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by Philipp Oswalt

Bauhaus / documenta: Orders of the Present

Bauhaus and documenta are both globally established brands that represent a liberal, cosmopolitan, innovative and modern Germany, a fact acknowledged far beyond their respective disciplines by a wide international audience. The civilizational catastrophe of National Socialism acts as a frame of reference for both of them. It is an important part of our present-day picture of the Bauhaus that it was closed down by the National Socialists and that a great number of its protagonists were forced into exile. The first documenta, however, builds on this narrative of the avant-garde as a victim of National Socialism, because it stands for a return of the art outlawed by the National Socialists. It explicitly pursued the challenge of contributing, with an artistic re-education of sorts, to the reconstruction of a liberal democratic society. The Bauhaus plays an important role in this educative endeavour.[i] The works of almost a dozen Bauhauslers—students as well as teachers—are shown in the first three documenta exhibitions.[ii] Moreover, the iconography of the first documenta exhibition may be interpreted as a scenographic analogy: the staging of the main staircase in the Fridericianum resembled the scene of the Bauhaus Stairway in the painting that Oskar Schlemmer had painted to mark the closure of the Bauhaus Dessau in 1932.[iii] Also, the typographic designs, such as the lower-case letters and the use of modern sans serif fonts, render connections visible. The original logo of the documenta Archiv[iv] is, furthermore, a variant of the Bauhaus logo of square-triangle-circle in the primary colours red-yellow-blue[v].

Beyond this connection in a cultural narrative, the two projects or institutions would appear at first glance to be fundamentally different: a school for applied design versus an exhibition series of visual art. In spite of these differences, this text pursues the hypothesis that both projects have in some respects a quite fundamental kinship, which, first and foremost, governs their role and impact in the societal discourse. This kinship becomes obvious in the following aspects: first, both projects are heroically articulated attempts to formulate and shape a new beginning after a societal collapse (1919/1945). Moreover, both projects see themselves as explicitly non-elitist in their desire to reach beyond a specialist audience to a wider public. They wish to influence society and in doing so pursue emancipatory goals, which are also accompanied by educational ambitions. Furthermore, both projects are based on a curatorial concept, in which in each case a temporary artistic director develops the overall presentation concept in dialogue with a council of other creative artists (the Bauhaus masters’ council or exhibition committees), which includes a number of heterogeneous and also often renowned artists who enjoy a large degree of autonomy. Finally, both are thus subject to change, which ensures their continuous updating and renewal. While both projects are rooted in locations outside major cities, in places regarded as provincial, they both nonetheless have an exceptional international mass appeal with respect to contributing authors and reception. Proceeding from these cornerstones, the parallels between the two projects may be narrowed down to the following four domains:

Chaos and Order

1919 and 1945 mark societal watersheds in Germany: the reconstruction of society after the defeat and collapse of a monarchistic state on the one hand and a totalitarian state on the other. In the cultural projects of Bauhaus and documenta, change and new beginnings are articulated with great pathos. After the collapse and destruction of the old order, each of the founding fathers[vi]—Walter Gropius and Arnold Bode—seeks to formulate a new world view. During a period of confusion and schisms, dis- and re-orientation, they seek to create a new social order for the modern age. These are at any rate the effective founding myths today, even if, especially in the case of the Bauhaus, and in spite of the avant-garde rhetoric, there are major continuities and lines of tradition on which the projects build.

