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Oskar Schlemmer (German, 1888–1943)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

German painter, sculptor, choreographer and stage designer. After the death of his parents he lived with his sister at Göppingen, and in Stuttgart from 1903 to 1905 he served an apprenticeship at a workshop specializing in marquetry while attending classes at the Kunstgewerbeschule. He continued his studies on a bursary from 1906 to 1911 at the Kunstakademie in Stuttgart under the plein-air landscape painters Christian Landenberger (1862–1927) and Friedrich von Keller (1840–1914). In 1911–12 he lived in Berlin, where he produced paintings such as Hunting Lodge, Grunewald (1911; Stuttgart, Staatsgal.) and Self-portrait (1912; Stuttgart, Staatsgal.) under the influence of Cubism. After returning to Stuttgart, Schlemmer studied under Adolf Hölzel, whose theory of pictorial methods made him a pioneer of abstract art and who gathered around him an international circle of students that included Willi Baumeister and the Swiss artists Otto Meyer-Amden and Johannes Itten, with whom Schlemmer became friends.

Schlemmer volunteered as a medical orderly at the outbreak of World War I, but he was detailed to serve in the infantry. In 1916, after being wounded on several occasions, he returned to Stuttgart on a period of home leave. There he began to paint pictures, such as Divided Figure (1913–18; artist’s estate) and Composition on Pink (1916; artist’s estate), that approached abstraction by treating the human figure in a flat and schematic fashion. In autumn 1916 Schlemmer was commandeered to Colmar to take part in a reconnaissance mission as a cartographic draughtsman. A few weeks before the end of the war he was sent on an officers’ training course in Berlin, where he experienced the November revolt at first hand.

In 1919, after returning to Stuttgart, Schlemmer was elected students’ representative and in this capacity he fought unsuccessfully not only for a thoroughgoing reform of the academic teaching system but also for the appointment of Paul Klee, then living in Munich, as Hölzel’s successor. He helped organize an exhibition of modern art at the Kunstverein in Stuttgart, modelled on those of the Sturm-Galerie in Berlin, which included a group of pictures by Klee, works by artists of Hölzel’s circle and some of Schlemmer’s own works, whose consistent development aroused a great deal of interest. In addition to paintings he showed some of his first sculptural works, such as JG Relief in Bronze (1919; Stuttgart, Staatsgal.), in which he proposed a figurative variant of Constructivism that attracted the attention of artists and architects alike. In 1920 he and Baumeister exhibited together at avant-garde galleries such as the Sturm-Galerie in Berlin and the Galerie Arnold in Dresden, as well as at the Folkwang-Museum (now Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum) in Hagen. In the same year Schlemmer and Klee were given teaching posts by Walter Gropius at the Weimar Bauhaus, where Itten had already established a foundation course, and Schlemmer began making intensive preparations for one of his best-known works, the Triadisches Ballett (first performed in 1922). With help from his brother Carl, who was a gifted craftsman, he designed and made 18 masks and costumes, such as The Abstract , which he described as ‘spatially plastic’ because they were like ‘coloured pieces of sculpture which, when worn by dancers, move in space’. The central concept of the Triadisches Ballett was a symphonically structured ‘Tanz der Dreiheit’ (premièred in Stuttgart, 30 Sept 1922, with further performances in Donaueschingen, Frankfurt and Berlin, 1926, and in Paris, 1932), which consisted of twelve scenes performed by one, two or three dancers respectively; his fellow performers were the dancers Albert Burger and Elsa Hötzel, with whom he studied choreography. The scenes developed in intensity from lightweight burlesque entertainment to a more solemn adagio and culminated in a mystically heroic mood.

Schlemmer’s experience with dance soon found direct expression in paintings such as The Dancer (1923; Stuttgart, Staatsgal.), a stylized self-portrait, and The Gesture, Dancer (1922; Munich, Staatsgal. Mod. Kst) in which the torso and legs of a female figure are stylized into huge curved forms similar to those seen in the costume of The Abstract. Schlemmer abandoned his earlier, rigorously flat style of painting in favour of a greater sense of volume and depth in the treatment both of figures and of space. In his commitment to the Bauhaus programme for interrelating art and craft with architecture he designed and executed wall decorations in the Weimar Workshop Building (1923; destr. 1930, largely reconstructed early 1980s) as a highlight of Bauhaus Week. The walls, corridors, stairways and niches of this building, designed by Henry Van de Velde, were intended to provide a visual statement of the figurative grammar underlying the formation of different human types. This collaborative installation, which in 1930 became an early casualty of Nazi vandalism, was followed in 1925 by a series entitled Gallery Pictures, for example Roman (Basle, Kstmus.) and Concentric Group (Stuttgart, Staatsgal.), which were striking for their classical harmony.

