ESSAYS Mousse 58

An Eight-Point Program for Fathoming German–Greek Relations. documenta 14: The View from Kassel

by Dieter Roelstraete


This summer’s fourteenth edition of documenta unfolds in two cities: Athens and Kassel. A resident of the latter—documenta’s historical home in the once-scorched, now forested heart of Germany—Dieter Roelstraete reports on the many facets of the project’s two-state solution. A member of the curatorial team of documenta 14, he offers a brief history of German-Greek relations, from Johann Joachim Winckelmann to Adam Szymczyk.



Anton von Maron, Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, 1768.
Photo: User: Mathiasrex / Wikimedia Commons / CC-0


When, and where, did German-Greek relations begin? Rome, 1764, could be one among many possible answer to this question—the place and year that the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, born three hundred years ago this year in the Hanseatic town of Stendal, published his landmark Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums, laying not just the groundwork for the emergent science of classical archaeology, but also minting the enduring language of art history in the process, with the mythic ideal of classical Greece its ever-present, defining horizon. A tireless apologist of this ideal’s dehistoricized, anesthetized aesthetic—leading to what one author has called “le mythe de la Grèce blanche,” among other misunderstandings1—and thus a key figure in the establishment of the classicist paradigm, the archetypal philhellene Winckelmann is well known for never having set foot on actual Greek soil. “His” Greece characteristically remained a figment of his imagination to the grave (he died in Trieste in 1768)—an alternately “southern” and “eastern” (“oriental”) screen for the projection of alternately “northern” and “western” fantasies. Or, in other words still: “south as a state of mind.”2



Marta Minujín, El Partenón de libros (The Parthenon of Books), 1983, installation view at Avenida 9 de Julio, Buenos Aires. Photo: Marta Minujín Archive


Mapping the influence of Winckelmann’s Prussian enthusiasm for the Greek aesthetic is too titanic a task to undertake here, but it is worth noting its architectural resonance in continental Europe’s oldest purpose-built museum, the Fridericianum in Kassel, with its six faux-Ionic columns as opposed to the Athenian Parthenon’s original eight Doric specimens. The Fridericianum is best known nowadays as ground zero for documenta, the quinquennial exhibition of global contemporary art often referred to (though emphatically not by any of us, actual documenta workers) as the world’s largest and/or most prestigious. It will once again perform that function in the summer of 2017, though with a Greek twist—same but Hellenistically different. Meanwhile, opposite the Fridericianum, on the Friedrichsplatz so well known to veteran visitors of previous documentas, is where one of documenta 14’s likely signature projects will arise: Marta Minujín’s Parthenon of Books, a one-to-one replica of the Athenian blueprint consisting entirely of books that, at one point or other during their existence, were verboten3—an obvious nod to the Friedrichsplatz’s use back in the calamitous 1930s (Kassel, it must be said, was a disturbingly enthusiastic and early adopter of the new Nazi creed) as a photogenic book-burning spot.



Leo von Klenze, Die Walhalla im Donautal, 1839


Forty years after the completion of the Fridericianum, and fifty years after Winckelmann’s death, another chapter in the history of German-Greek relations was inaugurated with the founding, in 1833, of modern Greece as a kingdom ruled by a Bavarian prince, Otto I, whose southern German retinue in faraway Athens—“Bavarokratia” is still an operational term in Greek historiography, actually—at one point included the German architect Leo von Klenze. Klenze, whose first-ever autonomously authored building arose next to the Schloss Wilhelmshöhe in Kassel’s Bergpark (that is, the Ballhaus, another documenta 14 venue), is only dimly remembered in Greece today as one of the signatories of the capital’s modern, that is, post-Ottoman, master plan. In Germany he is better known for having built a to-scale copy of (yet again) the Athenian Parthenon on the banks of the Danube just outside Regensburg, a marble reverie incongruously called Walhalla—a hall of fame dedicated to illustrious speakers of the teutsche Zunge, celebrating the union of all German peoples in a single tongue at a time (Walhalla opened its doors to the public in 1842, an event of such international stature that it was immortalized by none other than the English master J. M. W. Turner) when such unity seemed politically unattainable. (The political uses of art often have longer histories in younger nations with volatile identities.) It was not the last time that the Parthenon, as a symbol of the classical tradition hewn in blinding-white stone, was seen to haunt Germany’s political subconscious—though no mention was ever made, as far as we can tell, of the fact that the Athenian temple was actually a mosque for more of its existence than a monument to (Greek) enlightenment.



