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The documenta is one of the best-known art exhibitions in the world. It was founded in 1955. Since then, Kassel regularly turns into an international centre for contemporary art. At the last exhibition, almost a million visitors came to the Hessian city.

The DHM exhibition “documenta. Politics and Art” focuses on the relation between politics and art. From the beginning the show in Kassel served as an important political stage. During the Cold War years, the young Federal Republic of Germany used art in an attempt to distance itself from socialism and communism on the one hand and from the Nazi past on the other.

“In the course of research for the exhibition, an astonishing turn of events emerged: the break with former Nazi politics was never as radical and profound as I would had thought. Jewish artists who were murdered during the holocaust were not exhibited at the documenta.”

Raphael Gross, President of the Deutsches Historisches Museums

At the documenta in 1955, many artists were represented whose works had been considered “degenerate” and were ostracised by the National Socialists. As patron of the exhibition, Federal President Theodor Heuss was actively involved in it; here modern art was elevated to the official art style.

Among those invited to Kassel was the artist Emy Roeder. Until 1945 her sculptures were considered “degenerate”. She was represented at the first documenta with three of her works.

Unable to live in Nazi Germany, Roeder emigrated to Italy. There she met the Jewish painter Rudolf Levy, who had fled Germany in 1933.

However, Levy was arrested in Florence and died in 1944 while being deported to Auschwitz.

“The memory of the Jewish painter Rudolf Levy, which Roeder keeps alive in her letters, did not find its way into documenta 1955. That says a lot about the documenta and the politics of remembrance in those years.”

Julia Voss, Curator “documenta. Politics and Art”

Twenty-one people were involved in the founding of the first documenta. Ten of them were former members of the NSDAP, the SA or the SS. The fault line went straight through the innermost circle. During the first three documenta exhibitions, the social democrat Arnold Bode (1900-1977) and the former NSDAP member Werner Haftmann (1912-1999) worked closely together.

While Bode lost his job in 1933 when the Nazis came to power, Haftmann was able to continue his career as an art historian.

In 1936, Haftmann went to Florence, Italy, where he became first assistant at the renowned Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz. From 1940 he served as a soldier in Italy and from 1943 was also actively involved in intelligence activities. He was awarded by the Wehrmacht for his success in hunting down Italian partisans. This part of Haftmann’s biography, about which he said nothing, was researched by the historian Carlo Gentile.

“What we know for certain, that Haftmann actively participated in the fight against the partisans. During these actions, civilians were killed and suspects tortured.”

Carlo Gentile, Historian, University of Cologne

The consequences of Haftmann’s silence for art history and remembrance politics will be elucidated in the DHM exhibition for the first time. He influenced both the politics of remembrance and the rejection of a socialist concept of art as it was represented in East Germany.

For a long time the documenta was to wear two faces: On the one side, the organisers and sponsors used art to advocate freedom, progress, internationalism and democracy. On the other side, these promises were often kept only in part, sometimes not at all. The contradiction between pretence and reality repeatedly led to protests. In 1987, for example, the Guerrilla Girls were not invited to exhibit at documenta 8. The feminist artists’ collective took part nonetheless with a protest action against the exclusion of women and people of colour.

“The Guerrilla Girls’ card shows that the ratio at documenta 8 was still very uneven: between artists who were white, western and male and those who were women or people of colour.”

Lars Bang Larsen, Curator „documenta. Politics and Art“

The DHM exhibition “documenta. Art and Politics” is showing numerous famous works that were exhibited in Kassel between 1955 und 1997: from Séraphine Louis to Joseph Beuy and Andy Warhol.

In addition to these works the exhibition will show pictures, sculptures and finds from the archive that are still unknown or have not been in the spotlight. They are to be presented to a wider public – and should lead to fruitful discussions about the relationship between politics and art.