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