Louis Kolitz, Das Berliner Schloss, 1912. © Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Kassel.
Courtesy: Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Kassel


In the Neue Galerie in Kassel, one of four principal venues of documenta 14’s unfolding in its hometown, one medium-size room is habitually dedicated to the work of local realist Louis Kolitz, who was the director of the Kassel art academy from 1879 until 1911. (He died in 1914, four days before the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand set off the First World War in Sarajevo; during his time at the helm of the academy, Kassel’s art school was housed inside the Palais Bellevue, likewise a documenta 14 venue, and currently my home in Kassel, as it so happens. It is best known locally as the former abode of the Brothers Grimm museum.) One small painting of Kolitz’s in particular has always drawn my attention there. It depicts the Stadtschloss in Berlin, painted at a time, in the early 1910s, when it was still the primary residence of the imperial Hohenzollern dynasty (its last scion, Wilhelm II, spent much of his lackluster student years in Kassel, and Kassel’s Schloss Wilhelmshöhe remained a favored summer residence throughout). Badly, though certainly not irreparably, damaged during the Second World War, the royal castle was blown up by the East German authorities in 1950, eventually making place for the Palast der Republik so beloved by Berlin’s artist immigrant community by the time this structure was torn down in turn by the end of the 2000s.4 The Berliner Schloss, as we all know, is in the process of being rebuilt as we speak—a hugely contentious, politically charged affair, as is attested by the fact, quite unique for German cultural policy, that the reconstruction of the old Schloss’s baroque facade will be paid for entirely with private donations. Once finished, the new-old (or old-new) Schloss will be known as the Humboldtforum, and will become home to the city’s considerable collections of non-European cultures—the harvest of decades of worldwide “exploration” in Alexander von Humboldt’s footsteps—until recently housed in faraway, suburban Dahlem. The driving curatorial force behind the Humboldtforum is none other than Neil MacGregor, who, as the former director of the British Museum (and author of its blockbuster show Germany: Memories of a Nation), effectively guarded what is probably the world’s best-known trove of looted artifacts: the so-called Elgin Marbles that once adorned the metopes of the Parthenon. These are named after Thomas Bruce, Seventh Earl of Elgin, who ordered the sculptures’ removal and abscondence to London in the early years of the nineteenth century—where they continue to reside against Greek popular will.



Sophia Schliemann, wife of German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, who discovered the site of ancient Troy, bedecked with ornaments found in the excavation, ca. 1874.
Photo: User: E. S. V. Leigh / Wikimedia Commons / CC-0


The thin red line dividing archaeology from adventurism, the conscientious servant of science from the profit-hungry buccaneer or, worse still, hapless amateur (will we ever be able to look at reconstructive archaeology again without thinking of Doña Cecilia Giménez’s painfully botched attempt at restoring the portrait of a thorn-crowned Jesus in the Sanctuary of Mercy church in Borja, Spain?), runs right through the story of Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of the so-called treasure of Priam, a cache of gold artifacts unearthed near the Ottoman port of Çanakkale in the 1870s that was presumed to constitute historical evidence for the facticity of the Trojan War as recounted in Homer’s Iliad. One famous photograph associated with this find features Schliemann’s Greek wife Sophia (née Engastromenos) outfitted with two golden diadems, meant to conjure the mythical image of Helen, whose abduction by Paris of Troy (Helen herself, known as the most beautiful woman in the world, hailed from the Peloponnese) effectively sparked said war.5 (Schliemann’s archaeological method, which was also deployed in Mycenae—leading to the unearthing, among other artifacts, of the golden mask of Agamemnon—was frequently denounced as “savage and brutal.”) In 1881, ten years after its excavation, the Trojan hoard was acquired by the Royal Museums of Berlin, and subsequently housed inside the Pergamon museum until the end of the Second World War, when it fell into the hands of marauding Red Army troops. Numerous claims for its repatriation notwithstanding—some, for all we know, perhaps uttered, sotto voce, in Angela Merkel’s flawless Russian—Priam’s treasure continues to reside today, somewhat defiantly, in Moscow’s Pushkin Museum. Schliemann himself is buried in the First Cemetery of Athens, in a grave shaped like a Greek temple, and his opulent villa is now home to the city’s Numismatic Museum, the gates of which continue to be adorned with a garland of swastikas.



Oskar Graf, Aphrodite, ca. 1941


documenta was founded, back in 1955, in part to atone for the artistic sins, aesthetic crimes, and general cultural abominations of Nazi Germany’s twelve-year rule. While later iterations stuck to a more conventional (or, in the context of the Cold War, more predictable) celebration of the gospel of artistic freedom—best encapsulated in the image of curious German youths crowding in front of Jackson Pollock’s famous drip paintings during documenta 2 in 1959—the first edition emphatically and ruefully looked back at the scandal of Nazi censorship, and the fate of so-called “degenerate” art in particular. Much of said Entartete Kunst, by all the usual suspects of the prewar avant-garde’s most heroic phase, had been forced out of Germany’s numerous museums and either into basements or onto bonfires to make room for the kind of art extolled in the so-called Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellungen, organized in the purpose-built Haus der Deutschen Kunst in Munich from 1937 until 1944. Perusing the catalogues of these dreary survey shows—much less successful, as is well known, than the touring Entartete Kunst extravaganza—one is reminded once again of the long and lugubrious history of Germany’s at times pathological attachment to the aesthetic ideals of Greek antiquity: endless reams of less-than-mediocre landscape paintings featuring Greek temples (the Parthenon a perennial favorite, of course), as well as innumerable nudes named Hera, Demeter, or Aphrodite. None of these “artists” are remembered today—apart, perhaps, from Adolf Ziegler, the much-ridiculed “master of the pubic hair”—but much of their work, produced in such prodigious volumes, survived the war nevertheless, shamefully stashed away in the vaults of “historical” museums rather than “art” museums. Nazi art really is the last frontier of aesthetic discernment.



