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The Bauhaus, the Nazis and German Post War Nation Building Processes

50 Years of the Bauhaus, Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, 1968.
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019.

On 4 May 1968 the exhibition 50 Years of the Bauhaus was opened at the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart. To this day, the exhibition, designed by Herbert Bayer and shown in eight museums worldwide until 1971, is considered one of the most influential post-war exhibitions on the Bauhaus and was of great significance in the course of the nation building process for the still-young Federal Republic. Fifty years later the Württembergischer Kunstverein undertook a critical rereading of the historical exhibition, which created a long-term image and brand of Bauhaus that has been and still needs to be called in question: not least in such a year of jubilation.

On 4 May 1968, one day after students in Paris had occupied the Sorbonne University, in the process proclaiming the so–called May ‘68, the exhibition 50 Years of the Bauhaus opened at the Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart. The show’s opening celebration was accompanied by protests against the planned closure of the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm, founded in 1953 as a successor to the Bauhaus project.

The exhibition was designed by Herbert Bayer and conceived by Hans Maria Wingler, Ludwig Grote and Kunstverein director Dieter Honisch. After Stuttgart it traveled to eight additional museums—in Europe, the United States, Canada, South America and Asia—reaching more than 800,000 visitors in total. Beginning in 1974, a reduced version of the show compiled by the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (Institute for Foreign Relations) toured the globe for a further eight years. To this day, 50 Years of the Bauhaus is considered one of the most influential postwar exhibitions on the Bauhaus, and to a large part it created the school’s posthumous myth and brand.

The exhibition—in particular its foreign tour—was funded by the previously mentioned Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen, part of the German Foreign Office. Being that it was of major significance to the identity and nation-building processes the still–young Federal Republic was engaged in, it fell under the direct patronage of its second president, Heinrich Lübke. What was at stake was nothing less than the international rehabilitation of Germany as a cultured nation in the aftermath of National Socialism. The 1968 exhibition depicted the Bauhaus as a cultural achievement of the Weimar Republic that could be built upon seamlessly after 1945, partially through its re-importation from the United States—an exile which, or so the narrative went, enabled its maturation.1 The title, 50 years of the Bauhaus, already ascribes an unbroken continuity to the school—which, as is well known, existed for only 14 years, and in his opening speech the German Federal Minister for Building and Urbanism, Dr. Lauritz Lauritzen, claimed: “The Bauhaus … has significantly contributed to the cultural philosophy of a state designed (to be) democratic and of a democratic society. It is unthinkable without the democratic constitution of the Weimar Republic,” which, as he went on to explain, failed not for political reasons but due to the lack in Germany of an authentically liberal, open society. “The Bauhaus was of global vibrancy. … Without any national hubris one can say that it is a German contribution to culture and civilization in this world of the twentieth century, a contribution to the humanization of the technical century.” He then added: “The men of the Bauhaus who left Germany kept the spirit of German humanism alive in their exiles.”2 About their activities while still working in Germany under the NS-regime he said nothing.

The 1968 Bauhaus exhibition supported the narrative that all of the men and women associated with the Bauhaus, which closed in 1933 due to Nazi pressure, were dissidents of the Third Reich. As the architectural historian Winfried Nerdinger has written: “After 1945, the notion that from then on was incessantly repeated ran as follows: anyone who made use of modernist forms during the Nazi period cannot have been a Nazi. The modernist style in and of itself rehabilitates the architect and immediately legitimizes him as a democratic spirit or even as a member of the resistance.”3

German federal president Heinrich Lübke visits the 50 Years of the Bauhaus exhibition in Stuttgart.

The exhibition 50 years of the Bauhaus must be read in the context of how Germany in the 1950s and ‘60s tried to overcome, negate and forget its fascist past. And it seems that in this it was successful. A reporter for the British newspaper, the Observer, wrote in September 1968: “After the painful disasters of the Great War the message of the Bauhaus was positive and healthy. It proposed breaking with the past and facing the future not with grim determination but with joy.”4 In this sense the patronage of Heinrich Lübke—who, among other tasks, had worked on building projects controlled by Albert Speer during the Third Reich and was responsible for using concentration camp inmates as slave labor—is symptomatic. When he visited the exhibition he made sure that the accompanying photographer took shots underlining his closeness to modernity—that is to say, to the future and not the past.

Healing, as mentioned in the Observer, had already been a motive for the foundation of the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm. In 1946, Otl Aicher and Inge Scholl, sister to the well-known resistance fighters Hans and Sophie Scholl, applied themselves to the development of new educational models that would support the needed social and psychological transformation of the postwar German state. These concerns resulted, among other things, in the establishment of the design school in Ulm, which was based on the model of the Bauhaus and founded with the intention of contributing to the formation of a peaceful, democratic and free society. Despite student protests beginning before and continuing well after the May 4 opening of 50 Years of the Bauhaus, the school was closed in the fall of 1968.

