Bauhaus Utopien

Kölnischer Kunstverein

It has been 20 years since a Bauhaus exhibition of this size and importance took place. The main organizer, Wulf Herzogenrath, undertook an attempt to offer a representative panorama of work done between 1919 and 1933 at this seminal institution. The aims of such a presentation are quite different today. In 1968, the first and most necessary task was to satisfy the desire for information and to republish the pictorial, architectural, and theoretical statements of the Bauhaus. Most of its participants were still alive to play the role of witness. It was necessary—and fitting to the social and political situation of the ’60s—to show how the avant garde after World War I tried to change society fundamentally, and it was interesting to reconstruct how the reactionary turn of the Weimar Republic was challenged by the Bauhaus. But the movement’s goal of merging expression and function in both art and everyday life was something which became more and more questionable—not because of the supposed failure of Bauhaus architecture but because of the dependence of the later Bauhaus on a social-democratic belief in progress. This notion of progress was already received and incorporated by the reactionary trends of capitalism. The fundamental contradiction between social-oriented functionalism and the reality of industrial production has remained nearly unrecognized until recently. Consequently, the claims made by the current Bauhaus exhibition are much more complicated: to consider the pretensions of the Bauhaus in the face of post-Modernism.

This exhibition gives a more differentiated view regarding the history and the diversity of the Bauhaus, which constitutes a small step forward. On the other hand, the show leaves the impression of sensual richness but avoids certain key disputes. The fact that only works on paper and photographs are shown turns out to be an advantage. It is informative to see so much printed matter designed at the Bauhaus; the many sketches and drawings testify to the number of works-in-progress that existed. The opportunity to see related exhibitions of watercolors by Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Oskar Schlemmer was particularly welcome, as was the extensive catalogue. Overall, the exhibition (which was also seen in Budapest and Madrid) was beautiful, even stunning, showing as it did differences rather than contradictions within the complex Bauhaus.

Uli Bohnen