Painter, sculptor, choreographer: The legacy of Oskar Schlemmer

As a new exhibition celebrates German artist and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer, we explore his impact on contemporary culture.

"The Triadic Ballet was regarded as Schlemmer’s most important project, but it was just the beginning."

When thinking of a ballet dancer, it’s rare that one pictures a bulbous mechanical creature wearing a metallic mask. And yet, that’s precisely the kind of performing figure that German artist and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943) used in his renowned avant-garde work The Triadic Ballet, a dance experiment that redefined performance art and has left a palpable impact on contemporary culture since its debut in 1922.

To pay homage to this legacy, the Centre Pompidou-Metz in Paris has dedicated an exhibition, entitled Oskar Schlemmer: The Dancing Artist, to the painter, sculptor, designer, choreographer and Bauhaus teacher. The show highlights his forward-thinking concepts and humanist ideas through the display of the extraordinary sculpture-costumes he created, a selection of his sketchbook drawings and archival material from the period.

From the warped, voluminous silhouettes in Alexander McQueen’s iconic spring/summer 2010 collection to the billowy characters in New Order’s “True Faith” video, remnants of Schlemmer’s design influence are peppered throughout modern culture. Most of his work was preoccupied with the exploration of the figure in space. The Triadic Ballet, in which he reduced the human body into simple geometric shapes, was a prime example of this theme. Divided into three acts, the non-narrative dance sequence consists of farcical and dreamlike scenes that emphasize particular forms expressed through dancers in bold costumes: a woman wearing a spiraling wired tutu, a man donning what appears to be an armless atmospheric diving suit. Schlemmer himself once described the theatrical piece as a “party of form and color.”

The Triadic Ballet was regarded as Schlemmer’s most important project, but it was just the beginning,” says Torsten Blume, a research associate at the Bauhaus Dessau specializing in Oskar Schlemmer and the Bauhaus stage. “That’s when he started to transform the bodies of the dancers into sculptures by covering them with big spheric and asymmetrical costume pieces that limited the movements of the performance. The costumes defined the motions radically.”

By delving into Schlemmer’s work, the exhibition showcases another—seldom seen—side of the Bauhaus. Beyond the influential art school’s modernist ideas on design and architecture, it was also a place for experimental work in the areas of performance arts and dance. Initially trained as a painter and sculptor, Schlemmer attempted to transfer his ideas of abstraction from these realms into theater and choreography while heading up the theater workshop at the Bauhaus from 1923 to 1929.

Much of his thinking aligned with the Bauhaus commitment to merge art and technology in a humanistic way. “Schlemmer’s experimental dances created a new kind of performance art that worked at the intersection of the spiritual organism of the human being and the imaginary machine,” explains Blume. “His approach created a special friction between the two where something new was supposed to emerge—an inner meaning or vision.”

Unlike the 1920s when these ideas were being pursued, our lives are now steeped in technology. In turn, looking at Schlemmer’s work nowadays is less about searching for a deeper meaning through our relationship with machines, Blume told us, and perhaps more about the joy and vitality of living alongside technical forms and objects.

Oskar Schlemmer. The Dancing Artist runs until January 16th, 2017 at the Centre Pompidou-Metz.

Centre Pompidou-Metz
1, Parvis des Droits-de-l’Homme
CS 90490
F-57020 Metz Cedex 1

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