OSKAR SCHLEMMER has been among the least well known of the Bauhaus teachers. Outside Germany, Kandinsky, Klee and Gropius found wider acclaim. But a major retrospective at the Baltimore Museum of Art gives a well-rounded view of Schlemmer's varied and strange works.
In the 1920s, Schlemmer taught sculpture and drawing and ran the theater for the Bauhaus, a German school for artists and architects dedicated to the principle that form should suit function.
Schlemmer made a number of paintings, murals, sculptures, drawings and watercolors -- and many are here in this country's first comprehensive Schlemmer show, of more than 200 works.
But it was in the theater that Schlemmer's art manifested itself in its purest form.
First performed in 1922, his magnum opus was the "Triadic Ballet" -- variations on the theme of "three." It is worth noting that the character Schlemmer himself most liked to play was "The Abstract."
Reconstructions of his costumes dominate the Baltimore exhibition. Wire spirals, wooden cylinders and masks, the futuristic contraptions are undeniably sculpture. And, for the dancers who wore them, probably damned uncomfortable. But Schlemmer felt that "the more the apparently violated body fuses with the costumes, the more it attains new forms of the dance."
He saw his Triadic Ballet as a "balancing of opposites" -- where the dance, "wholly emotional in origin," became strict and austere in its final form.
In other groundbreaking performance art, he stripped the vignette to its bare essentials: minimal props and dancers dressed in masks and padded bodystockings, which gave them the appearance of fencers. In the "Pole Dance," the dancer wears black so that the audience sees nothing but the 12 white poles attached to the dancer's limbs, transformin the space around them. Schlemmer called this "a song of the joints."
While a significant part of the show is devoted to Schlemmer's creativity in the theater, that work is a bit abstruse, and wall labels here fail to offer the viewer sufficient footing. But various films and lectures being presented by the museum during the run of the show help to elevate this work from theater-of-the- absurd status.
On stage, Schlemmer's masks obscured the dancer's humanity. On canvas, Schlemmer's people often turn their back on us. Or, expressionless, walk up stairs or float in space, rarely interacting with the viewer, or each other. Not uplifting, yet strangely evocative. Their life comes from the interplay of space, color and form, and the wrestling that goes on between the playful and the serious.
Schlemmer's human figures are contoured and rounded. At times he painted and drew them as an architect or a puppeteer would, choosing geometrical forms for body parts: an arm or leg shaped like a club, a stomach perfectly rotund. In other paintings, stripped of personality, his men and women stand as anonymous automatons, or archetypal athletes, in the budding technology that inspired the modernist putsch of the Bauhaus.
Schlemmer felt that personal feelings had no place in art, nor did politics. When the Nazis showed his work in their exhibition of confiscated "Degenerate Art" in 1937 in Munich, his artistic career was given the kiss of death. But while many of the Bauhaus teachers left Germany because of the Nazis, Schlemmer remained, eking out a living painting murals and camouflaging buildings around Stuttgart, the city of his birth. After several years of poor health, he died of a heart attack in 1943 at the age of 55.
Probably because he never left Germany, in this country he has been known for a single painting. That is "Bauhaus Stairway," a fixture hanging at a stairwell landing of New York's Museum of Modern Art. But this exhibition demonstrates that Schlemmer's "Stairway" led to many rooms.
OSKAR SCHLEMMER -- At the Baltimore Museum of Art through April 6.