The Legacy of Bauhaus Master Oskar Schlemmer

Editorial Feature

By Google Arts & Culture

Fugue on a resurrection theme (1916) by Adolf HölzelOldenburg State Museum for Art and Cultural History

Explore the life and work of this avant-garde, multimedia artist

Oskar Schlemmer (1888–1943) was a well-known aesthete, which is essentially a person who is appreciative of and sensitive to art and beauty, and he translated this philosophy into every project he worked on. Born in Stuttgart in 1888, the painter, sculptor, designer, and choreographer studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule as well as the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Stuttgart under the tutelage of landscape painters Christian Landenberger and Friedrich von Keller.

In 1910, Schlemmer moved to Berlin and it was here he painted some of his first important works before returning to Stuttgart in 1912 as Adolf Hölzel's master pupil, whose work you can see below. Two years later, the artist was enlisted to fight on the Western Front in World War I until he was wounded and moved to a position with the military cartography unit in Colmar, where he resided until returning to work under Hölzel in 1918.

Fugue on a resurrection theme (1916) by Adolf Hölzel (From the collection of Oldenburge Station Museum for Art and Cultural History)

A couple of years later, after Schlemmer had begun to experiment with sculpture and exhibit his work, he was scouted by Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius in 1921. Bauhaus was a German art school that was in operation from 1919 to 1933 and it combined crafts and the fine arts. It was famous for the approach to design it publicized and taught and was revolutionary, with its influence still seen all over the world today.

At first, Schlemmer ran the mural-painting and sculpture departments at the Bauhaus School before becoming Master of Form in the theatre workshop in 1923. He went on to become one of the most important teachers working at the school at that time.

Abstract figure (1921) by Oskar SchlemmerKröller-Müller Museum

Abstract figure, by Oskar Schlemmer, 1921 (From the collection of The Kröller-Müller Museum)

The Bauhaus Dessau (1919/1933) by Walter GropiusOriginal Source: Vidal Sassoon

The Bauhaus Dessau founded by Walter Gropius (1919-1933) (From the collection of British Fashion Council)

One of Schlemmer’s most important works that brought him international fame was the premiere of his Triadisches Ballett. With music composed by Paul Hindemith, the ballet became the most widely performed avant-garde artistic dance and while Schlemmer was at the Bauhaus, the ballet toured, helping to spread the ethos of the Bauhaus. You can see a staging of the ballet below by Margarete Hastings from 1970:

Schlemmer’s work at the Bauhaus typically dealt with the human body and its relationship to space. Figures with stylized, but faceless, features, often of the female form, were the dominant subject in his paintings. His fascination with the body manifested itself a course he taught called “Der Mensch (The human being)”. The course was divided into formal, biological and philosophical aspects. In his opinion, a work should logically build up from the sketch of an idea through exact drawings to the selection and processing of the materials.

Schlemmer's characteristic forms can be seen in his sculptures as well as his paintings. While at Bauhaus, he also turned his attention to stage design, first getting involved with this in 1929, executing settings for the opera Nightingale and the ballet Renard by Igor Stravinsky.

The Crier, the Doctor, the Little Hunchback: Marionettes for "The Adventure of the Little Hunchback", presented at the Experimental Theater of the Bauhaus in Weimar under the direction of Oskar Schlemmer (1923) by Kurt Schmidt (design)Museum of Saxon Folk Art and Puppet Theatre Collection, Dresden State Art Collection

The Crier, the Doctor, the Little Hunchback: Marionettes for "The Adventure of the Little Hunchback", presented at the Experimental Theater of the Bauhaus in Weimar under the direction of Oskar Schlemmer, by Kurt Schmidt, 1923 (From the Collection of Museum of Saxon Folk Art and Puppet Theatre Collection, Dresden State Art Collection)

Figure H 2 (Figur H 2) (1921)Dallas Museum of Art

Figure H 2 (1921) by Oskar Schlemmer (From the collection of Dallas Museum of Art)

Schlemmer left Bauhaus in 1929, due to the political atmosphere in Germany, and in particular with the appointment of the radical communist architect Hannes Meyer as Gropius’ successor. He moved and took up a job at the Art Academy in Breslau.

While at Breslau, Schlemmer painted his most celebrated work, Bauhaustreppe (Bauhaus Stairway) in 1932. The painting depicts the Bauhaus School and the gridded structure, modular bodies and restrained color palette employed captures the design spirit of the institution.

Bauhause Exhibition, Mus. Of Modern Art (1938-12) by Hansel MiethLIFE Photo Collection

View of Bauhaustreppe by Oskar Schlemmer at Bauhaus Exhibition at Museum of Modern Art (1938) by Hansel Mieth (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

In the wake of the financial crisis following the Wall Street Crash, Schlemmer had to leave the Breslau Academy when it was closed down in 1932. He took up a professorship at Berlin’s Vereinigte Staatsschulen für freie und angewandte Kunst (United State School for Fine and Applied Art). Schlemmer was only there for a year though as he was forced to resign due to pressures from the Nazis. Incidentally, the Nazis were responsible for closing the Bauhaus for good that same year and they destroyed much of the work that remained there.

Schlemmer and his family moved to Eichberg near the Swiss border, and then to Sehringen before 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” – a controversial term used to describe the situation of German writers or creatives who were opposed to Nazism yet chose to remain in Germany after the Nazis seized power in 1933. Max Bill, in his obituary of Schlemmer, wrote that it was “as if a curtain of silence” had descended over him during this time.

Figural Plan K 1 (Figurenplan K 1) (1921)Dallas Museum of Art

Figural Plan K 1 (1921) by Oskar Schlemmer (From the collection of Dallas Museum of Art)

During World War II, Schlemmer working at the Institut für Malstoffe in Wuppertal along with Willi Baumeister and Georg Muche, which was run by the philanthropist Kurt Herbert. The factory gave the artist the opportunity to paint without fear of prosecution. Schlemmer painted his final works in 1942, a series of 18 small and mystical works titled Fensterbilder (Window Pictures), which were created while looking out of his house and observing his neighbors performing domestic tasks.

Schlemmer’s ideas were progressive, even by Bauhaus standards, but his work was widely exhibited and accepted internationally. The artist’s fascination with the body and the space it occupies, as well as the movements it’s capable of, led to a body of work that represented humans as architectural forms and figures that shifted from 2D to 3D. Today, his ideas have even seeped into pop culture with 80s rock band New Order emulating Schlemmer’s work in their True Faith video in 1987, and Lady Gaga reaching the same avant-garde heights in her 2008 Bad Romance heyday.

Profile to the left in strips (1925) by Oskar SchlemmerOldenburg State Museum for Art and Cultural History

Profile to the left in strips (1925) by Oskar Schlemmer (From the collection of Oldenburg State Museum for Art and Cultural History)

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