PRINT September 1977

Oskar Schlemmer’s Performance Art

IF PERFORMANCE WORKS HAVE ONLY recently been considered as “mainstream” art in their own right, the full range of certain earlier artists’ work has often been excluded in the name of art historical “correctness,” with its concentration on existing visual objects. Activities outside conventional categories such as painting and sculpture have largely been overlooked for lack of tangible objects to which to refer.

The history of performance, like a history of theatre, can only be constructed from scripts, texts, photographs and descriptions from onlookers. What was once to be seen, or to be heard, must now be reconstructed in imagination. Fortunately, from the Russian and Italian Futurists through to the present, there exists ample material in various forms, making a comprehensive review of performance history both possible and necessary.

One artist whose writings clearly indicate how he came to performance, how his performance works were constructed and how they were performed, was Oskar Schlemmer, the painter and theatre director at the Bauhaus during the ’20s. Schlemmer’s writings, as well as his special circumstances as dancer and painter, point to present preoccupations in art, particularly if one considers the last two decades in New York. For the first time since the Bauhaus and the ’20s, there has been a coming together of dancers, musicians and artists; and the resulting cross-fertilization of concepts and sensibilities makes it difficult for those wishing to locate genres in theatre, music auditorium or art gallery. Just such a refusal to accept the limits of art categories, and the productions that resulted from it, make Schlemmer’s work an important yardstick for contemporary performers.1

Oskar Schlemmer kept diaries from early in 1911, when he was 21, throughout his years as a student at the Stuttgart Academy,2 his service in the trenches during World War I, his early dance productions in Stuttgart and his takeover of the theatre workshop at the Bauhaus.3 The diaries, a maze of references and confessions and attitudes toward philosophy, literature, theatre and dance, constitute a framework for understanding Schlemmer’s personality and work. And from his apprehensions about his own art to the metaphysical discussions in which he took so much intellectual pleasure, the content of the diaries relentlessly refers to the German cultural climate of the ’20s.

One must remember that Germany was divided culturally and politically, following a war which brought poverty to millions. In the throes of a conservative backlash, the art academies had just reopened to accept students wishing to resume their studies. Traditional mind/body arguments of rationality as opposed to irrationality and concept to experience were once more debated, but with a significant new preoccupation: the young Modern Movement introduced a much more immediate opposition, between art and technology. In just such a setting Walter Gropius was invited to bring about, in the Bauhaus, an amalgamation of the grand-ducal fine arts academy and the arts and crafts school, appropriately situated in the romantic woods of the Goethe country around Weimar. There Gropius wrote the equally romantic Bauhaus manifesto, calling for the unification of all the arts in a “Cathedral of Socialism.”

It was in this argumentative context that Schlemmer developed in his diaries an obsessive analysis of the problem of theory and practice. Indeed Schlemmer, who had joined the Bauhaus in 1921, saw through its more utopian goals. This questioning soon took the form of an ancient opposition that he even mythologized: theory pertained to Apollo, the god of intellect, while practice was symbolized by the wild festivities of Dionysus. Schlemmer’s own alternations between theory and practice reflected a puritan ethic. He considered painting and drawing to be that aspect of his work which was most rigorously intellectual, while the unadulterated pleasure he obtained from his experiments in theatre was, he wrote, constantly suspect for this reason. In his paintings, as in his theatrical experiments, the essential investigation was of space; the paintings delineated the two dimensional elements of space, while theatre provided a place in which to “experience” space. Although beset with doubts as to the specificity of the two media, theatre and painting, Schlemmer did consider them as complimentary activities: in his writings he clearly describes painting as theoretical research, while performance was the “practice” of that classical equation. “The dance is Dionysian and wholly emotional in origin,” he wrote. But this satisfied only one aspect of his temperament: “I struggle between two souls in my breast—one painting-oriented, or rather philosophical-artistic; the other theatrical; or, to put it bluntly, an ethical soul and an aesthetic one.”4

Thus dance notation (the “graphic representation of the dancers’ paths”) as well as painting, involved for him the theory of space, while performance in real space provided the “practice” to complement that theory. But his transition from one to the other was methodical. Schlemmer moved from the two-dimensional surface (painting) to the plastic (reliefs and sculptures) to the animately plastic art of the human body. Each stage was marked by notes and drawings, illustrating the various means available for representing space. He used a dance notation system that he developed himself, graphically describing the linear paths of motion and forward movement on the platform. Furthermore, verbal study and explanation of the source and purpose of a movement was considered by Schlemmer as a way of perfecting the conception and the meaning of it. Preparing a performance involved various stages: words or abstract printed signs, demonstration, and physical images in the form of paintings, were all means of juxtaposing layers of real space and time changes. Notation—“tracing such basic forms as the straight line, the diagonal, the circle, the ellipse and their combinations”—allowed the plane geometry of the dance surface and the solid geometry of the moving bodies to produce a sense of “spatial dimension.”