For Walter Gropius, “The idea of today’s world is already recognisable, its shape still unclear and hazy” (1923).[vii] To actualize this idea and give it coherence was to be the Bauhaus’s task. In 1929, Hannes Meyer, the second Bauhaus director after Gropius, speaks of the artist as “the creator of order”.[viii] This all-encompassing aspiration becomes particularly evident in some of the activities of the Bauhaus. With the Bauhausbücher (Bauhaus Books), László Moholy-Nagy, at the behest of Gropius, seeks to collate and order all the thinking of his time—in science and technology, economics and religion, art and politics. His aim is to give “with the sum of books a genuine overview of the time, our time”.[ix] The same applies to the expansive programme of guest lecturers and lectures at the Bauhaus. Thirty years later for the first documenta, Werner Haftmann speaks of the “visual expression of the contemporary conception of the world” .[x] In modern art, as Haftmann claims in 1959, “The contents, conceptions and aesthetic desires that define contemporary man’s relation to reality and life have found their form."[xi] And this was valid for all peoples worldwide who had achieved self-determination, because “the same way of looking at the world and perceiving reality […] that the modern way of living sustained in science, technology and economics” were condensed in comparable artistic forms of expression. The aim of documenta is “to show this broad development in as comprehensive an exhibition as possible.”[xii] Both the teaching programme of the Bauhaus and the exhibition concepts of documenta thus embody orders of knowledge that, with nigh encyclopedic ambition, inventory, compare and organize the relevant contemporary movements.[xiii]

Inherent to this is the pedagogical ambition to educate and train the modern man. As Walter Gropius states in 1923, in reference to the Bauhaus, “Its responsibility consists in educating people to recognize the basic nature of the world in which they live, and in combining their knowledge with their imagination so to be able to create typical forms that symbolize this world.”[xiv] And his successor Hannes Meyer writes in 1929, “Thus the aim of all bauhaus work is to bring together all vitally creative forces so as to give harmonious shape to our society.”[xv] documenta, too, should, as Werner Haftmann states in 1955, “[…] be of public value. […] Its ideal scenario—admittedly not achieved—would be of great importance to the spiritual wellbeing of the nation.”[xvi] For documenta IV of 1968, its founder Arnold Bode is even more explicit: “Art is also becoming more political, it is contributing to the enrichment and transformation of consciousness. The artists, to date the outsiders of society (Klee: "Uns trägt kein Volk" (We are not supported by a people)) will, we hope, soon stand at its centre to assist in its transformation. […] Information is central for documenta; it is inherent to its educational mission; it is a didactic exhibition.”[xvii] The emancipatory objective of both projects is based on the belief in progress that originates in Western thought, by means of which, through the modern development of culture—including the possibilities of the modern sciences and technologies—art, design and society as a whole evolve to a higher, more progressive stage of development. While the Bauhaus takes a significantly more technological and scientific approach to the modern everyday living, the first three documenta exhibitions, inter alia with the path to abstraction, formulate the narrative of an artistically progressive idea.

Canon and Dissolution

Bauhaus and documenta are “laboratories” in which boundaries are dissolved and the familiar everyday world is abandoned in favour of experimentation with new practices. The boundaries between art and the everyday world become hazy and are at times dismantled. Likewise, the conventional institutional frameworks and the established understanding of roles are abandoned, and new artistic forms of expression and media are introduced[xviii]. These dissolutions of boundaries are public manifestations exemplified by their festive character—the Bauhaus parties on the one hand, and documenta as a “buoyant summer festival”[xix] on the other: both are temporally and spatially limited, playful, often also ostensibly naïve experiments. As catalysts, eccentric figures and radical new thinkers such as Hannes Meyer (Dessau 1927–1930) or Joseph Beuys (Kassel 1964 et seq.) play a major role. The institutional instability, while not always desirable, is pivotal to the radical character and, therefore, success of the experiments. The Bauhaus had to move locations twice over fourteen years and was compelled to re-establish itself each time after its closures in 1925, 1930 and 1932. documenta began as a project that evolved from a loose group in a four- or five-year rhythm, which became constitutive for the constant change of curators from 1968 onward. As Arnold Bode summarised in 1968, “The documenta therefore cannot become a museum, because four-year-old concepts do not have to be implemented a second time.”[xx]

Nonetheless, the dissolution of boundaries is accompanied by a claim to legitimacy that results in a canonisation of creative production. In spite of the protagonists’ commitment to the character of a permanent experiment, both projects have led to new canonisations. Their influence, which is asserted in the reception, is effected not only by size and presence, but also in the coupling of design and theory, production and education, by exhibitions, discourses and publications, that is, in the combination of multiple channels to produce one total experience. This forms a diffuse canon of heterogeneous consistency, without a pre-packaged formula: a collection developed and structured from a subjective-partisan standpoint that assembles contemporary positions and validates them as relevant through presentations in teaching curriculums and events, in publications and exhibitions.