Already in 1930, the Bauhaus was being promoted as a protagonist of Germany’s modern and up-to-date spirit. I am referring to the legendary section of the German Werkbund in the Paris Exposition de la Société des Artistes Décorateurs—the first time after World War I that Germany participated in this important French design exhibition. In fact, this section allemand, curated by Walter Gropius—who had left the Bauhaus in 1928—was obviously a retrospective representation of the Bauhaus and not of the Werkbund, and had already been assigned the role of telling the world Germans were not merely barbarians.

What the 1968 Bauhaus exhibition in Stuttgart completely negated were the entanglements with the Nazi regime of quite a lot of the so-called “Bauhäusler”—among them the most famous representatives of this school—particularly in the fields of industrial construction, rationalization and propaganda. For instance, Herbert Bayer, Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Lilly Reich, Joost Schmidt, Kurt Kranz, the Neuner brothers and many other Bauhäuslers contributed to a certain modernist appeal apparent in the National Socialist’s great propaganda exhibitions; exhibitions promoting the bellicose, fascist, racist, anti-Semitic and eugenicist ideology of the Nazis. Others, like Gustav Hassenpflug, were involved with the design of industrial buildings associated with companies, often disappropriated, that served an essential function within the Nazi’s armament production program. Ernst Neufert, part of the first class of students at the Bauhaus before coming chief architect in Gropius’s firm, was a global authority on normification and the rationalization of building construction who worked his way up the Nazi hierarchy to positions within the various task forces of Albert Speer and openly supported the Nazi ideology. He was responsible at that time for armor logistics and the urbanization plans for the future east. Nothing of this was included in 50 Years of The Bauhaus.

But the year 1968 also marks a certain moment of change concerning the perception of the recent past. In Germany, the student protests that started in 1967 were deeply shaped by the demand that the country look more closely at its painful history. The young generation started to ask both their parents and those who governed them: what did you do during the Third Reich? But its was, to the author’s knowledge, not until 1993 that a major academic survey concerning the ambivalent relationship between former members of the Bauhaus and National Socialism was published: I refer to the book Bauhaus-Moderne im Nationalsozialismus: zwischen Anbiederung und Verfolgung,5 edited by Winfried Nerdinger. Although the ambivalent relationships between Bauhäuslers and the Nazis becoming better known since than, they continue to remain outside the broader public narrative about the Bauhaus.

50 Years After 50 Years of the Bauhaus 1968, Württembergischer Kunstverein, 2018.

The 2018 exhibition 50 Years after 50 Years of the Bauhaus 1968, which the author co-curated with Hans D. Christ and which also took place at the Württemburgischer Kunstverein Stuttgart, was conceived as a critical rereading of the legendary 1968 exhibition. It included four major thematic lines. One dealt explicitly with the Bauhaus designer’s entanglements with the National Socialists—which took the form of a series of 17 tableaus on the history of exhibition designs from the 1920s to the ‘40s, with a particular focus on Herbert Bayer. Bayer, as previously mentioned, designed the 1968 Bauhaus exhibition and was probably the greatest opportunist in twentieth century design history, working with the same creative energy over the course of his career for trade unions, the National Socialists and United States war propaganda against the Nazis. Our aim was not to unveil individual positions of Bauhaus members regarding National Socialism. Rather, it was to understand why the Nazis, in certain contexts, were eager to be perceived from certain circles as modern and cosmopolitan. In the previously mentioned book from 1993, Bauhaus-Moderne im Nationalsozialismus, Magdalena Droste wrote that:

The Nazis had not only smashed the Bauhaus and fought against its claim to modernization, they occupied the modern forms themselves and put them at the service of National Socialism. The artistic works of the Bauhaus designers from these years do not have a uniform style: simple craftsmanship, folk designs, conservative luxury products and fashionable product design are equally represented.6

She adds: “The Bauhäusler who had stayed on in Germany during the NS period, revised their biographies (afterwards) and thereby joined in the collective suppression and denial of the NS era that the entire country was engaged in at that time.”7

A telling example of this tendency is Herbert Bayer’s poster for the waterproof textiles of ADEFA, the association of the so-called German-Aryan textile industry, whose aim was to push Jewish manufacturers out of the German market. The logo and text in this poster refers unmistakably to the fascist background of its client. For a 1967 monographic catalogue, Bayer reprinted this poster, erasing the name of the Aryan lobbyists from both logo and text. Moreover, he manipulated the date, claiming the poster was designed in 1930—that is to say, before the take-over of the Nazi regime—although ADEFA was founded in 1933, and the logo of the company used by Bayer was only realized in 1938.8 Even the type of waterproof textile promoted in the poster did not exist prior to 1936.

