drucken Bookmark and Share

by Susanne König

documenta in Kassel and the Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung in Dresden: A German-German History of Interrelations

This essay compares the origins of the first documenta exhibition in Kassel in 1955 with the first great postwar exhibition in the Soviet Occupation Zone (German initials: SBZ), the 1946 Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung (General German Art Exhibition) in Dresden. Due to the ideological and geopolitical divisions between Eastern and Western Germany, the history of German art in the 20th century has not always been viewed as a German-German history. This is attested by exhibitions and catalogues which, although supposedly dedicated to 20th-century German art, in fact merely discuss the art of the West.[1] My approach here, in contrast, recognizes the intertwined character of the histories of the two Germanys and thus subscribes to a methodological approach in contemporary history that acknowledges the impossibility to study the one without the other.[2] Accordingly, I concede, the exhibition practices in the two sister states cannot be fully understood in isolation from one another. This insight is especially important with regard to the documenta series, which has always been understood as a cultural and political platform directed at the East. In the following, I will argue that the basic practices and concepts of these two series of exhibitions held in the two German “front-line states” of the Cold War were interrelated in many ways despite the opposition between world views and ideologies.[3]

By the time documenta first opened its doors in Kassel to a total of 130,000 visitors on the occasion of the first National Garden Show in 1955, the former Soviet Occupation Zone had already witnessed three editions of the Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung in Dresden since 1946 (fig.1–4). Both shows followed similar objectives: the rehabilitation of modern art that had been banned by the Nazis plus an overview of the latest art trends.[4] A comparison of the exhibition locations shows Dresden in particular to be the best choice for rehabilitation, as the first exhibition of the Degenerate Art tour had taken place here in 1933.[5] The Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung took place in the Town Hall, in the building at Nordplatz in Dresden-Neustadt/Alberstadt, concurrently with the exhibition Das Neue Dresden (The New Dresden), on the reconstruction of the city. Like Dresden, Kassel too was a historically significant place. Owing to its central location, it had been not only a German railway hub, but a centre of the armaments industry as well. During the war, 80% of the building stock was destroyed, and because of its newly marginal location the city had greater difficulty in recovering compared with other German cities. The Federal Garden Show consequently came to this city primarily as a stimulus for economic development.[6] Its former arms industry made Kassel a particularly suitable place for rehabilitation. The two important major exhibitions in East and West thus took place not in central German art metropolises like Berlin, Cologne, or Munich, but rather on the outskirts, as it were, in Kassel and Dresden. By 1955, however, ten years after the end of the Second World War the first Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung had already developed into a series of exhibitions occurring every three to five years, while the first documenta nine years later did not assure continuation of the exhibition every four or five years yet. Despite these differences in timing, it is nevertheless worthwhile comparing the two exhibitions, which would become influential series of recurring exhibitions, due to their significant political, conceptual, and organisational parallels that I describe in the following.

Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung (General German Art Exhibition), Dresden, 1946: Exhibition poster, Photograph @ Michael Bollé, Helen Adkins ed., Berlinische Galerie: Stationen der Moderne – Die bedeutenden Kunstausstellungen des 20. Jahrhunderts in Deutschland, Berlinische Galerie, Nicolai, Berlin, 1988, p. 352.

Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung (General German Art Exhibition), Dresden, 1946: Exhibition view, Photograph @ Museen der Stadt Dresden, Stadtmuseum Dresden


Cultural Political Agendas

Exhibition activities in Germany resumed surprisingly soon after the German surrender on 8 May 1945. The Hamburger Kunsthalle, for example, opened as early as 2 December 1945 with the exhibition Masterpieces of the Kunsthalle: Painting of the 17th and 19th Centuries in the improvised rooms of the art dealer Louis Bock & Sohn.[7] Located in the Soviet Occupation Zone, Dresden at this time was under the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SMAD). In line with a very liberal arts and cultural policy, the aim of the SMAD was to convince bourgeois citizens and intelligentsia in the Soviet Occupation Zone, as well as in the Western zones, of the superiority of the socialist model of society. At the time, openness and tolerance characterised the practice of Soviet cultural officers and the German cultural officials in the Soviet Zone. Their goal was to build a united socialist Germany under Soviet hegemony.[8]

Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung (General German Art Exhibition), Dresden, 1946: Exhibition view, Photograph @ Museen der Stadt Dresden, Stadtmuseum Dresden

Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung (General German Art Exhibition), Dresden, 1946: Exhibition view, Photograph @ Museen der Stadt Dresden, Stadtmuseum Dresden

The Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung was to take stock of modern and contemporary art in all of Germany during the 20th century, while other exhibitions in the Soviet Zone featured mainly local and regional artists.[9] As with many postwar exhibitions, the activity in this exhibition aimed at rehabilitating art that had been ostracized under National Socialism. For political reasons, banned art became a mark of quality and was considered as worthy of exhibition per se. The exhibition was to “send powerful artistic impulses throughout the entire country”[10] and thereby inspire future art trends. Instead of calling for a radically new beginning, the exhibition was to integrate and build on artistic traditions prior to National Socialism. It was characterized by a practice of a pluralism of styles, with the aim to allow for liberal and free artistic creativeness. In both the Eastern and Western zones of occupation, “being free” meant that artistic work could develop without political regulation and thus free of fascist, militaristic, and anti-democratic ideologies. In the Soviet Zone, notably, concepts such as humanism, democracy, and anti-fascism were not only widely used in spoken and written language, but in some cases used synonymously with socialism.[11]