Provincialism and Internationalism

Whether Weimar, Dessau or Kassel, there is a curious contrast between the locations of each institution and their respective presence on the international stage. But it is only in a small city that a major cultural project can shape and redefine its location. Perhaps it is precisely this provincialism that facilitates, even fosters, internationalism. Both institutions rule out a national perspective from the start and form unusual spaces of post-national, international cultural production.[xxi] The participating artists and designers come from numerous countries, in the first instance mainly from Europe, but also from North America and the Far East. The staff of the Bauhaus was unusually international and included teachers from Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, Russia and the USA, later also from the Netherlands, Denmark and Croatia; the student body was even more diverse, with students also from Japan, Palestine, Iran, Turkey, Poland, Lithuania and Czechoslovakia.[xxii] The first documenta in 1955 brought together artists from almost all the European countries; documenta 5 saw an increase in artists from the USA and Japan, who were joined from documenta 9 onward by artists from South America, Africa and Asia. documenta 11 chose its first non-European artistic director, Okwui Enwezor, who then also realised parts of his documenta outside Europe.

The first Bauhaus book published by Walter Gropius in 1925 takes the programmatic title Internationale Architektur (International Architecture). In 1926, Hannes Meyer wrote, “Constructive form is not peculiar to any country; it is cosmopolitan and the expression of an international philosophy of building. Internationality is a prerogative of our time.”[xxiii] Arnold Bode spoke of “world art as a goal”[xxiv] (1968), and earlier still (1964), Werner Haftmann had stated, “The idea of the documenta has a supra-national character. And while this is not always fully appreciated, the documenta is the only exhibition in the world that has absolutely no national ambitions, and rejects any influence from national committees and associations. It is no more than the reflection of the insights of a group of knowledgeable and independent spirits into the nature and state of the contemporary art in the world.”[xxv] Contrary to the claims they make for themselves, both projects are, however, far from universal, but are instead influenced by a European way of thinking and seeing to which they ascribe a universal value. With the concepts of “international architecture” and “world art”, an approach that transcends an a priori progressive, national thought pattern veers into a rash position that is Eurocentric and ignores other perspectives and cultures, which then also proved to be increasingly problematic in the more recent documenta exhibitions.

The combination of internationalism and provincialism is moreover characterised by local tensions. Both cultural projects are largely enclaves of newcomers who are in touch with their local contexts only to a limited degree and who are on the contrary embedded in globalised cultural production. At the Bauhaus, which was in fact founded not entirely from scratch, but from the merger of two existing schools, Walter Gropius quickly divested himself of the teachers there. Also, only a small proportion of the students came from the region.[xxvi] documenta, initially launched by local protagonists in Kassel, largely detached itself from its local networks with Arnold Bode’s departure in 1968.[xxvii] The Bauhaus, at least in its Dessau period, was for a time integrated locally through the making of design products with and for local companies and the city of Dessau[xxviii]; with documenta, this local integration occurs primarily through the influx of visitors from the region.[xxix] The relationships of both cultural institutions to their respective contexts are, however, characterised by a mutual sense of alienation, which is also frequently articulated in critical statements at the local level.

