Summer of Art Provincial Germany comes centre-stage

German President Theodor Heuss (2nd from left) with Arnold Bode (left) at the Documenta in Kassel 1955
German President Theodor Heuss (2nd from left) with Arnold Bode (left) at the Documenta in Kassel 1955 | Photo: dpa - picture archive

Avant-garde art is coming this summer – not to Paris, London or New York, but to Kassel and Münster. A unique success story for two big shows in two small cities.

The elegant gentleman with the narrow-framed glasses took a direct flight from New York. This was not a matter of course back in 1955. But as the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, you’ve no time to lose, especially when you’re following hot on the heels of such priceless masterpieces as the great paintings of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, on loan to Germany for the first time after the war. Alfred H. Barr Jr. was surprised when he touched down in Frankfurt, however, upon learning that Kassel was not a suburb of the Hessian capital by any stretch of the imagination, but a good four hours away by train. E. R. Nele, an artist and the daughter of Documenta founder Arnold Bode, remembers the surprised American: “He arrived at the Kassel train station, which was a wreck, walked down wrecked streets and wondered where in the world the documenta might be.”

The first exhibition in Kassel was a side show to the German horticultural show

The American arrival was presumably too shaken up by his surroundings to interfere much in this first documenta, newly installed in the burnt-out ruins of the Fridericianum museum. The walls were roughcast, the pictures lay unpacked on the dusty floor, there was no air conditioning, no alarm system either. After all, the exhibition, for which nearly seven hundred major works of modern art had been brought to Kassel, was merely a side show to the German horticultural show. However, great pains were taken to present the paintings in their best light: founding curator Arnold Bode, an artist in his own right, covered the walls with white foil; soft sunlight streamed into the ruins, bringing out the radiant beauty of modern masterpieces the Nazis had vilified only ten years before.

Over 130,000 people came to see this first documenta. It was the beginning of a success story that continues to this day, into the summer of 2017, as New York museum directors again book flights to provincial Germany for the occasion. So, too, their counterparts from London and Paris, Mexico City, Beijing, Sydney and Los Angeles. So, too, hundreds of thousands of others from abroad or from Munich or Berlin or just from Frankfurt.

A particularly massive turnout is expected this year because four major art events are taking place this summer in Europe: besides the documenta 14 in Kassel and the Skulptur-Projekte that’s held every ten years in Münster, both of which open on 10 June, the Venice Biennale runs from May to November this year. And as the first stage of this “year of art”, so to speak, the documenta set up a second location in Athens in April. Four venues, four times contemporary art. Years like 2017 in which these major exhibitions that are held at different intervals all coincide in a single summer can really shake up the art world – and with lasting repercussions: by the end of the summer, new names and new works will be writ large. And the featured installations, photographs, videos, performances and paintings will form something of a new must-see canon for anyone and everyone who exhibits art internationally, writes about it, deals in it or collects it. From the many textile pictures and sculptures at the Venetian Arsenal and ginormous installations like the Parthenon of Books, which Argentine artist Marta Minujín will build out of thousands of formerly or currently banned books in Kassel, to countless performances, including Anne Imhof’s production of Faust at the German pavilion in Venice, which has won this year’s Golden Lion.

But why is it that Germany, of all countries, and two provincial towns like Münster and Kassel at that, should be centre-stage and not Paris, London or at least Berlin? It’s not just owing to the coincidence of the other major exhibitions with different frequencies taking place simultaneously this summer. It’s simply because no other country makes such a huge effort. The very founding of the documenta in the post-war era has to be viewed as the upshot of the German public’s ardent desire to reconnect with Western culture, with the New York museums and the Paris avant-garde. When Arnold Bode brainstormed variations on Dokumentation and Dokumente till he hit upon the lean international moniker “documenta”, he came up with an unprecedented exhibition. His large-scale overview of what the National Socialists had termed “degenerate art”, through which he sought to reconcile the Germans with modernity ten years after the demise of the Nazi regime, was intended to be different from, for example, the Venice Biennale: no emphasis on national provenance, no juries, no competition. Art was to be allowed to be purely and simply art in Kassel, representing nothing but itself, the international avant-garde, an invaluable treasure in and of itself.

The next edition of the documenta did not look back in time, but celebrated contemporary abstraction, living art. Such a contemporary approach was new. And it was to have a decisive influence on post-war art, for it worked. Adam Szymczyk, the artistic director of this year’s documenta 14, said in an interview that he doesn’t believe so much in a genius loci as in the “spirit of a project”. Applied to the history of the documenta, its decisive edge clearly was and remains the independence that Kassel makes possible, the freedom to put together a show far from major collections or hyperactive scenes. Each documenta starts again from scratch every five years.

The show has always been particularly compelling when it dares to break new ground, as under curators like Harald Szeemann, for example, with his documenta 5 in 1972. Over the decades, ever since its first edition, funding and a big turnout for the documenta have always been guaranteed.

Likewise, the Skulptur-Projekte Münster, after the sensational success of founding director Kasper König’s first editions in 1977 and 1987, has been a permanent fixture of the festival scene, if only thanks to its similarly huge tourist appeal. When such reliable funding is combined with such big names, regularly featuring leading lights of the international avant-garde from Bruce Nauman to Rosemarie Trockel, the upshot is a large-scale event that becomes an established tradition on the calendar of the international art world.

A steadily funded cultural policy is the strength of smaller German cities

Creating such a setting with plentiful and reliable funding for cultural projects is the strength of German provincial towns. Post-war West Germany had to struggle to catch up with Western culture. But after the division of East and West, after German reunification, which pushed Kassel from the periphery to the centre of Germany, what was and often still is inconceivable elsewhere remained a matter of course in Germany: museums free to collect and exhibit art independently from state control; an (almost) free course of study in contemporary art; reliable funding for art societies, exhibition halls, artist-run spaces; a rich art market; and a knowledgeable art-loving public with an experienced eye trained in old and traditional art, but which debates contemporary experiments as well.

A venue in Athens? That may have been a controversial call for shopkeepers in Kassel, but the public at large are quite curious about the documenta 14’s decision to locate in Athens, too. After all, Okwui Enwezor prepared for his documenta 11 with conferences on every continent, and the documenta 13 set up smaller-scale outposts in faraway Kabul and Banff, Canada. And Germany shelled out generously for those overseas forays.

Thousands of people will be showing up in Kassel and Münster for the 2017 summer of art. Some of them might come across an ancient gentleman there: Jonas Mekas, b. 1922 in Lithuania, experimental filmmaker, poet, photographer. Mekas is one of the oldest artists ever invited to take part in a documenta. The photos he sent to the show tell of travels beyond the serene exhibition circuit. For Jonas Mekas has already been to Kassel: as a former forced labourer, a survivor of a barbarous episode in world history that had ravaged a continent and countless lives, he lived in a “displaced person” camp in Kassel until he could emigrate to New York. His 1944-54 diaries are aptly titled I Had Nowhere to Go.