Rather than forcing a break with the past, the Cultural Alliance sought to resume a continuous development of German culture without disruptions, a culture whose humanistic heritage had supposedly merely briefly been interrupted during the National Socialists’ regime. This intention was reflected by the Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung’s concept of displaying the works of the Classical Moderns not only for the sake of their rehabilitation, but also to demonstrate the continuity of this tradition. The exhibitions were accordingly promoted as re-education and democratisation measures, since “genuine art [can] become an important means of political education”.[12] The ideologically charged nationalist concept of “German art” was left unquestioned, though it should be noted that the West also referred to many exhibitions in this unconsidered way.[13]

Like the Dresden exhibition of 1946, the 1955 documenta focussed on modern art of the first half of the 20th century. [14] Here, too, the point was to build on the prewar tradition of modern art to rehabilitate art banned by the National Socialists. A major difference between the two concepts was the national scope of modern and contemporary art in Dresden as opposed to an international orientation in Kassel. With his list of artists, the exhibition organiser Arnold Bode’s goal was to demonstrate international solidarity and thereby underscore affiliation with the West. In his account of the first exhibition, Bode initially only formulated a desire for an autonomous exhibition: “The point of the exhibition is to display only masters whose importance for the present is indisputable following strict selection criteria, with a few crucial works by each artist of the highest quality. […] This consistent one-sidedness alone should enable this exhibition to stir the greatest interest”. [15] Later Bode would call attention to the geo-political context of documenta’s cultural-political argument: “Kassel is the German city predestined for such an exhibition. Kassel lies near the border between the zones, was very much destroyed in the war and is very actively engaged in reconstruction. Manifesting the idea of Europe in an art exhibition thirty kilometres from the zone border is an exemplary act”. [16] A request for support to the Federal Ministry for All-German Affairs accordingly described Kassel as a “city in ‘borderland situations’ facing the East”,[17] in line with the overall political situation. In 1955, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) under Konrad Adenauer pressed forward with integration into the West: the FRG joined NATO and the Christian Democratic government hoped to isolate the German Democratic Republic.[18]

In his opening speech, curator Werner Haftmann (1912-1999) noted in conspicuously apolitical terms that documenta would have nothing to do “with propaganda for or against anything”, it having been created “for each and every one of you—as an individual”[19] but promotion of individualism was, of course, in a way also propaganda of the Western way of life. For Harald Kimpel, the early documenta exhibitions clearly played a role in the East-West confrontation and occurred in the context of the cultural-political reconstruction of the FRG, although we must still ask to what extent state support also called for this orientation.[20] While both exhibitions thus followed the agenda to rehabilitate art formerly persecuted by the Nazis, they were different in so far as the Dresden show’s national all-German scope represents the general political hope for German reunification, while documenta’s Western internationalist programmatic nine years later bears evidence of the Cold War antagonisms. The comparison of the two exhibitions in the East and West shows just how similar the two concepts actually were, in wanting to rehabilitate the art ostracised under the National Socialists and in seeking to connect with contemporary art prior to the Third Reich. Both exhibitions sought to express their ideas of freedom and democracy through the diversity of a stylistic pluralism. Nevertheless, as I aim to show in the following, the exhibition organisers seem to have reached their limits in failing to give due attention to the critical and political art of the Weimar period. At nearly ten years apart, the two exhibitions do reflect their different historical periods, however. While shortly after the war, attention focussed on the overall German question, as was reflected in particular by the all-German concept in Dresden, the Kassel exhibition emerged at a time when the Cold War had already reached its high point. Here, the exhibition aimed above all at underscoring adherence to the West, as the exhibition sought to express in its Western, international artists' programme. As we shall see, later the Third German Art Exhibition in the mid-1950s also embodied the GDR's alignment with the East through works of Socialist Realism.[21]

Organizational Structures

A comparison of the organisers of both shows reveals that neither of these large-scale exhibitions could have been conceived or financially borne by any single institution. Both needed different sets of supporters that had to work together. The Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung was organized by the State Administration of Saxony, the Dresden City Council, and the Cultural Alliance for the Democratic Renewal of Germany. It was most likely initiated by Herbert Gute, a cultural official of the Saxony State Administration and member of the Cultural Alliance, as well as painter and graphic artist. The art historian Will Grohmann represented the Dresden City Council.[22] Back in the 1920s, he had already worked on behalf of modern art as a journalist and author and as an organiser of the International Exhibition in Dresden (1926), and after emigrating to the West in 1947, he notably also participated in working committees of the second and third documenta exhibitions and the Biennales in Venice.[23] His involvement is exemplary for the close personal ties between the exhibitions. The Cultural Alliance for the Democratic Renewal of Germany, represented by Eva Blank, played an important role in the postwar period in the East and had the following agenda:

Destruction of Nazi ideology in all areas of life and knowledge. Struggle against the intellectual initiators of Nazi crimes and war crimes. […] Formation of a national united front of German intellectual workers. […] Rebirth of the German spirit in line with a militant democratic worldview. […] Rediscovery and promotion of the liberal humanist and truly national tradition of our people. […] Incorporation of the intellectual achievement of other peoples in the cultural reconstruction of Germany. Initiation of an understanding with the cultural bodies of other peoples.[24]

The exhibition was accordingly organised by the Land, the city, and the Cultural Alliance, with the costs of 225,175 Reichsmarks being borne by the SMAD.[25] In comparison: even though the first documenta was a personal initiative by Arnold Bode, this large-scale project was also co-organised by the private association Abendländische Kunst des XX. Jahrhunderts e.V. (Western Art of the 20th Century) and state bodies. The city of Kassel acted as the financial supporting organisation, while patronage was provided by German Federal President Theodor Heuss, who as an accomplished art historian also helped set up the financing channels.[26] The Federal Government and the city of Kassel each added 50,000 Deutsche Marks while the exhibition received 100,000 Deutsche Marks from the State of Hesse.[27] The largest organisational difference between the show in the eastern and that in the western parts of the country was that the Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung was conceived as a sales exhibition. Of the 597 exhibited works, the authorities of the Soviet Zone purchased works mainly in an expressive-representational style, with a total value of 334,230 Reichsmarks.

