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Soul-baring Documenta exhibition opens at Berlin's Deutsches Historisches Museum

Updated: Jul 1, 2021

Last week, the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin opened a courageous, soul-baring exhibition on the 66-year history of Documenta, a major collective art exhibition held every five years in Kassel. It dives into the context of aesthetics and ideology running through each edition of Documenta as Germany’s social and political agendas developed around them.

Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin. Photo: Joyofmuseums via Wikimedia Commons

Born out of a movement to refresh and rebuild Germany’s modern art scene after a long period of draconian cultural policy, Documenta’s first editions focussed on artists that had been denounced under the Nazi regime with a flurry of Fauvist, expressionist and cubist works by the likes of Picasso and Kandinsky. Visitor numbers have grown exponentially to exceed a million in 2017 when the exhibition created its first international outpost in Athens. But the DHM’s own exhibition does not squarely celebrate Documenta’s successes. On the contrary, it exposes a doctrine of purification in the earlier editions up until the 1970s which excludes first Jewish and then East German artists, whilst maintaining the façade of being the ultimate realm of truth and liberalism.

In a microcosm of the uncomfortable situation facing post-war German society at large, the exhibition confronts the involvement of ex-Nazi party members, including artistic director Werner Haftmann, in the creation of Documenta’s founding narratives.

This exhibition, which makes up part of the DHM’s long-term programme aimed at examining the term ‘historical judgement’ in relation to German history, will be running until January 2022.


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