Until the 1983 expansion of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, with its airy escalator ride and open view to the sculpture garden below, access to the painting galleries was via a simple staircase. On the landing, midway up to the second floor, hung the above canvas. It is Oskar Schlemmer’s painting of students on the stairway of the Bauhaus, the experimental multi-disciplinary art school of 1920s Weimar Germany. It was difficult to enter MoMA’s painting galleries without a close encounter with this seminal work. It was a beacon, signaling to every MoMA visitor just how much the museum’s modernist aesthetic was tied to the Bauhaus and of MoMA’s founding director Alfred Barr’s “life-altering” 1927 visit to the school’s Dessau campus.
Schlemmer may not be the most famous artist to have taught at the Bauhaus: a roster of 20th century masters that includes Gropius, Klee, Kandinsky, Moholy-Nagy, Feininger and Albers. In the photo below, Schlemmer is at the far right:
But his painting of the Bauhaus stairway and its students has major symbolic importance in modern art, as cited by John-Paul Stonard in the July 2009 The Burlington Magazine:
Few works have borne such dramatic witness to the vicissitudes of twentieth-century political and cultural history as Oskar Schlemmer’s painting Bauhaustreppe of 1932. It is the artist’s last major painting, and an extraordinary synthesis of his work as a choreographer, easel- and wall-painter and theoretician, and capped the development of what Schlemmer termed a ‘grand figural style’, a classical, monumental approach to the human form that he had been developing throughout the 1920s. Schlemmer painted Bauhaustreppe in a studio at the Breslau Art Academy in September 1932, shortly before he left for a teaching job in Berlin, a final, short-lived employment before his career fell full victim to Nazi cultural politics. Schlemmer was one of the first artists to suffer persecution when his murals for the Weimar Bauhaus were painted over in October 1930.
Evidence of the continuing symbolic power of the painting as modernist icon is affirmed in Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day dot homage of 1989.
Bauhaus faculty artist T. Lux Feininger photographed students on the same stairway:
A drawing of the painting serves as a reductive window into the geometric, formalist world of Schlemmer’s art.
Like many of the Bauhaus faculty, Schlemmer was attracted to a non-hierarchic integration of multiple arts—and nowhere was this mixture more dramatic than in his Triadic Ballet, an unconventional performance piece that, using a score by Paul Hindemith, featured geometric costumes, colorful sets, and abstract choreography—in a dynamic synthesis of the arts unlike any other modernist work. It was only a decade before the Triadic Ballet’s 1922 debut that the world of dance and music had been shaken by the chthonic music, costumes, and design of The Rite of Spring. Last year I wrote about the centennial of its premiere and the reconstruction of Nijinsky’s choreography by the Joffrey Ballet:
Black and white photos of the original production of The Triadic Ballet attest to the volumetric, geometric lines of the costumes.
A photo-collage by Schlemmer makes even more explicit his goal of reducing the human dancers to dynamic motion forces.
Costume mannequins further abstract the human figure.
C. Raman Schlemmer of the Schlemmer Theatre Estate describes the dance’s choreography and color settings. The title “Triadic Ballet” comes simply from the triple division of the acts:
The first part, which takes place on a stage dressed in lemon yellow colors, is a comedic burlesque. The subject of the second part, on a stage dressed in pink, has a festival-ceremonial air. Finally, the third part is developed in a mystical-fantastical way before a totally black background. Three dancers, two men and a woman, perform twelve dances of alternating forms.
The costumes deliberately limit the participants’ freedom of movement due to the weight of the materials they are made from, their forms, and the masks worn. They are walking architectural structures that move in a comic fashion, playful, sharp and clumsy across the entire stage. For his figurines, Oskar Schlemmer took advantage of the new technologies of the era, “the scientific apparatus of glass and metal, the artificial members that are used in surgery, the fantastic military and diving uniforms.
The dance and art worlds have maintained an abiding fascination with this ballet. Its abstractions in color and movement had a direct influence on the 30s experimental animation of another German artist, Oskar Fischinger, who was best known to Americans for his scene in Fantasia of the abstractions of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.
Here are frames from each of the ballet’s three brief acts.
Fritz Lang’s Metropolis costumes share a design aesthetic with the Triadic Ballet.
And its continuity is seen in Iris Van Herpen’s 2013 costumes for dancers of The New York City Ballet.
In 1968, Margarete Hasting, Franz Schömbs, and Georg Verden reconstructed the ballet and filmed it using some motion picture techniques with cinematographer Kurt Gewissen. The score is by Erich Ferstl, not Paul Hindemith. The YouTube resolution is not the best—but it’s definitely worth watching the swirling movement and primal colors of this seminal—- but seldom performed milestone in 20th century art.
Next: “A House Like Me”: Curzio Malaparte and Jean-Luc Godard