Even if the funding for both shows thus lay in the hands of the respective occupying power, the selection of works was left to art experts. In Dresden, the jury of the Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung consisted of two art historians (Will Grohmann and Dr Gerhard Strauss), eleven artists (Herbert Gute, Herbert Volwahsen, Karl Hofer, Max Pechstein, Hans Grundig, Wilhelm Lachnit, Eugen Hoffmann, Bernhard Kretzschmar, Edmund Kesting, Karl Kröner, and Karl Rade) and one economist (Eva Blank).[28] Many members of the jury were active in various cultural institutions, as head of the Department for Visual Arts art in the Central Administration for Popular Education (Strauss) or as Vice President of the Cultural Alliance (Hofer).[29] It is striking that the jury comprised representatives of different artistic disciplines so as to ensure a heterogeneous exhibition. The jury members were advocates of abstract and nonrepresentational art (Grohmann and Kesting), expressive-representational art (Hofer, Hoffmann, Kretzschmar, Pechstein, and Volwahsen), and finally politically committed art (Gute, Grundig, Lachnit, and Strauss).

A tendency towards expressive-representational art predominated among these representatives, which would also be reflected in the choice of the exhibited works. The artists no doubt selected the works according to their own artistic preferences and practices. In particular, all jury members had been victims of Nazi art policy: prohibition of work and exhibition (Grundig, Hoffmann, Kesting, and Pechstein), dismissal from employment (Grohmann, Hofer, and Pechstein), inclusion in the Degenerate Art exhibits (Grundig, Hofer, Hoffmann, Kretzschmar and Pechstein), arrest (Grundig, Gute, Hoffmann, and Lachnit), and detention in concentration camps (Grundig and Gute).[30] This jury's selection ensured a heterogeneous and diverse programme covering art from all parts of Germany, particularly the inclusion of modern art that had been declared “degenerate” under the Nazis. In his opening speech, Herbert Volwahsen made clear that the exhibition would also serve as propaganda for an all-German solution, emphasising that the displayed works came from the German territory overall.[31] Grohmann had personally travelled to the Western occupation zones to perform the unconventional act to transport works in his private van across the border. British authorities denied him the 60 to 70 works from the British zone, however, a circumstance that was not brought up in further discussion and thus not historicized.[32]

In contrast, despite its initiation by a private person, the artist and designer Arnold Bode, the first documenta was also supported by the expert committee consisting of Alfred Hentzen, Kurt Martin, Hans Mettel and Werner Haftmann.[33] In his book Die Malerei im 20. Jahrhundert (Painting in the 20th Century),[34] the art historian Werner Haftmann had already formulated his main thesis of the dominance of abstraction over realism, which Kimpel found implemented by the concept of the first documenta.[35] The 1955 Kassel exhibition was the starting point: it showed figurative and abstract art works with a little dominance of abstraction. The organisation of both exhibitions shows clearly the great importance of individual curators, juries, and expert committees. In Dresden, all members of the jury had been victims of Nazi art policy which was supposed to guarantee a high quantity of Nazi-banned art in the exhibition. In Kassel, Haftmann used documenta to visualise his idea of abstraction as world language (of the West). But the organisation of both exhibitions also shows the different role of the collective and the individual. In the Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung, the collective work of the jury becomes a symbol for socialism. In contrast, celebration of individual achievement became a symbol of the West, which explains why Arnold Bode stood in the foreground of the organisation.

Conceptions and Selection

The particular selection of artists in the two major exhibitions underscores both the similarities and differences between the sister countries. The Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung displayed 597 works (236 paintings, 69 sculptures and 292 works of graphic art, plus photography by Edmund Kesting) from altogether 250 artists. According to Kathleen Schröter, the artists came from the Western and Eastern German occupation zones, with over half of the works originating from the relatively smaller and less populated Soviet Zone. A fourth of the artists came from Berlin and Dresden. Of the 250 artists, 27 had previously been included in the Degenerate Art exhibition, which had comprised altogether 110 artists. Their 92 works made up less than a sixth of the overall collection. This figure must be put in perspective, however, for it indicates little about the actual number of formerly ostracised artists, which was far greater than the number exhibited here. These artists suffered under National Socialism in different ways, ranging from occupational and work bans to persecution, exile, arrest, and even liquidation in concentration camps. Schröter has discerned a certain ambivalence in the exhibition's treatment of the Nazi era in the case of the works by the two sculptors Richard Scheibe and Georg Kolbe.[36] Both artists had exhibited works at the Nazis' Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition) (1937 – 1944) at the Haus der Kunst in Munich, while at the same time the Nazis were having some of their works removed from public view. But here again, it is unclear why these works were removed, whether it was for artistic reasons, because of the content, or for just organisational reasons.