In a piece entitled Gesture Dance, performed in 1926–27, Schlemmer used the diagram as an aid to establishing the total course of action graphically, while a “second kind of aid describes the action in words. Each of these representational means complements the other.” Schlemmer acknowledged that, in spite of the directions of tempo and sound, notation remained incapable of giving an exhaustive picture of the performance. Rather the directions underlined the very difficulty of preparing a script for dance.5

The opposition of visual plane and spatial depth was a complex problem that preoccupied many of those working at the Bauhaus during Schlemmer’s time there. “Space: as the unifying element in architecture” was what Schlemmer considered to be the common denominator of the mixed interests of the Bauhaus staff. Indeed what characterized the 1920s discussion on space was the notion of Raumempfindung, or “felt volume,” and it was to this “sensation of space” that Schlemmer attributed the origins of each of his dance productions. He explained that “out of the plane geometry, out of the pursuit of the straight line, the diagonal, the circle and the curve, a stereometry of space evolves, by the moving vertical line of the dancing figure.” The relationship of the “geometry of the plane” to the “stereometry of the space” could be felt “if one were to imagine a space filled with a soft pliable substance in which the figures of the sequence of the dancer’s movements were to harden as a negative form.”6

These abstract, geometric mathematical theories of the stage were demonstrated by Schlemmer and his students:7 first the square surface of the floor was divided into bisecting axes and diagonals, completed by a circle. Then taut wires crossed the empty stage, defining the “volume” or cubic dimension of the space. Following these guidelines, the dancers moved within the “spatial linear web,” their movement dictated by the already geometrically divided stage. Phase two added costumes emphasizing various body parts, leading to gestures, characterization, and abstract color harmonies provided by the colored attire. Thus the demonstration led the viewers through the “mathematical dance” to the “space dance” to the “gesture dance,” culminating in a touch of variety/circus and humor given by the masks and props in the final sequence.

Beyond the body as a measure of space, Schlemmer wished to emphasize the “human figure as an event.” Elaborate figurines were designed by him in order to plan each movement as a result of the confines of the various costumes.8 These ranged from down-filled “soft” figures, to bodies covered in concentric hoops, to 8-foot slats projecting from the limbs of the dancer. In each case the dancer would develop gestures and movements different from his or her normal “kinesthetic sense,” totally transforming traditional dance movement. By so emphasizing the “object” quality of the dancers, Schlemmer wished to arrive at a mechanical effect, one not unlike that achieved by puppets: “Might not the dancers be real puppets, moved by strings, or better still, self-propelled by means of a precise mechanism, almost free of human intervention, at most directed by remote control?”9 The “puppet-theory” he found beautifully described in Heinrich von Kleist’s essay “Über das marionetten theater” (1810) where a ballet master walking through a park observed an afternoon puppet-show:

Each puppet has a focal point in movement, a centre of gravity and when this centre is moved, the limbs follow without any additional handling. The limbs are pendula, echoing automatically the movement of the centre. Every time the centre of gravity is guided in a straight line, the limbs describe curves that complement and extend the basically simple movement.10

Besides directing his students to imitate the “pure body movement” of puppets—pure because mechanical—Schlemmer devised other means for the students to develop their kinesthetic sense. Kinesthetic movement—the sensing of internal body movement and of the changing dynamic configurations of the body—could be explained by using the example of a juggler throwing balls in the air. The skill of the juggler depends on a balance between the body and its minute tensions, and a careful knowledge of the movement, thrust and fall of the balls. In order to encourage the dancers to perform with this same double-edged consciousness (first the internal movement and then the ways in which the body dislocates space), Schlemmer introduced the nine-ball juggling technique of the famous Italian juggler Rastelli, whom he had seen in Berlin.11

Taking body demonstrations from such non-dance disciplines as Rastelli’s juggling, Schlemmer also observed the work of other painter-designers such as Picasso, of whose 1917 ballet Parade he remarked that there were two things that specially interested him: first, the figures were dressed from the knees up in conventional garb, but had gigantic structures spreading below the knees (in fact, the constructions covered the upper half of their bodies), and, secondly, the fact that these figurines derived from Picasso’s Cubist paintings.

