German Painter, Sculptor, Theater Designer, and Choreographer
Summary of Oskar Schlemmer
Schlemmer's work in the arena of performance was both experimental and subversive. He purposely broke free from the usual constraints and rules of theater and dance, creating completely new versions of the artforms. He was one of the first artists to modernize the genres and his work formed the basis for many modern performance ideas that followed. He also explored painting and sculpture, winning international acclaim for his work and, as a result of this, he was commissioned to produce a number of high-profile murals including a series for the Folkwang Museum in Essen. During the 1920s, he was one of the Masters at the progressive Bauhaus school, working and teaching across a range of mediums. The Bauhaus revolutionized the way in which art was taught and created and Schlemmer is seen as a key figure in shaping its forward-thinking and collaborative ethos.
- Schlemmer was novel in bridging the gap between pure abstraction and representational art. Whilst his work was predominantly abstract, he retained elements of the physical structure of the human body in his paintings, sculptures and performances. He presented people as architectural forms, simplifying the human image and breaking it into its constituent parts.
- His theater and dance work combined his interest in the representation of the human body with kinetic studies and an investigation of the relationship between performer and space and he transformed his observations into abstract geometrical and mechanical choreography and costumes. The most famous of Schlemmer's works, The Triadic Ballet (1922), is an important example of this process in action.
- Schlemmer's work aligned with Bauhaus thinking on merging art and technology, man and machine. His paintings often present genderless automatons and his dancers moved in unusual and machine-like ways. In relating humans to machines, Schlemmer was at the forefront of a movement to utilize technology to seek a deeper understanding of the human condition.
Biography of Oskar Schlemmer
Despite the fact that Oskar Schlemmer's Triadic Ballet was first shown in 1922, his multi-media design aesthetic remains avant-garde today. The video to Lady Gaga’s hit Bad Romance reimagined the German artist’s choreography a century on, to critical acclaim.
Important Art by Oskar Schlemmer
Schlemmer's reliefs mark a half-way point in his exploration of the human body from two-dimensional paintings to three-dimensional sculptures. His negotiations with Cubism are also apparent as he divides the human figure into geometric sections. The viewer sees the figure from the front and the rounded shapes denoting the head, torso, and legs are intersected with horizontal and vertical gridlines. These elements of the body are raised from the surface, but also delineated through the use of metallic paint in black, brown, silver, and bronze. Patterned sections make the figure stand out from the surface and offer more depth to the relief.
Reliefs were a medium that many artists of this time experimented with including Hans Arp, whose wooden reliefs of the 1910s and 1920s raised geometric shapes beyond the confines of the two-dimensional canvas. Schlemmer's relief works also exhibit many similarities to the Wall Pictures of his friend Willi Baumeister. Relief H-6 PA can be seen as Schlemmer's attempt to reinterpret the European avant-garde, and particularly Cubism, along the lines of his own fixation with the human figure. In his move towards sculpture through his experimental reliefs, the artist was able to reconsider the body's relationship to space, and utilize geometry for anthropomorphic rather than abstract ends. This work foreshadows Schlemmer's use of geometry in performative art and theatre, in particular the Triadic Ballet.
The tubular shapes of Abstract Figure resemble the standing human form with arms outstretched. The streamlined body can be seen as that of the New Man, a fantasy figure in post-war Germany who was thoroughly modern and forward-thinking. The use of bronze and nickel reflect these notions and give the work a machine-like aesthetic, an idea that was explored by staff and students at the Bauhaus, where Schlemmer was teaching at this time. The inter-disciplinary environment of the school meant Schlemmer could easily access the resources and materials of the metal workshop to create this piece.
Abstract Figure was one of Schlemmer's first forays into expressing the human figure in three-dimensions. Following the First World War, Schlemmer increasingly placed an emphasis on the more spatial aspects of his art and how the dynamism of the human body could be displayed through sculpture and theater. Of such experiments, the artist wrote: "Sculpture is three-dimensional. It cannot be taken in at once, but rather in a temporal sequence of different locations and angles of view. As a sculpture is not exhausted by a single direction of view, the visitor is forced to move, and it is only the circumambulation and the sum of impressions that leads to the full experience of the sculpture".
Schlemmer's ballet premiered at the Stuttgart Landestheater in September 1922, with music by the German composer Paul Hindemith. The production went on to tour throughout Europe in the 1920s, to cities including Weimar, Frankfurt, Berlin, and Paris, spreading the Bauhaus ideas of modern art. The ballet didn't have a plot, but rather three acts of different moods and color which Schlemmer described as a "party of form and color". Act One was yellow, Act Two, pink, and the final Act was black. It was performed by three dancers, two female and one male, who wore a total of 18 costumes. The costumes over-emphasized the forms of the human body, turning the dancers into geometrical constructions and they moved both with and against the wearers as they danced the ballet, restricting some movements and highlighting others. The mixed media of their construction variously reflected and absorbed light further emphasizing certain body parts and structural elements.
Schlemmer was not the first to explore the traditional dance form of ballet in a modern way. At this time, the Ballets Russes, founded by the Russian art patron Sergei Diaghilev, was at the height of its popularity. Diaghilev commissioned new music from the composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev, accompanying by sets designed by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Schlemmer's Bauhaus colleague Wassily Kandinsky. In the Triadic Ballet, however, Schlemmer was the first artist to fuse dance and modernism through his exploration of abstraction in real space. It also marked a breakaway from classical ballet's focus on the soloist and the duet, instead emphasising a collective approach to dance. Schlemmer described his attempts to explore the relationship between body, shape, color and space as "artistic metaphysical mathematics". As well as the physical movement of the dance, the costumes can be seen as a living embodiment of Schlemmer's previous sculptural and pictorial work. The performers appear machine-like in their faceless costumes, reflecting on the zeitgeist of the New Man.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Oskar Schlemmer
- Oskar Schlemmer: Visions of a New WorldBy Ina Conzen
- The Letters and Diaries of Oskar SchlemmerSelected and edited by Tut Schlemmer, translated by Krishna Winston
- Beyond the Bauhaus: Cultural Modernity in Breslau, 1918-33By Deborah Ascher Barnstone
- The Theater of the Bauhaus: The Modern and Postmodern Stage of Oskar SchlemmerBy Melissa Trimingham
- Bauhaus: Workshops for Modernity, 1919 - 1933By Barry Bergdoll and Leah Dickerman
- Human-Space-Machine: Space Experiments at the BauhausBy Torsten Blume, Christian Hiller, and Stephan Müller
- Man: Teaching Notes from the BauhausBy Oskar Schlemmer
- Dance the BauhausBy Torsten Blume
- Oskar Schlemmer: The Bauhaus Stairway and the Triadic BalletBy John Bailey / American Cinematographer / March 23, 2014
- Bauhaus Theater of Human DollsBy Juliet Koss / The Art Bulletin, Vol. 85, No. 4 / December 2003
- Mathematics in Motion: A Comparative Analysis of the Stage Works of Schlemmer and Kandinsky at the BauhausBy Nicolas Salazar Sutil / Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research, Vol. 32, No. 1 / Summer, 2014
- Bauhaus, Constructivism, PerformanceBy Johannes Birringer / PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Vol. 35, No. 2 / May, 2013
- Oskar Schlemmer: Mechanical Ballets?By Susanne Lahusen / Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research, Vol. 4, No. 2 / Autumn, 1986