The first documenta was created in 1955 by Kassel painter and academy professor Arnold Bode, making it one of the longest running international art events. The exhibition, which was launched as the accompanying program to the Bundesgartenschau -German Federal Horticultural Show- that was held in Kassel that year, took an historical and documentary/reconstructive approach. It showed the development of the major artistic groups since the beginning of the century: Fauvism, Expressionism, Cubism, Blauer Reiter, Futurism and Pittura Metafisica. Pre-War Modernism was deliberately displayed in all its European ramifications. Bode highlighted the works in the ruins of the Museums Fridericianum, today still the main building for documenta.
Alongside Venice’s Biennale, documenta is seen as the most important, regularly occurring exhibition for modern and contemporary art in the world. It has reflected the common notion
of a centralised art world, as for many years only European and American artists were represented. After the period of Nazi dictatorship, it was intended to reconcile German public life with international modernity and also confront it with its own failed Enlightenment.
Werner Haftmann, art historian and the conceptual brain behind documenta 1-3, described the intention of the first documenta as follows: ‘It should be seen as a broad, if initial attempt, to regain international contacts across the board and thus at home re-engage in a conversation that has been interrupted for so long, as it were’. Haftmann believed that the exhibition also had a didactic brief: ‘It is devised with our young generation in mind, and the artists, poets and thinkers they follow, so that they may recognize what foundations have been laid for them, what inheritance they must nurture and what inhertance must be overcome’. Thus, attention was also directed toward contemporary art. The idea was, on the one hand, to take intellectual stock of things, to enquire what possibilities there were for taking up the artistic positions of the first half of the century and, on the other, to identify the role young German art could play in the international scene. In this regard, documenta1 was the first post-War forum where German and other European artists met again.
The singular character of the exhibition has been preserved. Since the fifth documenta (1972), every five years, a new artistic director is chosen and the exhibition is reinvented.