Friday, August 6, 2010

Oskar Schlemmer - The Higher State of Marionettes

 Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Portrait of Oskar Schlemmer, 1914

Born in Stuttgart, Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943) was the youngest of six children. His parents both died around 1900 and the young Oskar learned at an early age to provide for himself. By 1903 he was completely independent and supporting himself as an apprentice in an inlay workshop. Schlemmer studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule as well as the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart. In 1914 Schlemmer was enlisted to fight on the Western Front in World War I until he was wounded and moved to a position with a military cartography unit in Colmar.

 Oskar Schlemmer's Triadisches Ballett, Stuttgart 1922

In 1919 Schlemmer turned to sculpture and had an exhibition of his work at Herwarth Walden's gallery Der Sturm in Berlin. In 1921 Schlemmer created the set design for Oskar Kokoschka's Murderer, the Hope of Women and, one year later, became known internationally with the première of his Triadisches Ballett in Stuttgart.  After his marriage to Helena Tutein in 1920, Schlemmer was invited to Weimar by Walter Gropius to run the mural-painting and sculpture departments at the Bauhaus School before heading its theater workshop in 1923. 

Erich Consemüller, Woman in B3 club chair by Marcel Breuer wearing a mask by Oskar Schlemmer and a dress in fabric designed by Lis Beyer, 1926 

As director of stage research and production Schlemmer created a provocative series of robotic ballets and until he left in 1928 his art can be seen as a manifesto for a robot society, both artistically, as it mocks the late-Romantic individualism of German painters such as Emil Nolde, and politically: in the wake of the Russian revolution a kind of machine communism was very alluring. 

 Oskar Schlemmer, Triadisches Ballett (Triadic Ballet Costume), 1922 

The Bauhaus was launched as a centre of art and design education in 1919 with Walter Gropius' Proclamation of the Weimar Bauhaus, in which he called for "a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions, which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsman and artist". Going back to Ruskin and Morris's ideas for a communal, craft-guild art and way of life, the Bauhaus encompassed politics from democratic socialism to communism. Its teachers included Paul Klee, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Wassily Kandinsky. 

Group Picture with Lady - Bauhaus Staff: Josef Albers, Hinnerk Scheper, Georg Muche, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, Joost Schmidt, Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Lyonel Feininger, Gunta Stölzl, Oskar Schlemmer (left to right)

By 1923, when Schlemmer became director of the Bauhaus Stage, Gropius was committing the institution to a belief in mass production and functional design. Later, it came under severe attack for its alien, supposedly Marxist modernity from far-right politicians. In 1932, the Bauhaus left Dessau, disbanding permanently soon afterwards. In 1933 Hitler became chancellor of Germany.  

Oskar Schlemmer, Bauhaus Stairway, 1932

Schlemmer's Stairway painting is a farewell. All but one of the students on an ordinary day at the Bauhaus are walking away from us, up the stairs, towards the huge windows - the Bauhaus belongs in a higher realm than this one. Schlemmer painted it in the year the Bauhaus was forced to abandon its beautiful modern building in Dessau. Another image, Yamawaki's collage The End of the Dessau Bauhaus (1932), makes no bones about what this meant: it shows a jackbooted Nazi leading a moustached politician to stomp on the Bauhaus:

Iwao Yamawaki, The End of the Dessau Bauhaus, 1932

Schlemmer's painting is more elegiac, looking back at the Bauhaus as an utopia rooted in everyday life: these are ordinary, modern young people. They have the rounded, simplified, geometrical bodies that Schlemmer created in his ballets, as they ascend to the higher state of modern marionettes. And yet this is not a mad or violent idealism. There is humour and grace to it. The Dessau Bauhaus, designed by Gropius, was a beautifully calm and spatially free modern building, and in this painting the staircase forms a dynamic, brilliantly lit modern stage. In grace and seriousness of movement, and in the rational theatre of modern architecture, the painting asserts a vision of a new society. But this future was already receding.  

Bauhaus Student Building in Dessau, designed by Walter Gropius in 1925
Photo with kind permission of Andreas Levers

After leaving the Bauhaus in 1929, Schlemmer took a post at the Akademie in Breslau, where he painted his Bauhaus Stairway. In 1932 he took up a professorship at Berlin's Vereinigte Staatsschulen which he held until 1933 when he was forced to resign due to pressure from the Nazis. The Schlemmers then moved to a small village near the Swiss border. His pictures were displayed at the National Socialist exhibition of "Degenerate Art." The last ten years of his life were spent in a state of  "inner emigration".

 Oskar Schlemmer, Before the Mirror, 1931

During World War II Schlemmer worked at the Institut für Malstoffe in Wuppertal along with Willi Baumeister and Georg Muche, run by the philanthropist Kurt Herbert. The factory offered Schlemmer the opportunity to paint without the fear of persecution. His series of eighteen small, mystical paintings entitled Fensterbilder (Window Pictures, 1942) were painted while looking out the window of his house and observing neighbors engaged in their domestic tasks. These were Schlemmer's final works before his death in a hospital at Baden-Baden in 1943.

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