New York

Oskar Schlemmer

Spencer Samuels Gallery

For the casual American student, Oskar Schlemmer is practically an unknown, a reputation built on the fame of a single canvas, the Bauhaus Staircase of 1932. English material on Schlemmer is limited: his journal remains to be translated but the essential essay Mensch und Kunstfigur has been (see The Theatre of the Bauhaus, Wesleyan University Press, 1961). The Gropius-Bayer history of the Bauhaus emphasizes the issues covered by Schlemmer’s stage theory as do Roters’ and Wingler’s recent popularizations. Therefore, a survey of Schlemmer’s paintings, sculptures and drawings, as well as the able catalog by Dr. Karin von Maur, is of great importance. The image of Schlemmer as the painter of a single masterpiece remains unchanged because of this event—although his reputation as a sculptor has been considerably enlarged. It is telling, of course, that Schlemmer was drawn to relief sculpture. The free-standing pieces are marked by pronounced lateral faces.

Schlemmer directed wall-painting and sculpture studios at the Bauhaus, but his ranking contribution was as a theorist of the stage—theories which he developed as the head of the Bauhaus stage-workshop. There can be no doubt that his theatrical views are among the century’s most significant, an anal counterpoise to the oral rites of Antonin Artaud. After the Cubist Futurist and Constructivist sallies of the legendary Triadic Ballet (begun in 1912 and worked on well into the ’30s), Schlemmer envisioned the stage as a moral and didactic arena conjoining the spectacles of sacred celebration and those of a folkloristic variety show. His ideal stage came to be dominated by mechanistic colossi representing comedy and tragedy or similar allegories of abstract notions. The human protagonist would act out his piece before such monumental personifications in constant awareness of his littleness and his obligation to the world of ideas. Such a grandiose scheme led to stunning spatial formulations: the player both affects and is affected by the space of the theatre, an interchange Schlemmer illustrated in prescient geometrical diagrams which owe a great deal to Boccioni’s conception of the continuity of the object in space. The actor too came to be diagrammed, a figure of caliper-like arc sections which illustrated the movements possible to anatomical members. The movements were arcs, the joints circles, the figure a mannequin, an automaton. In short, human anatomy had become an accretion of mechanistic insignia instead of an organic totality. The human image had been transformed into an apparently depersonalized mechanism from which all confusing sentiment and emotion has been drained. Except, of course, that such an image produces its own kind of sentiments and emotions, ones which would dominate the abstract taste of the 1920s and 1930s.

Such a conception may look back to Archaic Greek sculpture and to Black Figure style painting. It anticipates (and nullifies) the gleaming androgynes of Ernest Trova. It expresses the human condition of a citizen under a totalitarian regime, very much like the Germans themselves under National Socialism. Such irony was not lost on the Nazis who closed the Bauhaus and declared the work of Schlemmer and his colleagues Degenerate.

The current exhibition makes it appear that Schlemmer’s finest drawing and painting is deeply allied to his intellectual stringencies. Those works and studies in which Schlemmer has been distracted from dogmatics by petty esthetic issues based on sentiment, spontaneity or an interest in the manipulative potential of the medium, are those which read as dated and esthetically deficient. Conversely, when Schlemmer is most dogmatically incontrovertible, he appears to be one of the Bauhaus’s finest masters, if not a peer of Gropius, Klee and Kandinsky, then certainly of Feininger, Albers and Moholy-Nagy.

Robert Pincus-Witten