Governed by a stylistic pluralism, the Dresden exhibition comprised a variety of styles of the 20th century: Late Impressionism, Expressionism, Bauhaus, New Objectivity, Surrealism, politically committed art, and heavily abstract, nonrepresentational art. Surrealism, abstract, and constructivist art constituted a minority, but were present nevertheless. Naturalistic works as had been preferred by National Socialism and exhibited in the Große Deutsche Kunstausstellung (1933-44) in Munich were also on hand, albeit few in number. Dadaist works were absent. While works by artists of Die Brücke, for example, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Frau vorm Spiegel (Woman before a mirror) (1915), a movement founded in Dresden, were conspicuously numerous, works by members of Der Blaue Reiter group were missing. Therefore, Russian artists, such as Kandinsky, Jawlensky, and Werefkin, as well as the Germans Münter, Marc, and Macke were absent. Paul Klee was exhibited, for example, with his work Influenz (Induction) (1932), however. Yet, Rhenish Expressionism was not represented.

It remains unclear whether the absence of these works had anything to do with the concept of the exhibition, or whether they simply could not be procured. Works for sales exhibitions were difficult to obtain on loan, and the years following the Second World War were a time of shortages. Altogether, more works from the Classical Moderns were exhibited than from contemporary artists, and an expressive-representation style prevailed among the paintings. This slant was in keeping with the general preference of the postwar period, however, which had little interest in nonrepresentational painting. In terms of content, few artists addressed National Socialism or the years of the Second World War. Central works on the First World War were however included, such as, for instance, Otto Dix's triptych Der Krieg (The War) (1929–1932), Hans Grundig's Abschied (Farewell) (1936) and Lea Grundig's Abschied (Farewell) (1937).[37]

While the Dresden exhibition presented a selection of all-German artists, documenta identified itself with the Western international scene, so that the catalogue lists 670 works by 148 artists from seven different nations (Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Great Britain, USA, and the Netherlands). The catalogue notes that the artists were classified not according to country of birth, however, but “according to their degree of impact on their native or host countries following their political emigration from Russia or Germany”.[38] Today's customary classification according to countries of birth would have put altogether sixteen countries on the list, including Greece, Austria, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Tunisia, Hungary, Denmark, and Belgium.[39] Focussing on the places of work thus generated a list of the major Western nations, while a list with places of birth would have also included Eastern countries like Russia, Spain, and Portugal, the latter two still dictatorial nations in the 1950s. The arbitrariness of this approach is shown by the example of Chagall, who was equally active at several places, namely Russia, Germany, and France, but who is listed under France. Another example, the German Joseph Albers worked for a long time at the Bauhaus before emigrating to the USA in 1933, and is listed as an artist of the United States. On the other hand, Paul Klee is Swiss, participated in Der Blaue Reiter exhibition, and worked at the Bauhaus. He too emigrated to Switzerland in 1933, but is listed as German. Especially interesting in the comparison with the Dresden exhibition is that the Russian-born artists Kandinsky, Gabo, and Jawlensky are also listed as German owing to their activity in Germany, although they were not exhibited in Dresden because of their origins, like many other Russian artists who, although active for many years in Germany, were also not exhibited.

While the exhibition organisers of the first documenta use the proximity to the GDR as a cultural-political argument for obtaining public funding in 1955, the very absence of GDR artists indicates the progression of the Cold War following the staging of the Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung in Dresden in 1946. Only two artists were exhibited who had lived in the Soviet Zone or GDR after the war. On the other hand, Karl Hofer was exhibited with works from before the end of the war, and the catalogue did not refer to his initial relocation to the East. Bernhard Heiliger had also initially resided in the Soviet Zone after the war but had emigrated from the GDR to the FRG in 1951. He, too, was exhibited with later works. Although the 1955 documenta exhibition took place nine years after the Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung in Dresden, works that had been created before 1945 predominated. According to Wollenhaupt-Schmidt, nearly 60% belonged to classical modernism and over 40% were works after 1945.[40] If we consider, however, that 60% of the works spanned a period of forty-five years, whereas the 40% represented merely 10 years, we see that contemporary art had a much stronger presence. But even if many artworks came from the last ten years, they were mainly works from established artists who had also worked before 1945.     

Wollenhaupt-Schmidt also finds the art styles before 1945 to be better represented than those after 1945.[41] Expressionism, especially representatives of Der Blaue Reiter and Die Brücke (German as well Russian artists), Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism, De Stijl, Bauhaus, New Objectivity, Dada, and Surrealism were thus exhibited. Many of the exhibited artists had been formerly limited by work bans, exile, and persecution. Some important figures were left out entirely, however, such as Alberto Giacometti, René Magritte, and Marcel Duchamp. Walter Grasskamp draws particular attention to underrepresented German-Jewish protagonists of modernism, such as Otto Freundlich and Gert Wollheim.[42] Harald Kimpel notes that works of the 1920s with their socially critical character were filtered out and realistic art disregarded.[43] For example, Georg Grosz, John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, and the ASSO Group were missing. Charlotte Klonk also notes that representatives of socially engaged art, such as Russian Constructivism, Dada, and the Bauhaus, were left out either wholly (Russian Constructivism) or in part (Dada and the Bauhaus), although she concedes that Bode's staging of the exhibition spaces tied in with Bauhaus ideas.[44] In Martin Schieder's view, the art of the Weimar Republic was not rehabilitated at all, with “merely two harmless portraits” from Otto Dix being shown.[45] Schieder also sees the exhibition as stressing both a “pro-European” and an “anti-Communist line of attack”.[46] But also the selection of artworks after 1945 did not include all aspects of contemporary art, for example, the work of the new American artists. In the comparison of the two exhibitions, it is striking, however, that a series of Western artists whose work had been shown in Dresden in 1946 was also exhibited at documenta in 1955: Barlach, Baumeister, Beckmann, Blumenthal, Dix, Feininger, Fuhr, Heckel, Heiliger, Heldt, Kirchner, Klee, Kokoschka, Lehmbruck, Marcks, Nay, Pechstein, Ritschl, Rohlfs, Schlemmer, Schmidt-Rottluff, Trökes, and Winter.

