In 1922, the German artist Oskar Schlemmer designed a modest logo -- a face within a disc -- for his colleagues at the Bauhaus. Its nose is a crisp vertical. Its chin is a right angle. Its eye is a black square. Schlemmer's little image, with its aura of the prototype, suggests many of the principles conscientiously promoted by that famous school at Weimar -- a reliance on the rational, a deep distrust of whimsy, an industrial esthetic. But it differs in one crucial way from other Bauhaus products. It was fathered by the T-square in the realm of the machine. Yet still it depicts Man.
Man was always Schlemmer's subject. But never Man the Individual. He made figures but not portraits. The visage in his logo -- archetypical, generic, stripped of all expression -- suggests a hundred others in the surprising and important Schlemmer retrospective now on exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Unlike other German artists in the years between the wars, he found Expressionism's chaos, its fire and excesses, deeply disagreeable. He was equally distrustful of nonobjective art.
"Not abstract, not machine -- but always man!" he wrote.
Two impulses obsessed him. One was toward the timeless beauty of geometry, order and proportion. The other was toward ecstasy and free-flowing emotion. "I am very conscious of these two souls in my breast," he wrote. "I vacillate between two styles, two worlds, two attitudes toward life." One pulled him toward the madcap frolic of the dance -- Schlemmer loved the puppet show, the magic act, the pantomime, the avant-garde ballet. The other called him back to Euclidian austerity, rigor and restriant. Mathematics sings in Oskar Schlemmer's art.
In every object here -- in every painting, every sculpture, every diagram and drawing and hand-built dancer's costume -- one feels those two opposing impulses in conflict. They might have torn his art apart had not the presence of the figure -- abstracted and idealized, but human nonetheless -- offered a way out.
"I would like to present the most romantic idea in the most austere form," he wrote.
The cube as cube, the sphere as sphere, were for Oskar Schlemmer dull forms. The histories and faces and agitated gestures of specific individuals, because they were merely anecdotal, also left him cold. But when the living and the timeless were somehow brought together -- when he managed to discern "the square of the rib cage, the circle of the belly, the cylinder of the neck" -- he saw beauty brought to life.
Ce'zanne might once have spoken about seeing cones and spheres in everything around him, but try to find them in his pictures. The paintings of the Cubists are, by the same token, almost devoid of cubes. But such geometric figures breathe as if alive in Schlemmer's idiosyncratic, always figurative art.
"Man's . . . sense of proportion," he noted in his diary in 1923, "can, when used creatively . . . produce new phenomena. Granted: geometry, the Golden Section, the laws of proportion, are lifeless and unproductive unless they are experienced, touched and felt."
Only one of Schlemmer's oils is well known in this country. It is the splendid "Bauhaus Stairway" of 1932, which has been displayed for years, as if created for that space, in the glass-walled stairwell of the Museum of Modern Art. The students it portrays are infused with geometry. Their necks are cones or cylinders. Their shoulders and their elbows describe arcs and crisp right angles. The space through which they climb is a densely ordered realm of diagonals and grids. We are not sure of their gender, and their faces are not seen (Schlemmer liked to paint figures from the back). But their postures imply yearning. They ascend toward the light as if seeking a New World. Number and the dream are perfectly in balance here, as they are so often in Oskar Schlemmer's art.
The Nazis could not bear his work. You might think that its crispness and its intentional suppression of chaotic individualism would have softened their attacks. But its newness drove them wild. They ruined Schlemmer's life.
In 1930, they ordered the murals and reliefs he had created in 1923 for the Bauhaus workshop building destroyed or painted over. His first major retrospective, in Stuttgart in 1933, was closed through Nazi intervention. Though their posters at the time denounced him as "a Marxist-Jewish element," he was nothing of the sort.
All his life Schlemmer was devoted to his fatherland. And unlike so many other Germans of the period, he was wholly apolitical.
At the start of World War I, in August 1914, he volunteered for service in the Queen Olga Grenadier Regiment of the Wu rttemberg Army. Though wounded at the western front, he volunteered for service as soon as he recovered and then was wounded once again on the eastern front.
Experience in the trenches seared many German artists. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Max Beckmann both suffered nervous breakdowns. The war made Bertolt Brecht, George Grosz and many other artists bitter critics of their nation. But Schlemmer, observes Vernon L. Lidtke in the exhibition's catalogue, "endured his war experiences with apparently little bitterness and much less emotional turmoil than many of his fellow artists." The shaved head he affected even made him look like a war-approving Prussian. He was German through and through.
"The hour of the manifesto is passed," he noted in his diary in April 1919. "The dividing lines have been drawn; now it is time to take stock, and the German method of bringing order out of chaos can come into play."
