Design Genius Bullied by a Dictatorship : Notes on Oskar Schlemmer
Sept. 4 is the birthday of a Bauhaus artist who flourished in Germany’s vibrant 1920s. Then Nazis gained power by sowing division among citizens, stirring violence in the streets and attacking artists and the press.
How cutting edge were the costumes Oscar Schlemmer (1888–1943) designed for his Triadic Ballet?
So cutting edge that art critic Alastair Smart credited Schlemmer as an influence on costumes David Bowie and Lady Gaga wore on stage decades later. (There’s a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography with details on Smart’s article and other material used in researching this essay.)
Decades after the Triadic ballet toured in the 1920s, Bowie and Gaga were looking rather futuristic in stages costumes that echoed Schlemmer’s designs.
In a 2019 article appearing on the website of Christie’s auction house, Smart wrote about Schlemmer and other artists who work as part of the Bauhaus. This German art school operated only from 1919 until 1933. But it has had a lasting effect on modern style. The artists, architects and designers of the Bauhaus emphasized sleek spare designs, such as the logo Schlemmer for the group, as seen below.
Schlemmer made his name in art circles with his work on the theater’s workshop.
“During his years at the Bauhaus, he put on a number of avant-garde stage productions, most famously Triadic Ballet, in which dancers in geometric-shaped costumes made mathematically-inspired moves — in a manner rather resembling marionettes without the wires,” Smart wrote.
Schlemmer studied art as a young man before serving in World War I. He returned to it after the war, joining the Bauhaus School in 1920.
The school was known for its parties as well as its art. Invitations for the Bauhaus’ famous metal-theme party suggested that “gentlemen come as an egg-whisk, a pepper-mill or a can-opener, while ideas for the women included a diving bell, a bolt or wing-nut, or a radioactive substance,” Oliver Wainwright wrote in The Guardian in 2014.
Schlemmer left the Bauhaus in 1929, with his friends at the school giving the artist and his wife a farewell party on Oct. 1. By the end of that month, prices collapsed on the New York Stock Exchange, an event often cited as the signal event for a widespread economic depression.
The National Socialist (Nazi) party grew in influence in these bad times. The Nazis had sought to build support for their party by proclaiming foreign-born people should be expelled from Germany, Timothy Snyder wrote in a 2018 New York Times review of Benjamin Carter Hett’s “The Death of Democracy: Hitler’s Rise to Power and the Downfall of the Weimar Republic.”
The Nazis wanted Germany to create an economy in isolation from that of the rest of the world, with Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, saying “We want to build a wall, a protective wall,” according to Snyder.
“ Goebbels had Nazi storm troopers attack leftists precisely so that he could claim that the Nazis were victims of Communist violence,” Snyder wrote.
“The Nazi program foresaw that newspapers would serve the ‘general good’ rather than reporting, and promised ‘legal warfare’ against opponents who spread information they did not like,” Snyder wrote. “They opposed what they called ‘the system’ by rejecting its basis in the factual world.”
And the Nazis targeted modern art as well. In1930, Schlemmer heard about their destruction of work he had done for a previous Bauhaus exhibit. In 1932, the Nazis closed down the Bauhaus School.
By the end of World War II, the Nazis committed crimes against humanity on a scale that’s still difficult to take in. State-sponsored mass murders cost the lives of about six million Jewish people. Also sent to camps and killed were political dissidents, gay men and other people who the Nazis targeted for death.
For Schlemmer, the loss would be that of his artistic career. In 1933, he was fired from a teaching post. He hoped to have an artists colony flourish around a house he built in Badenweiler, a German spa resort town near the Swiss border.
Then in 1938, the Nazis included Schlemmer’s work in an exhibit of what they termed degenerate art.
“The hopes which Schlemmer had pinned on the house are destroyed at one blow, and it becomes evident that his fate as an artist and the fate of modern painting in Germany are sealed,” says a chronology of his life included in “The letters and diaries of Oskar Schlemmer.”
After that, Schlemmer landed employment as a commercial painter, sometimes working outdoors or on scaffolding. He died in 1943.
Schlemmer’s most famous painting may be “Bauhaus Stairway,” owned by the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) of New York. It shows a scene from a busy hall in the school.
There are elements of dance in the painting, including the figure on point, as the MOMA website notes. The bodies in the painting “are composed of cones, spheres, and cylinders — simplified into almost modular geometric units rather than rendered as individual identities,” the website notes.
This is common in Schlemmer’s painting, as seen below,
The MOMA description of “Bauhaus Stairway” appears to read into this painting the sad fate of the school and of Germany.
“The streamlined bodies on this pivoting staircase seem to move away from us — as if marking the turning point between past hopes and a dark future,” the MOMA website says.