In terms of display, the two exhibitions differed particularly in their presentations of the works. The few accounts in the daily press describe the Dresden presentation as conventionally dwelling on styles as opposed to issues.[47] Works by realistic, abstract, and surrealist artists were thus displayed in different booths. Die Brücke artists even had their own room. In contrast, the presentation of the works in Kassel mixed different kinds of styles and put the paintings on steel rods in front of sponsored black-and-white plastic foil. The exhibition display of the first documenta  had an entirely new character and would later influence many exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale.[48] A quick look at the reception of the two exhibitions reveals the difference in response to the Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung by the press on the one hand, and by the public on the other. Even if the press did not give rave reviews of the exhibition, its evaluation was generally positive.[49] One of the few exceptions is Carl-Ernst Matthias, who called for directly understandable popular art and thus anticipated the political interests of later years.[50] A survey revealed that about two-thirds of the visitors disapproved of the exhibition. They found “Expressionistic and abstract art in particular”[51] incomprehensible. The following comment gives an indication of how much taste in art was still National Socialist in character: “If the German people have been deprived of this sort of art for 12 years, we can only say that we've missed nothing.”[52] documenta also received mainly positive reviews in numerous press reports.[53] A visitor survey was not conducted in this instance, but we know that many visitors of the following exhibitions of documenta were not convinced about the exhibition.


After the Second World War, the Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung in Dresden was the first as well as last all-German exhibition.[54] It concluded with the Saxon Artists' Congress (26–30 October 1946), in which Soviet cultural officer Tiulpanov, head of the Information Department of the SMAD, held a speech. Whereas until then, the SMAD had not intervened in the exhibition concept, the visitors' survey now seemed to give a welcome argument for taking Soviet art as a role model. The following editions of the Deutsche Kunstausstellung thus slowly evolved more and more into exhibitions primarily of Socialist Realism. The founding of the GDR on 15 May 1949 changed the political situation, even if this did not have an immediate impact on the Zweite Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Second German Art Exhibition) (10 September–30 October 1949). The organisation of the Second Exhibition lay in the hands of the two painters Gert Caden and Karl Kröner.[55] It is striking that, still at that time, of the 319 artists, 166 came from the GDR and 153 from the FRG. The proportion of Western art thus increased compared with the first exhibition. Likewise, relatively few substantive or formal demands from the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands (Socialist Unity Party of Germany) could be discerned as yet. Such guidelines were evident only in the assignment of several large-scale mural works. For the first time, the artists' collectives were commissioned to create works in the style of Socialist Realism. The subjects were to be chosen from proposals by the Exhibition Committee—subjects that would bring the artists to working-class people's issues. Progression of the Cold War and the incipient dispute between Formalism and Realism then brought to light the cultural-political control by the Party for the first time explicitly in the Dritte Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Third German Art Exhibition) (1 March–25 May 1953).[56] Clearly formulated guidelines, as well as a jury representing Socialist Realism, helped implement the overall concept, which also included verification of the ideological dispositions of the artists. The political orientation of the Dritte Deutsche Kunstausstellung thus presented not only a contrast with the first edition of this exhibition series but also with the documenta exhibition of 1955.

In the history of documenta, interest in GDR artists was expressed for the first time by Harald Szeemann, when he unsuccessfully tried inviting several GDR artists to documenta 5 (1972). Manfred Schneckenburger was the first to have success in this endeavour, when he exhibited twenty-five works from six GDR artists at documenta 6 (1977)—under strong protest from the Western art scene.[57] Willi Sitte commented on the GDR artists' interest in documenta as follows, demonstrating how much each of the two sister countries followed the activities of the other, however good or bad the evaluation: “We've always been interested in documenta, it affected us from the outset, less so later on, of course, after it became more and more abstruse”.[58] After 1989 and the unification of Germany, many public and academic debates started on the question, in how much art created in a repressive political system like the GDR could be art or qualitative art; often the judgement depends on the distinction between “corrupted” state sponsored art and “subversive” oppositional dissident practices. Now, more than twenty-five years later, art from the GDR has become an interesting subject for art history.



Susanne König is Professor of Art History at the Fachhochschule Potsdam. Her current research focuses on the circulation of knowledge between art and design. She also worked on the Staatsministerium für Wissenschaft und Kunst (SMWK) research project West-Art/East-Art. The System of Art and Official Arts in Separated and Unified Germany from 1945 to 2000 at the Department of Art History at University of Leipzig, which was realized in cooperation with TU Dresden. Before that, she was a member of the academic staff at University of Paderborn and at University of Siegen. She studied art history and philosophy at the University of Stuttgart as well as arts and media management at the Hanns Eisler School of Music in Berlin. She is the author of Marcel Broodthaers: The Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles, Reimer Verlag, Berlin, 2012.

[1] See Deutsche Kunst im 20. Jahrhundert. Malerei und Plastik 1905 – 1985, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Prestel, Munich, 1986. Exhibition catalogue.

[2] See Frank Bösch, "Geteilte Geschichte. Plädoyer für eine deutsch-deutsche Perspektive auf die jüngere Zeitgeschichte," in Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History, online edition, H. 1/2015. Accessed 01.03.2017. http://www.zeithistorische-forschungen.de/1-2015/id=5187, Print pp. 98–114.