Staged and Attacked

Whether Bauhaus or documenta, both projects invest a significant proportion of their energy and resources into the staging of ideas and works. Their respective founding fathers were outstanding networkers and communicators, who were deeply committed to the effective placement of their respective projects on the public stage. The Bauhaus presented its work from 1923 in a series of exhibitions[xxx] and intensified this practice with the creation of the advertising department in 1928. It is indicative that the first Bauhaus building—the Haus am Horn in Weimar—and the best-known Bauhaus product—the Wagenfeld lamp—were first designed and made for an exhibition. The Bauhaus products are far less oriented towards utility than is generally supposed; rather, they were supposed to symbolically showcase and demonstrate a modern standard of living. And documenta is more than a collection of modern works of art, which for that matter are also increasingly made for the very purpose of being exhibited. For the first documenta exhibitions, Arnold Bode used artworks as materials for realising his scenographic concept, for instance, to create a tension between the contrasting poles of modern art and wartime ruins, or to experiment with spatial arrangements. Irrespective of how dominant a role the scenography plays, this staging—along with the spatial constellation of the overall exhibition, such as Catherine David’s parcours for documenta X, or specific key works—plays a critical role that became an important part of the exhibition experience.

These intended forms of communication are pitted against diverse controversies and conflicts that have had no less influence on the history of the exhibition’s reception.[xxxi] The heterogeneity and polyphony of the positions within the projects on the one hand and their often intentional crossing of boundaries on the other promoted these cultures of dispute. They not only generated public attention, but also sharpened the objectives of the projects. Internal conflicts and external attacks contributed to their reputations, even though the later aggressions also sometimes took on a destructive character. For the Bauhaus, the internal conflicts about the teaching concept, for instance, between spiritual and constructivist ideas, between functionalist and artistic approaches, were just as influential as the political attacks from the right, ongoing since the foundation of the school, which resulted in its repeated closure, for the final time in 1933 by the Nazis. documenta—effectively a flagship of a society that perceives itself as liberated and modern—has to date, despite various attacks, never been effectively endangered; nonetheless, its development has also been influenced and fostered by internal conflicts in the art world, e.g. the protest at the press conference at the opening of documenta IV and public controversies such as Walter de Maria’s The Vertical Earth Kilometer (documenta 6, 1977). It is only in the interplay of planned scenography and unplanned conflict that we see the emergence of the new orders of knowledge, viewed here as important dimensions of both projects.


Although a school for applied arts and crafts and a series of high art exhibitions differ fundamentally from one another, this comparison reveals significant parallels between the two, especially with regard to the social function of each project. Their relevance resides above all in the fact that they offer orientation for a modern society in a globalised world frequently perceived as confusing, in other words, they project orders of the present. In her book Ausstellungen als Wissensordnungen (2013), the art historian Katja Hoffmann has already referred to the role of art in creating order, based on the example of documenta 11:

Exhibitions operate in cultures as organisations of knowledge. They order objects in a specific systematized way. They refer to historically established interpretation models and collect and contextualise objects. They update traditional bodies of knowledge, but on occasion also conceive alternative interpretations of once authoritative knowledge. […] They construct influential interpretations and offer a range of interpretations of historic events.[xxxii]

This ambition does not, however, merely apply to documenta 11; it influenced documenta from 1955 onwards and, in other ways, also the Bauhaus. This ordering function is integral to the social relevance, reception and potency of both projects. The projected orders, however, are not abstract models, but express an approach that pursues the tradition of the European avant-garde and that—despite all inherent contradictions—is indebted to and reproduces, continues and updates its canon of values: the emancipation of society and the individual, the orientation towards new forms of knowledge and technologies, the questioning of traditions, norms and prevailing power relations, the search for the new, etc. The later documenta exhibitions have progressively turned towards the inherent contradictions of this canon of values and expounded on these, without questioning it in toto or abandoning it.

Thanks to Martin Groh, Harald Kimpel and Jan Wenzel for important suggestions and pointers and Birgitt Jooss for her support for a planned joint project on the subject.

