PRINT December 1972

Oskar Schlemmer Sculpture

This essay is a revised extract from the book Oskar Schlemmer Sculpture by Karin von Maur, published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York (74 illustrations, 24 in color).

THE MAJORITY OF OSKAR SCHLEMMER’S sculptures were executed between 1919 and 1923. Within these four years he created about 12 reliefs, two round sculptures and a series of preparatory drawings for sculptures which were never realized. During this period Schlemmer further executed the 20 figurines which make up the Triadic Ballet and can be considered kinetic sculptures, and the mural, half painting, half sculpture which decorated the workshop building of the Weimar Bauhaus.

Schlemmer’s concern with the problems of sculpture dates back to the First World War, which he spent partly as a volunteer on the western Front, and, after he had been wounded, in a survey department in Colmar. He had read a great deal and attempted to assess the stylistic direction he should follow in the future. “Accord is given to the idealists of form. Lehmbruck and Archipenko in sculpture, the Cubists in painting. They show the way to architecture, since they build within their work.”

Schlemmer attempted to explain in these lines, entered on 27 April 1915 in his wartime diary, the relationship he recognized between Cubism and architecture, which was part of a general reconciliation between the fine arts and architecture leading to a new total appraisal. This was also for Schlemmer the point of departure shared by the Russian Constructivists, the Dutch De Stijl, and later by the Bauhaus. The “Idealists of Form,” with whom Schlemmer wished to be associated, saw themselves as forming an antithetical movement against the overwhelming subjectivity of Brücke-Expressionism, and sought renewal through a reappraisal of the Constructivist components of a work of art. Schlemmer favored Lehmbruck and Archipenko in particular, because he discovered within their work his own attempts to evoke man and the proportions he determined as the primary elements in the creation of a tectonic structure.

Sculpture thus offered Schlemmer a dialogue with reality, both of form and materials (mostly plaster or wood), and an opportunity of expressing his desire for tectonic design also three-dimensionally, and in spatial harmony.

Three fundamental sculptures with six variations on the same themes form the first nine reliefs. The three basic models, Ornamental Sculpture, Relief JG and Relief H, are made of unpainted plaster, while the variations are derived from the play of different colors on the basic models. Three of the colored reliefs are, furthermore, made of wood or with wood components instead of plaster, which would indicate that they were manufactured before the plaster representations. This would lend substance to the belief that the first reliefs were conceived from the start as polychrome sculptures, a point of view sustained by their evident relationship to the paintings executed at the same time. Furthermore, it is known that Schlemmer mainly displayed colored reliefs at exhibitions in Stuttgart (November, 1919) and in the Berlin Sturm (January, 1920). The most successful, and at the same time the culminating sculpture of the 1919 series is Construction Sculpture R (Bauplastik R). It is clear here that sculptural formulation has been developed to such an extent that resort to accentuation by color is no longer necessary. Schlemmer’s evolution from polychrome bas-reliefs to uncolored (white) haut-reliefs is thus complete.

The sculpture which should probably be considered as the first is the very characteristic Ornamental Sculpture, a complex assembly of cylindrical forms, carefully modeled circular segments and hollow indented rectangles which recall organ piping from afar. This sculpture has also been privately called “Organ” by Schlemmer (as, for instance, in an unpublished letter to Hans Hildebrandt of 31 March 1920). In the unpainted plaster versions which are still in existence, the sculpture appears in isolation or against an oval background panel. In the colored version, however, which has unfortunately disappeared, it forms the plastic focal point of a vertical color-articulated “encadrement.” This sculpture, entitled by Schlemmer Ornamental Sculpture on a Divided Frame on a black-and-white photograph taken at the time, still displays a close affinity to earlier paintings such as Plan with Form and Colour (Plan mit Form und Farbe) of 1914, or Plan with Figures (Plan mit Figuren) of 1919. In both cases, the severe articulation of the canvas with horizontals and verticals, and formal elements which divide and interpenetrate at the crossing of both axes, while the quadruply-divided ground acts as a supporting structure, and imposes cohesion on the active center of the composition. That Schlemmer had planned a further abstract relief sculpture related to the ornamental sculpture is evidenced by a pen drawing.

A bias for anthropomorphic formulation asserts itself in the next sculpture Relief JG. A frontally-viewed figure is imposed on the vertical axis of a high rectangular panel, made up of a schematized hand, a geometrically-conceived leg, of circles and squares. Schlemmer tested the interpretative possibilities of this plastic structure in four polychrome variations; either in multiple detail, with pointilliste, linear and bronze-painted areas, or in subdued pastel tones, or in strong colors. Symbolic values are stressed in this way: the metal colors such as gold and silver tones enhance the idolized ethereal aspect of this work; the discrete broken white, pink and gray hues evoke restraint and hidden depth. Schlemmer had used a similar tonal scale in his figurative paintings of the period.