[3] After the Second World War, Germany was divided into four zones: American, French, British, and Soviet Zones. The Soviet Zone was connected and oriented to the East and the three others to the West. These four zones existed until the foundation of FRG in the West and the GDR in the East in 1949. In the time between 1945 and 1949, an all-German solution war favoured by all parts of Germany.

[4] See Kathleen Schröter, "Kunst zwischen den Systemen. Die Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung 1945 in Dresden," in Nikola Doll et al., eds., Kunstgeschichte nach 1945. Kontinuität und Neubeginn in Deutschland, Böhlau, Köln et al, 2006, pp. 209–238; Ruth Heftrig, "Narrowed Modernism: On the Rehabilitation of ‘Degenerate Art’ in Postwar Germany," in Olaf Peters, ed., Degenerate Art, Prestel, Munich, 2014, pp. 258–281; Kurt Winkler, "Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung, Dresden 1946," in Michael Bollé, Helen Adkins ed., Berlinische Galerie: Stationen der Moderne – Die bedeutenden Kunstausstellungen des 20. Jahrhunderts in Deutschland, Berlinische Galerie, Nicolai, Berlin, 1988, p. 352 –377; Gerhard Panzer, "Die Vision einer gesamtdeutschen Kunst. Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung Dresden 1946," in Gerhard Panzer and Rüdiger Hurrle, eds., Getrennte Welten. Formen des Eigensinns, Das Wunderhorn, Heidelberg 2014, pp. 27–35. See also the virtual reconstruction of the exhibition http://willgrohmann.de/reconstructionexhibition.php?lang=de

[5] See Herbert Volwahsen, "Eröffnungsrede," in Landeshauptstadt Dresden Stadtarchiv, Akte 4.1.4-993 (pp. 211214), p. 212.

[6] See Grasskamp, "documenta. Kunst des XX. Jahrhunderts," in Bernd Klüser and Katharina Hegewisch, eds., Die Kunst der Ausstellung. Eine Dokumentation dreißig exemplarischer Kunstausstellungen dieses Jahrhunderts, Insel-Verl., Frankfurt am Main, 1991, pp. 116–125, p. 116.

[7] See Ute Haug, "Getreuer Statthalter in schwerer Übergangszeit," in Julia Friedrich and Andreas Prinzing, eds., "So fing man einfach an, ohne viele Worte" . Ausstellungswesen und Sammlungspolitik nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg, Akad.-Verl., Berlin, 2013, pp. 7281, p. 79.

[8] See Manfred Jäger, Kultur und Politik in der DDR 1945–1990, Wiss. und Pol., Cologne, 1994, p. 8.

[9] See Gabriele Saure, "Ausstellungen zeitgenössischer Kunst in der SBZ 1945–1949," in Martin Papenbrock, Kunst des frühen 20. Jahrhunderts in deutschen Ausstellungen, Teil 2., Antifaschistische Künstler/Innen in Ausstellungen der SBZ und der DDR, Verl. und Datenbank für Geisteswiss, Weimar, 2001, pp. 17–36.

[10] "[…] starke künstlerische Impulse über das ganze Land ausgehen" (translation by the author), Herbert Volwahsen, "Eröffnungsrede," p. 213.

[11] See Schröter, "Kunst zwischen den Systemen,“ p. 221.

[12] "[…] echte Kunst zu einem bedeutenden Mittel politischer Erziehung werden" (translation by the author), Herbert Volwahsen, "Eröffnungsrede," p. 213.

[13] See the following exhibitions, Deutsche Kunst der Gegenwart, Baden-Baden, 1947, Deutsche Malerei und Plastik der Gegenwart, Cologne, 1949; see also Jutta Held, Kunst und Kunstpolitik 1945–49. Kulturaufbau in Deutschland nach dem 2. Weltkrieg, VAS, Verl. für Ausbildung und Studium in der Elefanten Press, Berlin, 1981, pp. 304–361.

[14] See Harald Kimpel, Documenta. Die Überschau. Fünf Jahrzehnte Weltkunstausstellung in Stichworten, Cologne, 2002, p. 14f.

[15] "Die Ausstellung sollte nur Meister zeigen, deren Bedeutung für die Gegenwart nach strenger Auswahl unbestreitbar ist, jeweils in wenigen entscheiden Werken von letzter Qualität. […] Mit dieser konsequenten Einseitigkeit allein wäre diese Ausstellung in der Lage das höchste Interesse zu wecken" (translation by the author). Bode: I. Exposé über eine Ausstellung in Kassel 1955, undatiert, documenta archiv, Kassel, Nachlass Bode, Mappe 16, quoted from, "Dirk Schwarze, Arnold Bode und der Impuls zur documenta," in Marianne Heinz, ed., Arnold Bode. Leben und Werk (1900-1977), Edition Minerva, Wolfratshausen, 2000, pp. 2429, p. 24.

[16] "Kassel ist die deutsche Stadt, die für eine derartige Ausstellung prädestiniert ist. Kassel liegt im Zonengrenzgebiet, ist sehr zerstört gewesen und sehr aktiv im Aufbau. 30 Kilometer von der Zonengrenze entfernt den Europa-Gedanken in einer Kunstausstellung zu manifestieren ist eine beispielhafte Tat. " (translation by the author) Bode 1954, quoted from, Charlotte Klonk, "Die phantasmagorische Welt der ersten documenta und ihr Erbe," in Dorothea von Hantelmann ed., Die Ausstellung. Politik eines Rituals, Diaphanes, Zürich, 2010, pp. 131-160., p. 141.