Herbert Bayer, Advertisement for ADEFA, ca. 1936/37 and documentation of the same ad in Bayer’s monography of 1967.
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019.

The exhibition designs developed in the 1920s by Lilly Reich and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe experimenting with materials such as textiles (e.g., the stand Café Samt und Seide (Velvet and Silk Café) for the 1927 exhibition Die Mode der Dame) and glass (e.g., the Stuttgart exhibition Die Wohnung of 1928) had apparently been of interest to the functionaries of the National Socialist regime. Hired to present the textile industry section of Nazi Germany’s pavilion at the 1937 Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris, the proposal of Reich and Mies to realize a display based on the same minimalist aesthetics presented eight years earlier at the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition was accepted without objection.

The new possibilities of photography—in particular, the production of huge photographic enlargements—revolutionized exhibition design in these years, as did photomontage, typography and expanded concepts of space. El Lissitzky and Herbert Bayer were extensively involved in this development. They understood the exhibition as a mass media format, one with the capacity to visually overwhelm its audience. Totalitarian governments like the Nazi-Regime appropriated this spellbinding quality. One of the most ambitious projects of this type was the exhibition Gebt mir vier Jahre Zeit (Give Me Four Years) of 1937, devoted to praising Hitler’s Four Year Plan. The gigantic propagandistic photomontages used in this show were designed by Egon Eiermann, an architect and designer who, while not involved directly with the Bauhaus, was among Germany’s most acclaimed modern architects.

Herbert Bayer was never given a commission by the National Socialists to design an exhibition. However, he was hired as a graphic designer on four of the regime’s major propaganda exhibitions. The first, Die Kamera (The Camera), took place in 1933 in Berlin and Stuttgart. Bayer designed the catalogue for the Berlin exhibition. Both cover and content clearly employ the language of modern typography and layout, playing with techniques of montage (cover), while the inner pages used white space, asymmetrical layout, changes of reading direction, etc. Bayer gave a cosmopolitan, modernistic gloss to the racial/traditionalist, fascist contents of both book and exhibition. With his posters, cover designs for guidebooks and, in particular, his extraordinary brochures for the Berlin exhibitions Deutsches Volk-Deutsche Arbeit (German People–German Work, 1934), Das Wunder des Lebens (The Miracle of Life, 1935) and Deutschland (Germany, 1936), Bayer perfected this mission. His avant-garde brochures for these exhibitions, which were produced on a high print run (one of them (Deutschland) even being distributed as an insert in the internationally acclaimed design magazine Gebrauchsgrafik), were widely celebrated in worldwide design circles at the time. It begs belief to think that neither Bayer nor the people who perused these brochures ever read the texts …

For the exhibition Deutsches Volk-Deutsche Arbeit, Bayer was joined by more than twelve other former Bauhaus directors, teachers and students. Lilly Reich, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Joost Schmidt and several others created some of their most outstanding avant-garde exhibition displays and objects in this context. These were presented next to the most rough-and-radical examples of Nazi-symbols, content and aesthetics: they were obviously integral to the Nazis’ marketing strategy.

The many and complex confluences between “Bauhaus-design” and the aesthetic strategies and ideological positions of the Third Reich are also evident in National Socialists propaganda exhibitions and publications where no (or almost no) Bauhäuslers were involved: for example, the giant building exhibition Schaffendes Volk (Productive People, 1937) in Düsseldorf,9 where the section on the textile industry, designed by the architect and designer Bernhard Pfau, was little more than a copy of the work of Reich and Mies, and where numerous works of architecture, objects and examples of graphic design betrayed a dubious commingling of modernist, traditionalist and classical aesthetics.

For catalogues designed by Bayer: © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019.

For the catalogues and booklets designed for the three major fascist exhibitions mentioned above, Bayer used a square format—identical to the one he and László Moholy-Nagy had developed for the catalogue of the very first Bauhaus exhibition in 1923. Other designers working for the Nazi propaganda machine continued this tradition.10 Bayer returned to this format while designing the catalogue of the 1968 Bauhaus exhibition in Stuttgart. Thirty years before, following his successes as an avant-garde designer for the National Socialists, Bayer had emigrated to the United States, working first for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Besides working on the Bauhaus 1919–192811 exhibition of 1938, he designed two of MoMA’s major war propaganda shows. At the time, the museum understood its role as that of “a weapon of national defense.”12 Both Road to Victory: A Procession of Photographs of the Nation at War (1942) and Airways to Peace (1943) are informed by Bayer’s programmatic use of the “extended field of vision,” a continuation of such projects as his contribution to the German section of the Exposition de la Société des Artistes Décorateurs (1930, Paris) or the section devoted to the building workers union he designed for the German Building Exhibition (1931, Berlin).