In Relief H, the half-figure shown in profile is built up of extended sections which are divided or held together by the strong vertical axis. In the exaggerated protruding chin area, which combines with the neck and breast to create the outline of a vase, Schlemmer displays his bias for the abstract geometric stylization of organic form. His preference for profiled representation enables him to coordinate the distanced and the typical, as well as the outline effect. The figure derives its impetus from the contradictory play of hard-edged sections and angles with gently curved forms, leading to a tension-rich synthesis—a creative principle which equally dominates the other sculptures. The contrast between plane and relief elements, so marked in earlier sculptures, is of lesser importance here where the figure is developed from the total area and is in close association with it.

The extent to which the structure and aspect of a work could be modified through the use of colors and materials is shown in the polychrome version of Relief H, known through a black-and-white photograph of the period. A partial painting-over with metal colors, a richly-contrasted surface which displays granular roughened and crumpled areas in juxtaposition to smooth curved areas, and particularly the novel incorporation of glass balls of different sizes and tonalities, enrich the coherent composition, activate the tonal and tactile values, yet impart a very specific articulation to the whole.

Schlemmer referred to his early sculptures (in an unpublished note of c. 1922) as being “activated” or “decoratively architectonic”; this qualification can mainly be applied to the polychrome reliefs. In Germany in 1919 his work daringly broke new ground. However, viewed at an international level, his work was developing along a path trod for some years by the European avant-garde of France, Italy and finally Russia. The search for new forms of artistic expression had forced the artists of the period to a radical reassessment of existing plastic media. This led to a hitherto unknown expansion and fusion of the different fields of activity. Painters and sculptors strove equally for the incorporation of fragments of reality into their work, testing new materials for their tonal, formal, tactile and evocative qualities. They replaced the illusionist representations of reality with material constructions.

Besides Picasso, Boccioni, Laurens, Tatlin, Gabo and others, it was Archipenko who combined glass and metal with traditional materials, such as plaster and wood, in the polychrome constructions and “sculpture-paintings” he executed from 1912 onward. He thus reintroduced color into sculpture as a dynamic source of energy. This blending of pictorial and sculptural means of expression, as displayed by “sculpture-painting,” corresponded to Schlemmer’s striving for a renewal of artistic conception, form, and representation. Without denying the evident originality of Schlemmer’s polychrome reliefs—a direct relationship to Archipenko’s work cannot be established—it may be supposed that the impulse which led to the creation of the “sculpture-paintings” was derived from this source.

Baumeister also turned to “sculpture-painting” in 1919, when he began his series of Murals (Mauerbilder). Without doubt, the proximity of the studios of these friends and rivals played a part in determining their simultaneous preoccupation with this intermediary art form, with which Schlemmer took the lead. In spite of a comparable approach and choice of subject, the differences between the executed works are nonetheless significant. In Baumeister’s work the occasional granulated relief elements, barely rising above the plane of the picture, are subordinated to the tonal and compositional articulation of the surface. Schlemmer, on the other hand, displays from the beginning stronger sculptural qualities. The surface initially remains for the most part intact, but then increasingly becomes penetrated and surmounted by convexities and concavities.

In the same way their conception of the human figure diverges. Baumeister subordinates his subject to a planimetric construction scheme and emphasizes the abstract-analytical and mechanical aspects. With Schlemmer, the process is reversed. He begins in his sculptures with a purely Constructivist abstraction (“Ornamental Relief”), then strives increasingly to derive a pictorial composition from the proportions of the subject. His figurization therefore has an organic and imaginary impact. While Baumeister concentrated for a number of years on “sculpture-painting” in order to test the multiplicity of its range as applied to paintings and murals, Schlemmer considered it a point of transition on his way to the haut-relief free-standing sculpture.

The series of reliefs of 1919 culminated in Construction Sculpture R. Schlemmer here not only abandoned polychromy, but also a planimetric attachment. The figure of a youth turned to the right is imposed on the vertical axis of a narrow, high rectangle, its fine contours reduced to elementary geometric forms. A tectonic system results from its proportions, composed of cubic rectangular planes which are staggered along both sides of the dividing and linking vertical axis. The rhythmic interplay of concave and convex areas creates a system of varied height distribution. In this way a clear but well differentiated composition of hollowed-out rectangles, deeply-carved contours, sharp edges and curves comes into being. Light here assumes the function of color, imposing its own accentuation, resulting in marked and changing contrasts between the exposed and darkened areas which act dynamically on the whole structure.

The profiled system of articulation dividing the figure and the careful calculation of its proportions are apparent in all its parts, so that figure and structure develop together into a harmonious entity.

1920 passed rapidly for Schlemmer; he traveled and exhibited (Berlin and Dresden) and worked intensively at the Triadic Ballet, until—at the same time as Paul Klee—he was called to the Bauhaus by Gropius in the late autumn. He accepted the post, after much hesitation, in December. In March 1921 he transferred to Weimar and took over the artistic direction of the workshop devoted to murals, and, a year later, that of the wood and stone sculpture workshop.