When Hitler came to power in 1933, many Bauhaus modernists fled Germany for freedom. But Schlemmer persevered. In August of that year he was fired from his teaching job (he never got another). In 1937, some of his best paintings -- those confiscated by the Nazis from Germany's museums -- were put on view in Munich in the "Degenerate Art" exhibit. Under Hitler's government, he also was denied any chance of making his living as an artist. But still he did not leave.
Instead he took odd jobs, sometimes painting houses, and, after World War II began in 1939, camouflaging barracks, factories and gasworks. He died a broken man, an exile in his own land, on Jan. 4, 1943.
Other Bauhaus artists -- Walter Gropius, Paul Klee, La'zlo' Moholy-Nagy, Marcel Breuer, Lyonel Feininger, Herbert Bayer, and Mies van der Rohe -- have since achieved much fame. But Schlemmer has been less fortunate. His paintings and his sculptures, his dances and his teachings, are much honored now in Germany, and especially in Stuttgart, the town where he was born in 1888.
But in the art world of America, Schlemmer's great achievements are still but slightly known.
How does one explain that? His refusal to leave Germany, taking his art with him, may have dimmed his chances for worldwide recognition. Few of Schlemmer's objects have appeared on the art markets. And though he was in many ways a victim of the Nazis, the hatred that they earned may have harmed him, too.
Other Bauhaus modernists drew much inspiration from the progressive art of Russia, Italy and France. But Schlemmer's art was home grown. He was in many ways the most Germanic of the Germans.
Throughout this exhibition, behind its sheen of newness and obsession and protean invention, one feels the old and deeply rooted kultur of his native land blooming in his art.
The dense, compelling space that surrounds all his figures is a space suffused with Angst. And yet an impish wit, a peculiar troll-like magic flickers in his art. The creatures in his dances -- with their padded legs and spiral skirts and strange, divided masks -- are, though less organic, as playful as Paul Klee's.
His love of mathematics is also deeply German. The ever-present spirit of law and ordered system that rules his exhibition recalls Goethe's color wheels and the fugues of Bach. Schlemmer was throughout his life a sort of numerologist, and it was from three, that most magical of numbers, that he took the title for his most famous dance, the "Triadic Ballet" of 1922.
"Why 'Triadic'? Because three is a supremely important, prominent number, within which egoistic one and dualistic contrast are transcended . . . Derived from trias=tirad, the ballet should be called a dance of the threesome: One female and two male dancers; 12 dances and 18 costumes . . . The three dimensions of space: height, breadth; the basic forms: ball, cube, pyramid; the primary colors: red, blue, yellow . . . Dance, costume and music."
Schlemmer's willingness to blend poetry and movement, clothing, sets and sounds (he choreographed his ballets to music by Paul Hindemith and Stravinsky), recalls the Gesamtkunstwerk of Wagner, the total work of art.
His trust in the ecstatic, his yearning to create -- through unfettered emotion -- a new society at peace with transcendental order, evokes the dreams of Nietzsche.
The conflict that fuels Schlemmer's work, that old, unending battle between Dionysian intoxication and Apollonian austerity, is one of the chief engines of Germanic esthetics.
In his costumes, wire sculptures and experiments with shadow, in his arcane numerologies and nonathletic dances, Schlemmer dared the new. But the antique held him, too. "Fallen Figure With Column," his eerie oil painting of 1928-29, makes specific what is elsewhere only subtly implied. He retained throughout his life, as did so many other Germans, an unshakable respect for the glory that was Greece.
His naked youths and dancing figures, who, despite their movements, seem carved of polished stone, suggest the athletes of Athens. In many of his paintings -- for instance "Group of Fifteen" (1929) -- they stand as still as statues, conquering surrounding space as antique statues do. Perhaps it is no wonder that the little face in his Bauhaus logo evokes archaic Greece.
The Baltimore Museum, guided by Brenda Richardson, who has few peers as curator of 20th century art, has specialized in recent years in strong, cerebral shows devoted to such artists as Frank Stella, Piet Mondrian, Mel Bochner, and Gilbert and George. All these artists think. So does Oskar Schlemmer. He is among the most humane and intelligent of all the Bauhaus artists. Richardson and Arnold L. Lehman, the Baltimore Museum's director, have spent five years preparing this exhibit. Its catalogue is splendid. And it rights an old injustice. For it provides Oskar Schlemmer the recognition he deserves.
A $125,000 grant from USF&G, the Baltimore insurance firm, helped pay for the exhibit. It will travel to the IBM Gallery of Science and Art, Manhattan, San Francisco and Minneapolis, and after that to Stuttgart, after closing in Baltimore on April 6.