Schlemmer moved in late 1925 to Dessau, where he developed his Bauhaus theatre and taught a course called ‘Der Mensch’, which combined life drawing with classes in the basic principles of science and philosophy. In summer 1929 he successfully toured Germany with his Bauhaus dances (e.g. Game with Building Blocks, 1926). His abstract concept of theatre and dances caused some political controversy among his students, with the result that Schlemmer took up an appointment at the Staatliche Akademie in Breslau, where his colleagues included Otto Mueller, Johannes Molzahn (1892–1965), Georg Muche and Alexander Kanoldt (1881–1939). This marked the beginning of an intense collaboration with architects such as Adolf Rading and Hans Scharoun, for whose buildings Schlemmer created a number of wall designs (e.g. Three-part Wall Arrangement for a house in Leipzig, wire and metal relief, 1930–31; in situ, see von Maur, 1979, ii, p. 389). A mural comprising nine paintings completed during this period for the Museum Folkwang in Essen (1928–30) fell victim to the Nazi campaign against what they later termed ‘degenerate art’ (see Entartete Kunst).

For the theatre in Breslau he designed sets for Stravinsky’s operas Solovey (The nightingale) and Bayka (Reynard); he also designed sets for Schoenberg’s opera Die glückliche Hand at the Kroll-Oper in Berlin in 1930. The paintings produced by him in Breslau reveal a more expansive and dynamic approach, for example in group portraits in architectural settings such as Interior with a Group of Twelve (Wuppertal, Von der Heydt-Mus.) and Group of Fourteen in an Imaginary Architectural Setting (Cologne, Mus. Ludwig). He also produced paintings of staircases such as Group by the Banister (1931; Düsseldorf, Kstsamml. Nordrhein–Westfalen) and Staircase Scene (1932; Hamburg, Ksthalle), with the banister serving not only a structural formal purpose but also expressing a metaphysical longing for stability and direction. When Schlemmer heard that summer that the Dessau Bauhaus had been closed at the instigation of the Nazis, he painted Bauhaus Staircase (1932; New York, MOMA) as a visual memorial to the institution in an ideal form.

Schlemmer’s paintings of staircases were among his last for some time, since the final decade of his life was overshadowed by the Nazi dictatorship, the defamation of his art and material hardship. The Akademie in Breslau was closed by emergency decree in 1932 in spite of his protests as president of the Schlesischer Künstlerbund, so he accepted an appointment at the Vereinigte Staatsschulen für Kunst und Kunstgewerbe in Berlin to teach perspective to painters and sculptors; he was dismissed from this post without notice in spring 1933 after only one term. He found temporary refuge in Switzerland, where he wrote a monograph on the work of his recently deceased friend Otto Meyer-Amden. In 1934 he rented a farmhouse in Eichberg, not far from Schaffhausen, with his wife and three children, and in 1935 he began painting again: groups of figures in dark tones as well as portraits and landscapes, which he hoped would sell easily. He began to paint in oils on parchment so that he could hide his pictures in the event of further persecution. In 1936, the year of Hitler’s Olympic Games, cultural policy appeared to be growing more liberal. Heartened by a legacy that his wife received, Schlemmer had a house built in Badenweiler, Germany, near the Swiss border, but shortly after its completion he heard that five of his paintings were included in the Entartete Kunst exhibition mounted by the Nazis in Munich in 1937.

Banned from selling his paintings in Germany, Schlemmer moved to Stuttgart in early 1938 to work for a firm of painters for whom he also produced murals and later camouflage work. In 1940 he moved to Wuppertal to carry out experimental work at a varnish factory and re-established contact with Willi Baumeister and Georg Muche. While living in Wuppertal he produced his last works, a series of 18 small-scale Window Pictures (artist’s estate, on loan to Basle, Kstmus.), wistful mixed-media views of the lit windows of houses through which figures are observed carrying out everyday domestic tasks such as eating and ironing. Schlemmer died of a heart attack some months later, while taking a cure in Baden-Baden.

Karin von Maur
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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