[17] "[…] als Stadt in 'Grenzlandsituationen' gegen den Osten" (translation by the author), Harald Kimpel, "Standortbestimmung und Vergangenheitsbewältigung. Die documenta 1955 als ‘Staatsaufgabe’," in Julia Friedrich, Andreas Prinzing ed., "So fing man einfach an, ohne viele Worte" . Ausstellungswesen und Sammlungspolitik nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg, pp. 2635, p. 35.

[18] See Harald Kimpel, documenta. Mythos und Wirklichkeit, DuMont, Cologne, 1997, p. 132.

[19] "[…] mit Propaganda für oder gegen etwas", "für jeden einzelnen von Ihnen – als einzelnen" (translation by the author) Werner Haftmann, "Über das moderne Bild (1955). Eröffnungsrede zur Ausstellung ‘documenta’ Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts am 15.07.1955," in Evelyn Haftmann, Wouter Wirth ed., Werner Haftmann. Das antwortende Gegenbild. Ausgewählte Texte 1947-1990, Hirmer, Munich, 2012, pp. 31-40, p. 40.

[20] See Kimpel documenta. Mythos und Wirklichkeit, p. 132, and Kimpel "Standortbestimmung und Vergangenheitsbewältigung," p. 30.

[21] See Halbrehder, Die Malerei der Allgemeinen Deutschen Kunstausstellung, Peter Lange, Frankfurt am Main et al.,1995, pp. 71–87; Tino Heim, "Ein Pyrrhussieg des Sozialistischen Realismus. Die Dritte Deutsche Kunstausstellung und das Scheitern einer kulturpolitischen Ambition," in Karl-Siegbert Rehberg et al. ed., Abschied von Ikarus, Walther König, Cologne, 2012, pp. 132–137; Tino Heim, "Der kurze Aufstieg und lange Fall der ersten ‘„Leipziger Schule’“ – Die Dritte Deutsche Kunstausstellung 1953," in 60, 40, 20 – Kunst in Leipzig seit 1949, Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig, Leipzig, 2009, pp. 54–58. Exhibition catalogue; Dagmar Buchbinder, "Die Dritte Deutsche Kunstausstellung 1953 in Dresden – Malerei als Teil der Kunstpolitik in der DDR" in der Vortragsreihe der Stiftung Archiv der Parteien und Massenorganisationen der DDR im Bundesarchiv, Accessed 05.03.2017. https://www.bundesarchiv.de/imperia/md/content/abteilungen/sapmo/vortragsreihestiftung/vortrag_buchbinder.pdf.

[22] See Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung, Dresden 1946, Stadthalle Nordplatz, Landesverwaltung Sachsen, Kulturbund zur Demokratischen Erneuerung Deutschlands und der Stadt Dresden ed., Sachsenverlag, Dresden 1946. Exhibition catalogue.

[23] See Anke Dietrich, "Rehabilitierung der Moderne. Will Grohmann und die ‘Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung’ 1946 in Dresden," in Zwischen Intuition und Gewissheit, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Sandstein, Dresden, 2013, pp. 101107. Exhibition catalogue.

[24] "Vernichtung der Naziideologie auf allen Lebens- und Wissensgebieten. Kampf gegen die geistigen Urheber der Naziverbrechen und der Kriegsverbrechen.  […] Bildung einer nationalen Einheitsfront der deutschen Geistesarbeiter.  […] Neugeburt des deutschen Geistes im Zeichen einer streitbaren demokratischen Weltanschauung. […]  Wiederentdeckung und Förderung der freiheitlichen humanistischen, wahrhaft nationalen Tradition unseres Volkes. […] Einbeziehung der geistigen Errungenschaft anderer Völker in den kulturellen Neubau Deutschlands. Anbahnung einer Verständigung mit den Kulturträgern anderer Völker" (translation by the author). For the principles of the cultural association, see Andreas Trampe, "Kultur und Medien," in Matthias Judt, ed., DDR-Geschichte in Dokumenten. Beschlüsse, Berichte, interne Materialien und Alltagszeugnisse, Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung, Bonn 1998, pp. 293–362, p. 315.

[25] See Letter from Herbert Gutes to SMAD on 5 July 1946, Hauptstaatsarchiv Dresden (SächsHStA, 11401, LRS, Min für Volksbildung, Nr. 135), Kostenaufstellung der Allgemeinen Deutschen Kunstausstellung vom 14.10.1946, StadtA Dresden, Dez. Volksbildung, Akte Nr. 189, Blatt 30, quoted from, Schröter, "Kunst zwischen den Systemen,"  p. 214.

[26] See Kimpel, Documenta. Die Überschau, p. 11.

[27] See Harald Kimpel, "Warum gerade Kassel? Zur Etablierung des documenta-Mythos" in Kunstforum No. 49, 1982, pp. 2332, p. 33.

[28] In addition to the jury there was a working committee consisting of the following individuals: Hans Christoph, Fritz Duda, Dr Eberhard Kretschmar, Erna Linke, Dr Fritz Löffler, Eva Mattausch, Hansheinrich Palitzsch, and Herman Schulz.

[29] See Corinna Halbrehder, Die Malerei der Allgemeinen Deutschen Kunstausstellung/ Kunstausstellung der DDR 1 - VIII, p. 28.

[30] See Schröter, "Kunst zwischen den Systemen, " p. 216.

