Oskar Schlemmer: The Bauhaus Stairway and the Triadic Ballet

The Bauhaustreppe

The Bauhaustreppe

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:

Bauhaus faculty---Oskar Schlemmer on far right.

Bauhaus faculty—Oskar Schlemmer on 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.

Roy Lichtenstein "Bauhaus Stairway"

Roy Lichtenstein “Bauhaus Stairway”

Bauhaus faculty artist T. Lux Feininger photographed students on the same stairway:

T. Lux Feininger: students on the stairway.

T. Lux Feininger: students on the stairway.

A drawing of the painting serves as a reductive window into the geometric, formalist world of Schlemmer’s art.

Oskar Schlemmer drawing of Bauhaustreppe

Oskar Schlemmer drawing of Bauhaustreppe

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:

John’s Bailiwick: “The Rite of Spring at 100” link

Black and white photos of the original production of The Triadic Ballet attest to the volumetric, geometric lines of the costumes.

Triadic Ballet dancers and costumes.

Triadic Ballet dancers and costumes.

Rehearsal photo

Rehearsal photo


A photo-collage by Schlemmer makes even more explicit his goal of reducing the human dancers to dynamic motion forces.

Photo collage of the ballet.

Photo collage of the ballet.

Costume mannequins further abstract the human figure.

Three costumes

Three costumes

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.

"Gelb" The first act.

“Gelb” The first act.

"Rosa" The second act.

“Rosa” The second act.

"Schwartz" The third act.

“Schwarz” The third act.

Fritz Lang’s Metropolis costumes share a design aesthetic with the Triadic Ballet.

Brigitte Helm in "Metropolis."

Brigitte Helm in “Metropolis.”

"Metropolis" like Triadic Ballet costumes.

“Metropolis” like Triadic Ballet costumes.

And its continuity is seen in Iris Van Herpen’s 2013 costumes for dancers of The New York City Ballet.

Iris Van Herpen 2013 costume for New York City Ballet dancer.

Iris Van Herpen 2013 costume for New York City Ballet dancer.

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.

Cast and crew photo for "Triadic Ballet." Schlemmer in center, in black, holding doll's head.

Cast and crew photo for “Triadic Ballet.” Schlemmer in center, in black, holding doll’s head.

Oskar Schlemmer

Oskar Schlemmer

Next: “A House Like Me”: Curzio Malaparte and Jean-Luc Godard

About John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey, ASC

John Bailey’s cinematography career encompasses such mainstream Hollywood films as Ordinary People, The Big Chill, Silverado, The Accidental Tourist, Groundhog Day, In the Line of Fire, As Good as It Gets and A Walk in the Woods, and such offbeat fare as Tough Guys Don’t Dance, That Championship Season, Swimming to Cambodia, A Brief History of Time and The Kid Stays in the Picture. He lives in Los Angeles and New York.


  1. Stuart Dahlquist

    I discovered the Triadic Ballet only yesterday and have watched it many times over the last ten hours or so. I’m stunned honestly; I had no idea anything like it exists, and am so pleased it does!

  2. Kurt Thomas

    Thank you for this article.

    A few comments from a German:

    Readers will be pleased that the Ballet was performed in 2014 again, in a cooperation between the Bavarian State Ballet and the Berlin Academy of Arts. This undertaking was met with very positive reviews. Here is the cover of German ART magazine, featuring a photo of one of the dancers in full garb:


    Also, there is a humorous aspect to these costumes, something which one also finds in the more whimsical works of some surrealists, Max Ernst and Hans Arp being prime examples of this tongue-in-cheeck approach. Adding a few pages to the famously thin book of German humor.

    Finally, to the artists who were inspired, directly or indirectly, by the mechanistic aspects of the Ballet, one can add the robot-themed performances of Kraftwerk.

    On a side note, allow me to point out that the title of the third act is “schwarz”, not “Schwartz”.

    It’s wonderful that your work (and the Internet) allow more people to discover the work of Schlemmer and of the people who share artistic connections with him.

    Kurt Thomas

  3. Runa Schmidt-Muller

    Doing research on Oskar Schlemmer I came across his Triadic Ballet shown on YouTube – fascinating and very creative. He deserves much more recognition as he and his work is quite unique. What a fantastic effort!

  4. Elizabeth Beyer

    I saw the video of the Triadic Ballet today at the Esker Gallery in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. There are not words to convey how much I liked it, if like is the correct word. Truly wonderful. I will be going back to see it again.
    Many thanks to the Goethe Institute.


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