Translated from German by Rebecca Philipps Williams

Philipp Oswalt, architect and writer, born in 1964 in Frankfurt am Main (Germany), lives in Berlin. From 1988 to 1994, he worked as editor for the architectural journal Arch+. In 1996/97, he worked for the 'Office for Metropolitan Architecture'/Rem Koolhaas in Rotterdam. Visiting Professor for Design at the Technical University Cottbus (2000-2002), and Professor for Architecture Theory and Design at Kassel University (since 2006), Oswalt won the international competition for the design of the memorial site of the “Former Women’s Concentration Camp Ravensbrück” in 1998 (Phase 1 realized). Initiator and Coordinator of the European Research project ‘Urban Catalysts’ (2001 – 2003) on temporality in urban space, financed by the European Commission (‘City of Tomorrow’ programme). Chief Curator of the international research and exhibition project ‘Shrinking Cities’ for the German cultural foundation (2002 – 2008), and co-curator of Volkspalast 2004 (cultural use of the former Palast der Republik Berlin). From 2009 to 2014, he was director of the Bauhaus Dessau Foundation, and is the co-initiator of project Bauhaus.

[i] In this, documenta follows Ludwig Grote, who as early as 1950 inter alia with his exhibition Maler am Bauhaus in the Haus der Kunst, Munich, boldly built on the time before 1933, and who, by dint of his exhibition politics, had a great influence on the post-war reception of modern art in West Germany. Werner Haftmann refers to him by name in his introduction to the catalogue for documenta 1955: Werner Haftmann, introduction to documenta, kunst des XX. jahrhunderts, Prestel Verlag, Munich, 1955, p. 15. Exhibition catalogue.

[ii] These included Josef Albers (d1, d4), Mordecai Ardon (d2), Max Bill (d1, d3), Lyonel Feininger (d1), Wassily Kandinsky (d1, d2, d3), Paul Klee (d1, d3), Gerhard Marcks (d1, d3), Georg Muche (d1), Oskar Schlemmer (d1, d3) and Fritz Winter (d1, d2, d3).

[iii] Thanks to Harald Kimpel for this reference.

[iv] It was used until March 2017.

[v] The logo was designed by the former director of the archive, Hubertus Gaßner, in 1961. Also, the catalogues of documenta I, II, III, IV and even VIII used the same graphic language.

[vi] Significantly, only fathers can be mentioned here. Apart from a few exceptions in the later Bauhaus years, only men worked as teachers (“masters”) and, in the case of the documenta as well, it took 40 years before the first woman was appointed as artistic director, for documenta X in 1997.

[vii] Walter Gropius, Selected Writings, Vol. 3, Probst /Schädlich, Berlin, 1987. The text begins with the cited passage.

[viii] Hannes Meyer, “bauhaus and society” (1929), in Buildings, Projects, and Writings, , Arthur Niggli Ltd., Teufen, 1965.

[ix] Lázló Moholy-Nagy in a letter to Theo van Doesburg, 26.7.1924, cited in Alain Findeli, “Lázló Moholy-Nagy und das Projekt der Bauhausbücher,” in Das A & O des Bauhauses: Bauhauswerbung: Schriftbilder, Drucksachen, Ausstellungsdesign, Ute Brüning, ed., Bauhaus-Archiv, Leipzig, 1995, p. 24.

[x] Werner Haftmann, introduction to documenta, kunst des XX. Jahrhunderts, p. 18.

[xi] Werner Haftmann, introduction to Malerei nach 1945, II. documenta ’59. Kunst nach 1945, M. DuMont Schauberg, Cologne, 1959, p. 12. Exhibition catalogue, Vol. 1.

[xii] Ibid., p. 15.

[xiii] This interpretation emerges in the discussion in the scope of a workshop on 6.12.2016 in the documenta Archiv with author Peter Bernhard and Martin Groh, Annemarie Hürlimann, Birgit Jooss, Harald Kimpel, Annette Kulenkampff and Jan Wenzel. Coming into play are references to Michel Foucault, Die Ordnung der Dinge, Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main, 1971 (Les mots et les choses, 1966). The author subsequently came across the dissertation of Katja Hoffmann, who had previously put forward such a hypothesis for documenta 11, which is discussed towards the end.