[31] See Herbert Volwahsen, "Eröffnungsrede," p. 211.

[32] See Halbrehder, Die Malerei der Allgemeinen Deutschen Kunstausstellung, p. 29.

[33] See Kimpel, Documenta. Die Überschau, p. 11.

[34] See Werner Haftmann, Die Malerei im 20. Jahrhundert, Prestel, Munich, 1954.

[35] See Kimpel, Documenta. Die Überschau, p. 22.

[36] See Schröter, "Kunst zwischen den Systemen," p. 224.

[37] Ibid.

[38] "[…] je nach dem Grad ihrer Wirkung ihren Heimat- oder Gastländern im Zuge der politischen Emigration aus Russland oder Deutschland zugeordnet" (translation by the author). documenta. 15 July to 18 September 1955, Kassel, Prestel, Munich, 1955, p. 27. Exhibition catalogue.

[39] The following artists would have had to be correlated with the following countries of birth: Greece (Giorgio De Chirico), Austria (Ludwig Kasper, Frantisek Kupka, Oskar Kokoschka), Portugal (Marie Hélène Vieira da Silva), Russia (Marc Chagall, Naum Gabo, Alexej Jawlensky, Wassily Kandinsky, Antoine Pevsner), Spain (Juan Gris, Julio Gonzales, Joan Miró, Pablo Picasso), Tunisia (Antonio Copora), Hungary (Zoran Music, Victor Vasarly), Denmark (Richard Mortensen), and Belgium (Gustave Singier).

[40] See Ulrike Wollenhaupt-Schmidt, Documenta 1955. Eine Ausstellung im Spannungsfeld der Auseinandersetzungen um die Kunst der Avantgarde 1945 – 1960, Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main et al., 1994, p. 96.

[41] Ibid., p. 102f.

[42] See Walter Grasskamp, "documenta. Kunst des XX. Jahrhunderts," p. 124.

[43] See Kimpel, Documenta. Die Überschau, pp. 21f.

[44] See Klonk, "Die phantasmagorische Welt der ersten documenta und ihr Erbe," pp. 142ff.

[45] "[…] bloß zwei harmlose Porträts" (translation by the author). Martin Schieder, "Die documenta I (1955)" in Étienne François, Hagen Schulze, eds., Deutsche Erinnerungsorte, Verlag C.H. Beck, Munich, 2001, vol. II, pp. 637–651, p. 648.

[46] "pro-europäische" wie eine "anti-kommunistische Stoßrichtung" (translation by the author). Schieder, "Die documenta I (1955)," p. 638.

[47] See Irene Heinze-Schmidt, Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung, Sächsische Tageblatt, 27.08.1946, p. 2; Irene Heinze-Schmidt, Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung, Der Morgen, 27.08.1946, p. 2; N.N., Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung, Das Kunstwerk, 3.1946, p. 43.

[48] See Franziska Völz, "Biennale Venedig und documenta–versteckte Beziehungen? Zu Konzept, Künstler und Organisation," in Gerhard Panzer,Franziska Völz, and Karl-Siegbert Rehberg, eds., Beziehungsanalyse. Bildende Künste in Westdeutschland nach 1945. Akteure, Institutionen und Konzepte, Springer, Wiesbaden 2015, pp. 229–256, p. 247ff.

[49] See Carl Linfert, "Erinnerung an die Dresdner Ausstellung," bildende kunst, No. 1, 1947, pp. 12–14; Wolfgang Balzer, "Die Allgemeine Deutsche Kunstausstellung in Dresden 1946," Zeitschrift für Kunst, No. 1, 1947, 1, pp. 56–66.

[50] "[…] besonders der expressionistischen und abstrakten Kunst" (translation by the author). See Carl-Ernst Matthias, "Künstlerkongress in Dresden," bildende kunst, No. 1, 1947, pp. 2–11, p. 5.

[51] Carl-Ernst Matthias, "Künstlerkongress in Dresden," p. 5.

[52] "Wenn man dem deutschen Volke diese Art von Bildern 12 Jahre lang vorenthielt, so kann man nur behaupten, wir haben nichts verpasst" (translation by the author). Carl Linfert, "Erinnerung an die Dresdner Ausstellung," p.13.

[53] See Wollenhaupt-Schmidt, documenta 1955, pp. 104–111.

[54] See Halbrehder, Die Malerei der Allgemeinen Deutschen Kunstausstellung, p. 27.

[55] See Halbrehder, Die Malerei der Allgemeinen Deutschen Kunstausstellung, pp. 46–57; Fritz Löffler, "Die 2. Deutsche Kunstausstellung in Dresden und die westdeutsche Malerei," Zeitschrift für Kunst, No. 3, 1949, 4, pp. 277–288; Fritz Löffler, "Die zweite Deutsche Kunstausstellung in Dresden," Die Kunst und das schöne Heim, No. 48, 1949/50, pp. 126–133.

[56] See note 21. __

[57] See Gisela Schirmer, DDR und documenta. Kunst im deutsch-deutschen Widerspruch, Reimer, Munich, 2005.

[58] "Wir waren immer an der documenta interessiert gewesen, sie hatte uns von Anfang an tangiert, später allerdings weniger, denn sie glitt ja immer mehr ins Abstruse ab" (translation by the author). Quoted from Schirmer, DDR und documenta, p. 96.

Go back

Issue 33

the documenta issue

by Nanne Buurman & Dorothee Richter

Editorial: documenta: Curating the History of the Present

by Vesna Madžoski

Ghostly Women, Faithful Sons

by Ayşe Güleç

Learning from Kassel