Actually, Schlemmer found this adaptation of Picasso’s own painting forms into figurines to be a vulgarization, so he attempted a more indirect translation of painting to performance in a production called Chorus of Masks, of 1928. The starting point of this mostly improvised performance was a painting of 1923, Tischgesellschaft. The configuration of the painting (figures seated at a table in deep perspective) was translated into real space. Performers similarly seated at a long table, at right angles to the audience, wore large masks graded in size according to their position at the table (thus emphasizing the perspective). From there they proceeded to develop a talking-moving tableau which ultimately echoed the eerie atmosphere of the original painterly setting.

But such a direct translation of paintings was rare, as were fully improvised productions. The most elaborately prepared work, and one which was to be performed over a 10-year period, was that of the Triadic Ballet.12 In this work Schlemmer’s theories on theatre, on color, light, form, variety theatre, dance and painting culminated. For him the key elements were the “three-colored costumes, the three-dimensional design, the human figure in an environment of basic mathematical shapes and the corresponding movements of those figures in space.” Why triadic? He noted: “Triadic—from triad (three) because of the three dancers and the three parts of its symphonic architectonic composition and the fusion of the dance, the costumes and the music.”13 Accompanied by a Hindemith score for player piano, “the mechanical instrument which corresponds to the stereotypal dance style,” the music provided a parallel to the costumes and to the mathematical and mechanical outlines of the body. In addition, the doll-like quality of the dancers corresponded to the music-box quality of the music, thus making a “unity of concept and style.”

Lasting several hours, the Triadic Ballet was a “metaphysical review,” comprised of three dancers wearing 18 costumes in 12 dances. “First came the costume, the figurine. Then came the search for the music which would best suit them. Music and the figurine led to the dance. This was the process.”14 Schlemmer noted, in addition, that dance movements should “start with one’s own life, with standing and walking, leaving leaping and dancing for much later.”15

This work combined his investigation of the “plane geometry of the dance surface and the solid geometry of the moving bodies. Thus the dance, which is Dionysian and wholly emotional in origin, becomes strict and Apollonian in its final form.” It was a symbol, he wrote, of the balancing of opposites.

This balancing of opposites, of abstract concepts and emotional impulses, fitted well into the particular art-technology interests of the Bauhaus. Schlemmer had transformed the theatre workshop from its originally expressionist bias—under Lothar Schreyer’s direction—to one more in line with Bauhaus sensibilities. Indeed, it was said that students came to the Bauhaus to be “cured of expressionism.” Cured they may have been, only to be introduced by Schlemmer to the more philosophical notion of the “metaphysical dance” or to his love for variety theatre, Japanese theatre, Javanese puppet theatre and the various arts of circus performers. Schlemmer developed an inventive drawing course16 to explore the moving body in space, and, besides eurythmics and “the chorus of movement developed out of them,” he exposed his students to the kinesthetics and notation systems of Rudolph Laban in Switzerland and Laban’s protégé Mary Wigman, as well as to the Russian Constructivist productions which were to be seen in Berlin, only a two-hour train ride away.

With few exceptions, those students who joined Schlemmer’s course were not professionally trained dancers. Nor for that matter was Schlemmer, but over the years, through directing and demonstrating numerous productions, he became involved in actually dancing his own work. Together with the students he designed Bauhaus festive evenings, some of which led directly to staged performances, like the Figural Cabinet. One of the dance students, Andreas Weininger, was also leader of the famous Bauhaus jazz band, and most were active in the evenings of song and pantomime at the “Ilm Chalet” Gästhaus, only a bicycle ride from Weimar. Since no actual theatre existed at the school during the Weimar period, Schlemmer and his students developed performances directly in the studios, considering each experiment a search for the “elements of movement and space.”

