voss and Prof. Dr Dorothee Wierling.

"Documenta: Politics and Art" runs until January 9 at Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.

Caroline Drzewinski

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