[xiv] Walter Gropius, “Idee und Entwicklung des Staatlichen Bauhauses zu Weimar” (1923), in Amtsblatt des Thüringischen Ministeriums für Volksbildung of 24 January 1923, No. 1, 1923, reprinted in Wahl, Volker: Das Staatliche Bauhaus in Weimar. Dokumente zur Geschichte des Instituts 1919-1926, published by the Historische Kommission für Thüringen (Große Reihe, Vol. 15), Böhlau, Cologne 2009, 280–288 (English translation from Hans Wingler, Bauhaus, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1969).

[xv] Hannes Meyer, “bauhaus and society.”

[xvi] documenta, kunst des XX. jahrhunderts, p. 18.

[xvii] Arnold Bode, “documentadocumenta,” in documenta 4, Druck + Verlag GmbH, Kassel, 1968, p. 12. Exhibition catalogue.

[xviii] Exemplary for the Bauhaus: the foundation of the photography workshop in 1929; for documenta: Fluxus, happenings, the art of the mentally ill and non-art at documenta 5 (1972).

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid., p. 13.

[xxi] This occurs under different conditions and to some extent with clear instances of ambivalence. On the one hand, documenta explicitly rejects a national perspective, as shown here; on the other, it is also to be understood as a national re-education project for post-war German society. Significantly, the President of the Federal Republic of Germany is the patron of the first three documenta exhibitions.

[xxii] In 1929, 30 of the 170 students were foreigners. See advertising leaflet of the Bauhaus Dessau: Junge Menschen kommt ans Bauhaus, 1929, p. 44.

[xxiii] Hannes Meyer, “The New World,” in Buildings, Projects, and Writings, Teufen A/R Schweiz, Arthur Niggli Ltd., 1965.

[xxiv] Arnold Bode, documenta 4, p. 12.

[xxv] Werner Haftmann, introduction to documenta III. Internationale Ausstellung, Vol. 1: Malerei und Skulptur, M. DuMont Schauberg, Kassel/Cologne 1964, p. 17.

[xxvi] In 1929, just 8 of 170 students at the Bauhaus Dessau came from Anhalt, i.e., less than 5%. See advertising leaflet of the Bauhaus Dessau: Junge Menschen kommt ans Bauhaus, p. 44.

[xxvii] See Philipp Oswalt, Carola Ebert et al., DocumentaEFFECTS: Was macht die Documenta mit der Stadt?, ISP Fachbereich ASL, Kassel, 2007, p. 24 et seq. Catalogue and audio guide.

[xxviii] In doing so, however, the Bauhaus entered into competition with local architects, which led to new conflicts. See in this regard especially Walter Scheiffele, Bauhaus, Junkers, Sozialdemokratie: Ein Kraftfeld der Moderne, Form + Zweck, Berlin, 2003.

[xxix] At documenta 12, there were some 100,000 visitors from the region, approximately 14% of the total. See, for example, “Documenta 12 endet mit Besucherrekord," Der Tagesspiegel, 25 Sept. 2007. http://www.tagesspiegel.de/kultur/documenta-12-endet-mit-besucherrekord/1051376.html

[xxx] Bauhausausstellung Weimar 1923, Bauhausbauten Dessau 1926 as a building exhibition, Wanderausstellung 10 Jahre Bauhaus 1929/30, German section of the Salon des artistes décorateurs, Paris 1930, Deutsche Bauausstellung Berlin 1931, etc.

[xxxi] See, Philipp Oswalt, ed., Bauhaus-Conflicts: 1919–2009; Controversies and Counterparts, Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2009; Harald Kimpel, Aversion, Akzeptanz: öffentliche Kunst und öffentliche Meinung: Ausseninstallationen aus documenta-Vergangenheit, Jonas, Marburg, 1992.

[xxxii] Katja Hoffmann, Ausstellungen als Wissensordnungen. Zur Transformation des Kunstbegriffs auf der Documenta 11, transcript, Bielefeld 2013, p. 13.

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Issue 33

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