By 1925, when the Bauhaus moved to Dessau,17 where Gropius had designed the new building complex, the theatre workshop had become important enough to warrant a specially designed theatre. Even that remained a simple elevated stage in a cubelike auditorium, constructed in such a way as to accommodate the various lighting, screens and steplike structures which Schlemmer, Kandinsky, Xanti Schawinsky, and Joost Schmidt, among others, needed to realize their work. Gropius was strongly supportive of the Bauhaus theatre, and the students were enthusiastic participants. So much importance and encouragement were given the theatre experiment that Schlemmer announced in his lecture-demonstration of 1927: “the point of our endeavor: to become a traveling company of actors which will perform its works wherever there is a desire to see them.” By then such desires were considerable, and Schlemmer toured numerous German centers. He went to Paris to present the Triadic Ballet at the International Dance Congress in 1932. But the disintegration of the Bauhaus following Gropius’ nine-year tenure there; the demands of a very different director, Hannes Meyer, who was against the “formal and personal” aspects of Schlemmer’s dance work; as well as the imposed censorship of the new Prussian government made all this a short-lived dream. Schlemmer, 1928: “I have now pronounced the death sentence for theatre at the Bauhaus. And in fact the City Council has issued a publicly read decree forbidding parties at the Bauhaus, including for good measure our next party, which would have been a lovely one.”18

Schlemmer died in 1943. The diaries that were published after his death became the only remaining evidence of his performance activities, apart from a few photographs of some of the productions. His constant striving toward a direct experience of movement and space once more reverted to his diagrams and theoretical representation. Yet the constant tension between notation and spatial praxis that Schlemmer so obsessively explored still remains an integral part of today’s performance work, when many artists and performers variously extend the notion so deliberately worked out by Schlemmer: the interplay between contemporary art concepts and live performance.

RoseLee Goldberg, former director of the Royal College of Art Gallery, London, is presently preparing a book on the history of performance.

This article is based on a lecture given at Yale University in November 1976. Special thanks to Andreas and Eva Weininger for their descriptions of student days at the Bauhaus.



1. See RoseLee Goldberg, “Space as Praxis,” Studio International, Sept. 1975, 15 pp. 130–35 on the relationship between art theory and performance.

2. Schlemmer attended the Stuttgart Academy from 1906 to 1909 and 1918 to 1919. An important influence on him and other students such as Itten, Kerkovius and Baumeister was the painter Adolph Hoelzel.

3. Schlemmer moved to the Bauhaus in 1921. Initially he took over the sculpture and mural workshop, but in 1923 was assigned the theatre workshop after the departure of the expressionist Lothar Schreyer.

4. The Letters and Diaries of Oskar Schlemmer, ed. Tut Schlemmer, Middletown, Conn., 1972. First published in German in 1958 by the Albert Langen—Georg Müller Verlag, Munich.

5. See RoseLee Goldberg, “Performance: The Art of Notation,” Studio International, August 1976.

6. “Mathematics of the Dance,” 1926, in The Bauhaus, ed. Hans M. Wingler, Cambridge, Mass., 1969.

7. Lecture-demonstration given for the Friends of the Bauhaus at Dessau in 1927.

8. The figurines were constructed by his brother Carl Schlemmer.

9. Letters and Diaries, July 1926, p. 197.

10. Heinrich von Kleist, “Über das marionetten theater.” The essay was first published in four installments in the daily Berliner Abendblätter from December 12 to 15, 1810, and can be found in English translation in The Drama Review, September 1972.

11. Eva Weininger, a former student at the Bauhaus, mentioned in conversation the enormous impact of Rastelli’s juggling on Schlemmer and the students. Photograph supplied by Mel Gordon.

12. The Triadic Ballet was first publicly performed at the theatre in Jena in 1922. Music was by Paul Hindemith, who had been working with Schlemmer on the score since 1920.

13. Letters and Diaries, July 1926, p. 196.

14. Ibid., letter to art critic Hans Hildebrandt, October 1922, p. 129.

15. Ibid., May 1929, p 243.

16. In 1928 Oskar Schlemmer was assigned the life drawing class, which he entitled “Man and Art Figure.” Notes for this course have been published: Man, ed. Heimo Kuchling, Cambridge, Mass., 1971.

17. The Weimar Bauhaus was closed down following enormous opposition from the City Council of Weimar in 1924. Thanks to Mayor Hesse of Dessau, it was transferred to that city, with sufficient support for an entirely new building to be built.

18. Letters and Diaries, January 1928, p. 221.