Ad for Container Corporation, 1940s
Design: Herbert Bayer
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2019.

Parallel to his MoMA commissions, Bayer had begun working for the Chicago-based Container Corporation of America (CCA)—founded in 1926 by the industrialist Walter Paepcke, who became an important patron of avant-garde design and photography, supporting, alongside other causes, László Moholy-Nagy’s efforts to continue the Bauhaus-project in Chicago. Bayer’s poster advertisements for the CCA in the 1940s were part of a larger campaign including many other prominent artists and designers,13 all of whom combined advertising with war propaganda and patriotic rhetoric. These campaigns were the subject of exhibitions such as Modern Art in Advertising, a traveling exhibition that started in 1945 at Moholy-Nagy’s Art Institute and was designed by Bayer, or publications such as Paperboard Goes to War (1942), designed for the CCA by György Kepes. Another chapter of our 50 Years after 50 Years of The Bauhaus exhibition dealt with the relationships between the avant-garde and the industrial-military complex, a subject which unfortunately falls outside the purview of this article.

With some exceptions, the events organized for 100 Years of the Bauhaus have tended towards the celebratory, remaining mostly deaf to the ambivalences and antinomies within avant-garde art and design in general and the Bauhaus in particular. Despite more than 50 year of rich and complex critical investigations of modernism from a feminist, decolonial, anti-fascist and anti-capitalist perspectives, it seems that the same triumphant chorus of praise is again being intoned, as was the case a half-century earlier when the Württembergischer Kunstverein opened its conservative, revisionist exhibition.

But there was one moment, shortly before the big party started, when the slick facade of Bauhaus commemoration collapsed with great public furor: that is, when the current Bauhaus administration in Dessau cancelled the appearance of an anti-fascist punk band (and alongside it, one of the biggest of the German public-service television channels14) slated to play in their house, because those in charge feared trouble from fascist agitators.15 This demonstration of complete civic and moral bankruptcy was declared by the director as a manifestation of political neutrality, justified with the hint that the Bauhaus always prohibited any political positioning. What could be more political than such an act of censorship, which silences anti-fascist movements and, in the process, strengthens neo-fascists? And was the Bauhaus’s supposed political “neutrality” not itself the original reason for its closure in 1933?—to say nothing of the fact that had there been a stronger political position taken against the Nazis by German institutions of the 1930s, perhaps one of the biggest nightmares of European history might have been averted. As an anticlimactic finale to the wretched eve of the big jubilee, the problem was blamed on miscommunication and the Bauhaus press officer was dismissed. Happy Birthday!