We learn from drawings and entries in his diary that Schlemmer was again occupied with sculpture in February 1922. Two reliefs from this series have been transmitted to us through photographs. Both reliefs represent—as had already Relief JG and Relief H of 1919—a contrasting pair, the one a strong, functionally-built, shield-bearing frontal figure, the other a more softly-modeled, curved and organically-derived, profiled representation. Both appear, in opposition to the earlier reliefs, less markedly subdivided and built-up, but more coherently conceived.

The description entered in Schlemmer’s diary can in particular be applied to Relief of Plaster and Glass. A very slightly raised figure, composed of planimetric forms and deeply-etched contours, is ranged vertically across a background panel made up of four colored horizontal planes. Active and passive traits are brought together here, the grasp of the outstretched hand, the defense of the protective shield. The glass circles inserted in the head and shield pierce and animate the white plaster body. A tubular assembly with a glass sphere and cylinder traverses the structure—a schematic representation of the heartbeat and circulation, and an allegory of the internal functions of the body. This figure reflects “a fulfilled glass culture,” with “the anatomical and metaphysical representation of man”—as Schlemmer mused on 18 June 1922.

The second relief of 1923, Half-figure with Accentuated Forms (Halbfigur mit betonten Formen), is made up of circles and curves hollowed out of the plaster, and attached to the column-like torso and neck. Schlemmer completed both his round sculptures in 1923, the Grotesque and the Abstract Figure. Both again repeat the basic types: a figure in profile with a compressed outline and a frontally-conceived figure with a differentiated system of articulation.

Schlemmer reveals another aspect of his creative vision in the Grotesque. The head and stomach of the figure are drawn together in a curving-out S, in the center of which is placed an ivory heart-shaped mouth, while the eye—a disc of ivory with a metal button—is mounted above, in the curve of the head. From this vision an anthropomorphic being is brought into existence, floating on a metal support, embedded in a big footlike plinth, which enables the figure to swivel. In this way the foot can be directed toward the angle of vision, which gives the figure a more human and humorous aspect. If directed backward, it acts as a counterweight to the swelling head and torso, which alienates the figure and gives a somewhat more balanced effect. The fine grain of the walnut covers the polished surface of the sculpture with an arabesquelike linear network, which emphasizes the curves and animates the figure.

Finally, the Grotesque results from the creative deformation of the human figure, whose characteristic traits are built up through a subtle and for the greater part subconscious process of simplification, elimination and concentration, leading to a new conception of artistic representation. A birdlike creation, which seems to be clothed in erect dignity and a dignified severity verging on the humorous, develops from this genesis.

Schlemmer’s figurative imagination was not free of a certain scurrilous irony, from which some of his most spirited inventions for the ballet derive, such as the Figural Cabinet, the first parts of the Triadic Ballet or The Musical Clown. A fascinating combination of strange physical forms and gestures, of a masklike absence of movement and an organic harmony, projects the Grotesque into the realm of Surrealism. This Surrealist element in Schlemmer’s work, however—in comparison with such creatures as are created by Max Ernst, for instance—is more controlled, compressed and mysterious.

Oskar Schlemmer’s sculptural activity culminated in the round sculpture originally entitled Free Sculpture G (Freiplastik G) but now known as Abstract Figure. It was completed in 1923. The Abstract Figure is presented from the front: the head is divided up between face and helmet as a kernel within its shell. The shoulder is directed toward the left in a projecting curve; on the right it extends horizontally, and then ends abruptly in a truncated plane. The torso, divided by a thick rounded edge, consists on the left of a fully-modeled form which terminates in a sphere, while the right side consists of a sharply-edged triangular plane with a vertical panel in the background. The cylindrical curve of the leg develops into a metal bar, which—as in the Grotesque—terminates in an exaggerated footlike plinth.

The primary axial system of horizontals and verticals gives the sculpture a stabilizing equilibrium; the traversing central axis, which ends in the high shape of the head, is interrupted and caught twice—once above by the horizontal shoulder area, and below by the extended foot, which secures the suspended floating of the body on its metal support.

The focal accent of the figure is assumed by the ponderous torso. Within it, the overall dynamism is concentrated on the left side—on the diagonal, in the directed protrusion of the center, and in the abrupt projection of the left arm. The slanted round extension of the right shoulder illustrates a countertendency, defense, steadfastness, protection. Tension-loaded energy and harmonious equilibrium, uniquely expressed, by the symbolism of elementary volumes, is concentrated within this monumental formal invention.

The contrasting formulation of the frontal view affects the entire figure, which results in two differentiated profiled side views and a corresponding asymmetrically articulated rear view. In this way a sequence of contrasting aspects is created which represents the whole, and can only be evaluated by circumambulating the figure. While the wooden sculpture Grotesque can still be absorbed from one angle, Schlemmer succeeded in the Abstract Figure in realizing his conception of a “true sculpture”—as he defined it in a text of 8 January 1924:

Sculpture is three-dimensional (height, breadth and depth). It cannot be absorbed immediately . . . (like a two-dimensional picture) . . . but rather through a sequence of changing viewing points and angles.

Karin von Maur