Oskar Schlemmer Bauhaus’ Last Avantgarde Champion

The Staatsgalerie Stuttgart is celebrating the work of Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer in a triumphant retrospective.
Some of Oskar Schlemmer’s theater costumes on display.

The first impression is reserved for the “Bauhaustreppe,” Oskar Schlemmer’s most famous piece of art.

Purchased by legendary U.S. architect Philip Johnson for the New York Museum of Modern Art in 1933, it avoided being confiscated by the Nazis for being “degenerate,” like much of Mr. Schlemmer’s other work.

The oil painting is on loan in Stuttgart at the city’s Staatsgalerie for a retrospective. Showing people ascending the stairway at the Bauhaus Academy, it was the first -- and last sale of Mr. Schlemmer’s art to a foreign museum in his lifetime.

He died in 1943, broken at the age of 54. He was ejected from his position as a professor and the Nazis displayed his work in a now notorious 1937 “degenerate art” exhibition.

But this vision by one of the lesser-known Bauhaus greats survived and is being displayed in his first major show in decades. The Schlemmer universe can be freely explored after the rights to his work entered the public domain this year. Previously his daughter and grandchildren had rejected any research and exhibitions.

The art world has been excitedly awaiting a look at the bequest, which has been stored in the Stuttgart Staatsgallerie’s archive. It holds 3,000 letters and 270 works of art, including painting, drawings, costumes and sculptures, providing plenty of material for a proper retrospective called “Visions of a New World.”

The cool and ascetic paintings contrast with Mr. Schlemmer’s more lighthearted theater works.

It is a grand revival of one of the last avant-garde maestros, who often has been overshadowed by better-known Bauhaus colleagues Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Both were playful and melancholic as artists. But Mr. Schlemmer had a clear artistic vision of the world of humanity as a theoretical construct. Reduced to conical bodies and spherical heads, his free creations left the disaster of the First World War behind them.

Mr. Schlemmer started out painting Paul Cézanne-inspired landscapes as an art student at the Stuttgart Academy. But a trip to Berlin in the early 1910s introduced him to cubism and started him on a path toward his geometrical view of the universe.

The exhibition shows masterful paintings expressing the ideals of harmony and balance: Such as his frozen figurines in front of windows, sitting on chairs, staring past each other, but conveying an atmosphere of attention.

The strictness of the figures can be disturbing, as can Mr. Schlemmer's own ambivalence toward the Nazis, whom he felt misunderstood his art. After he lost his job, he petitioned Third Reich propaganda minister Josef Goebbels to declare: “Artists are fundamentally apolitical in nature and have to be because their realm is another world. They always intend to be connected to humanity, to everything.”

The Nazis ignored his pleas and Mr. Schlemmer faded into obscurity. His art took on a depressive darkness aside from color experiments he did with Willi Baumeister and Georg Muche in 1940 for a paint factory. They precede the radical rebirth of the art world after 1945: Dripping and smear techniques that painters like Gerhard Richter would only take up years later.


These cool and ascetic paintings contrast with Mr. Schlemmer’s more lighthearted theater works, which are also experiencing a renaissance after their copyright ran out. Productions of his “Triadic Ballet” in Munich and Berlin were celebrated enthusiastically. His reconstructed costumes are on display at the Stuttgart exhibition, where films also show his Bauhaus dances to be a mixture of earnestness and comedy.

His talent for the stage can be seen in his opera designs. During his career, he alternated between theater work and painting.

Perhaps he felt most satisfied slipping into one of his ballet costumes with colorful coils of fabric and an instrument on his head: A work of art brought to life.


This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: [email protected]