Bauhaus Stairway depicts the Bauhaus, a school founded in 1919 by architect Walter Gropius, famous for its visionary integration of technology, art, and design. Although Schlemmer made this painting three years after he left his teaching position at the Bauhaus, the works gridded structure, streamlined modular bodies and predominant palette of primary colors capture the schools vibrant design spirit. The carefully choreographed arrangement of the figures and the man en pointe at the top of the stairs reflects Schlemmers role as the creator of many important dance and theatrical productions at the Bauhaus. Schlemmer painted this work as Hitler assumed power, shortly before the Nazis closed the Bauhaus for good. He was among many artists persecuted by the Nazis, whose work they deemed "degenerate" and often destroyed.
Visiting Stuttgart in the spring of 1933, Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the founding director of The Museum of Modern Art, discovered that an exhibition by Schlemmer had closed after a brutal and intimidating review in a Nazi paper. Barr responded by cabling Philip Johnson, already a frequent donor to The Museum of Modern Art, to ask him to acquire Bauhaus Stairway as an eventual gift. Barr acted, he later wrote, "partly to spite the Nazis just after they had closed [Schlemmer's] exhibition."
Schlemmer painted Bauhaus Stairway three years after leaving his teaching post at the Bauhaus, the famous school of modern art, architecture, and design. The work's gridded structure celebrates Bauhaus design principles, and its upward movement, including the man en pointe at top left (Schlemmer had worked in dance), evokes the school's former optimism. Encouraging our involvement in this mood are the figures facing the same way we do, some of them partly cut off by the frame, as if they were in our space. Their simplified, almost modular shapes giving them an Everyman quality, they step up into the picture and then on up the stair.
Schlemmer's several staircase scenes of the early 1930s may reflect a desire to transcend a threatening period in German history. He exhibited this particular work soon after hearing that the Nazis had shut down the Bauhaus.