Arnold Bode, Der Wagenlenker von Delphi, 1965. © Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Kassel.
Courtesy: Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Kassel. Photo: Ute Brunzel


After the Second World War, two very different visitors found their way back to the Greece of tireless German fantasy and longing: Arnold Bode, the founding father of documenta (whose memories of visiting the national archaeological museum in Athens and the archaeological site in Delphi in 1965 survive in a handful of quickly executed pencil sketches: Bode was an artist as much as a curator, and an artist first, too), and Theodor Heuss, first president of the Federal Republic of Germany. Greece, in fact, was the first nation after the Second World War to formally invite the nominal head of the newly founded Bundesrepublik Deutschland for a state visit. For Heuss, it stirred memories of his first visit to Greece in 1931 (which he already then referred to as his geistige Heimat), the setting, at the time, for an international gathering of liberal intellectuals and political activists devoted to safeguarding democracy across the European continent. Later, Heuss—a gifted draftsman who enjoyed capturing the Greek landscape in a few loose lines—would reminisce that “there are three hills from which the Occident originated: Golgotha, the Acropolis of Athens, and the Capitoline hill in Rome.” In the original, “occident” is rendered more poetically, poignantly, as Abendland—land of the setting sun—a melancholy touch that also recurs in the name of the Gesellschaft Abendländische Kunst des 20. Jahrhunderts e.V., the association founded by Arnold Bode in the early 1950s as the actual organizing force behind the first documenta. Since then, the sun has never ceased to set over the heartlands of Art.



German Chancellor Angela Merkel (on the right) and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (on the left) hold their earpieces as they address a press conference following talks at the chancellery in Berlin, on March 23, 2015.
Photo: John Macdougall / AFP / Getty Images


Among the best known and most widely reprinted images useful for summing up the fractious nature of contemporary German–Greek relations is a photograph taken in Berlin in March 2015, depicting Angela Merkel and Alexis Tsipras during “a tense encounter overshadowed by Athens’ mounting debt crisis and embarrassing claims that the German arms industry had paid millions in backhanders to win Greek weapons contracts.”6 (Today’s Europe in a nutshell: “What is he/she saying?”) That same month, the German weekly Der Spiegel put out an issue whose cover inserted Merkel into a historical photograph of high-ranking Nazis visiting the Acropolis (there’s the Parthenon again) as if it was the oracular source of their power and claims to spiritual as well as racial superiority. A black-and-red title stamped atop the resultant collage added: “The German Übermacht.” The original photograph, taken in April 1941 (during which time a swastika flag was hoisted atop the archetypal symbol of the birth of Western civilization, now witness to its demise), became a popular graffiti motif across Athens in the early months of documenta 14’s cautious settling down—we evidently wanted to project anything but Übermacht—in its new home in Exarchia, the Greek capital’s student quarter and traditional anarchist stronghold. Well, “home”—are we there yet? Will we ever get there? Is documenta even supposed to “be” (or get) home, ever again?


1. Philippe Jockey, Le mythe de la Grèce blanche: Un malentendu historique (Paris: Belin, 2013).
2. This is a reference to the Greek art journal South—As a State of Mind, founded in 2012 by the Athens-based curator Marina Fokidis. Since spring 2016, the journal has operated as documenta 14’s primary discursive platform in the analog realm. I often think of it as documenta 14’s very own Athenaeum, in honor of the aptly titled leading theoretical organ of German Romanticism and post-Kantian idealist philosophy. (It goes without saying that none of the founders of Athenaeum, all staunch philhellenes, ever laid eyes on the city their journal was named after. Back in the early 1800s, Athens was little more than a sleepy village anyhow.)
3. At the time of this writing, early March 2017, it is still possible to donate books to the making of Minujín’s Parthenon, about which more can be read here:
4. Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla, Tacita Dean, and Bettina Pousttchi are but four artists I personally know to have made works commemorating the fate of the Palace of the Republic, which during the last years of its existence actually functioned as a temporary Kunsthalle. 
5. It is worth remembering here that the Trojan War’s mythological roots (and the origin, by extension, of the founding of Rome) reach back into the philosophical parable of the judgment of Paris—the archetypal figure of aesthetic choice, folding the genealogy of beauty into ideas of sexual difference and pleasure.
6. Tony Paterson, “Alexis Tsipras and Angela Merkel Meet in Berlin as Tense German Greek Talks Get Under Way,” The Independent, March 23, 2015,


Dieter Roelstraete is a member of the curatorial team convened by artistic director Adam Szymczyk to organize documenta 14 in Athens and Kassel in the spring and summer of 2017. He lives in Kassel, but for how much longer?


Originally published on Mousse 58 (April–May 2017)



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