●Footnotes
  • 1 See Magdalena Droste: “Bauhaus-Designer zwischen Handwerk und Moderne,“ in: Winfried Nerdinger (ed.), in collaboration with the Bauhaus-Archiv Berlin: Bauhaus-Moderne im Nationalsozialismus. Zwischen Anbiederung und Verfolgung, Prestel Verlag, Munich 1993, p. 100.
  • 2 Lauritz Lauritzen in Württembergischer Kunstverein (ed.): “Ansprachen zur Eröffnung der Ausstellung am 4. Mai 1968 im Kleinen Haus der Württembergischen Staatstheater, Stuttgart” (Speeches at the opening of the exhibition on 4 May 1968 in the Kleines Haus der Württembergischen Staatstheater, Stuttgart), in: 50 Jahre Bauhaus 1968, p. 7–10.
  • 3 Winfried Nerdinger: “Bauhaus-Architekten im ‘Dritten Reich,’” in: Nerdinger, see note 1, p. 174.
  • 4 “The Bauhaus,” in: Observer, London, September 22, 1968, p. 42.
  • 5 Winfried Nerdinger (ed.): Bauhaus-Moderne im Nationalsozialismus. Zwischen Anbiederung und Verfolgung, Prestel Verlag, Munich 1993. See note 1.
  • 6 Droste: “Bauhaus-Designer zwischen Handwerk und Moderne,“ p. 100.
  • 7 Ibid.
  • 8 See Julia Schnaus: Kleidung zieht jeden an. Die deutsche Bekleidungsindustrie 1918-1973, Walter de Gruyter GmBH, Berlin / Boston, 2017, p. 114.
  • 9 Johannes Itten, presenting the Krefeld textile school at which he worked at the time, was the only former Bauhausler to take part in the exhibition.
  • 10 See for example the catalogues for the exhibitions Gebt mir vier Jahre Zeit (1937), Schaffendes Volk (1937) and Gesundes Leben-Frohes Schaffen (193ß), or a special version of the guidebook of Deutschland (1936), the latter not designed by Bayer.
  • 11 This exhibition curated by Bayer, Walter and Ise Gropius reduced the Bauhaus already in its title to the period of Gropius’ directorship.
  • 12 “The Museum of Modern Art will be a weapon of national defense”, John Hay Whitney, President of the Museum and Chairman of the Motion Picture Division, Office of the Coordinator of Commercial and Cultural Relations between the American Republics in a press release, MoMA, New York, 28 February 1941.
  • 13 Including Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, György Kepes, Fernand Léger, Richard Lindner, Henry Moore, Man Ray, Xanti Schawinsky and many others.
  • 14 The ZDF was the organizer of this planned event.
  • 15 See: https://www.change.org/p/herrn-rainer-robra-kulturminister-und-vorsitzender-des-stiftungsrates-der-stiftung-bauhaus-dessau-offener-brief-zum-auftrittsverbot-der-punk-band-feine-sahne-fischfilet-am-bauhaus-dessau (accessed 12 August 2019) Moreover, in 2018 this institution was unable to respond adequately to the more-than-ambivalent question posed by the AFD, the German nationalist party, as to why Bauhaus Dessau had dedicated the square fronting its new museum to Mies van der Rohe, who had supported Hitler by signing the Aufruf der Kulturschaffenden (Call of the Creative Artists). Not to speak of Bauhaus Dessau’s widely promoted event “Gelb gewinkelt.” Only someone complete ignorant of Germany’s recent past would be unaware that the “gelber Winkel” refers to the yellow Star of David Jewish people had to wear during the Nazi regime, and it begs credulity to believe no one working at Bauhaus Dessau would have known this fact.
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●Text Compilation
News from Santiniketan — A Text Compilation of Educational Texts from Santiniketan

Unlike the Bauhaus, Kala Bhavana had no written manifesto or curriculum. However, a corpus of writing developed around the school, largely produced by the school’s artists and teachers. The academic Partha Mitter, whose own writing has explored the interplay between the struggle against colonialism, modernism, and the cultural avant-garde in India, has selected a group of texts on education in Santiniketan. → more

●Slide Show
Life at Santiniketan

The art school Kala Bhavan was founded by the poet Rabindranath Tagore in 1919 at Santiniketan, a utopian community about 100 miles north of Calcutta established in the previous century by the poet’s father, Maharshi Devendranath Tagore. Born out of the need to rehabilitate traditional Indian culture after the demoralizing impact of British rule, the school was established as an experiment in education that broke with academic tradition, and created a form of rural modernism decoupled from industrial modernization. → more

●Artist Work
The O Horizon — A Film Produced for bauhaus imaginista

The Otolith Group have been commissioned to produce The O Horizon for bauhaus imaginista, a new film containing studies of Kala Bhavana as well as the wider environments of Santiniketan and Sriniketan. Through rare footage of art, craft, music and dance, it explores the material production of the school and its community as well as the metaphysical inclinations that guided Tagore’s approach to institution building. → more

●Video and Introduction
Ritwik’s Ramkinker — A Film in the Process

Ritwik Ghatak’s film Ramkinker Baij: A Personality Study on the sculptor from Santiniketan is like a spurt, a sudden expression of ebullient enthusiasm from a friend, who is said to have shared artistic affinities with him. Incidentally, it also registers, through a conversational method, the process of discovering the artist, who was embedded, organic, yet global and most advanced for his time. → more

●Article
Bauhaus Calcutta

ln December 1922, ‘The Fourteenth Annual Exhibition of the lndian Society of Oriental Art’ was held at Samavaya Bhavan, number seventeen Park Street. Paintings by artists from the ‘Bengal school’—all of them members of the lndian Society of Oriental Arts—were exhibited. Most of these artists painted in a manner, which would have been recognisable as that school’s invention, a particularly lndian signature style, with mythology as preferred subject. Hung on the other side of the hall was a large selection of works from the Bauhaus.  → more

●Artist Work
Anna Boghiguian — A Play to Play

The works from Anna Boghiguian shown here are from an installation commissioned by the Institute of International Visual Arts (Iniva) titled A Play to Play as part of the exhibition Tagore’s Universal Allegories in 2013. These works incorporate elements associated with Tagore, from the artist’s frequent visits to Santiniketan. → more

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