Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943) was a German painter, sculptor, and stage designer. His single subject was the human figure, which he reduced to puppet-like, two-dimensional shapes that were expressive of the human body as a perfect system of proportions and functions analogous to the machine age.
Oskar Schlemmer was born on September 4, 1888, in Stuttgart to Carl Leonhard Schlemmer and his wife Mina Neuhaus. The youngest of six children, Schlemmer learned at an early age to provide for himself following the untimely death of both his parents around 1900. As early as 1903 the young Schlemmer was completely independent and supporting himself as an apprentice in an inlay workshop.
In 1906 Schlemmer enrolled at the Stuttgart Academy, where he studied under Landenberger until he left for Berlin to work independently in 1910. While in Berlin Schlemmer painted his first important pictures—some landscapes and two rare self-portraits. These early pictures anticipate Schlemmer's life-long search for the geometric order and structure that characterize his later figurative work. It is also during this period that he first became interested in dance and the theater.
By 1912 Schlemmer was back in Stuttgart, studying under the artist Adolf Hoelzel. He remained there until World War I found him fighting on the western front in 1914. After being wounded twice Schlemmer was appointed to a military cartography unit in Colmar, where he resided until the end of the war. In 1918 he was, once again, back in Stuttgart working under Hoelzel.
The following year Schlemmer turned, for the first time, to the art of sculpture. The relief sculpture entitled Figure of a Youth in Components (1919) typifies his approach to the human form, a subject from which he rarely strayed. Schlemmer depicted the profile of a male youth reduced to basic geometric shapes abstracted from nature to reveal the figure's basic structure. Thus he illustrated not a specific figure within a time-defined realm but, instead, a figure that embodies the idea of man and his never changing structure.
The 1920s were Schlemmer's most productive years. After his marriage to Helena Tutein in 1920 he accepted the post of master of form at Walter Gropius' Bauhaus in Weimar. At the Bauhaus Schlemmer was first appointed as a master of the mural painting and sculpture workshops before heading the theater workshop in 1923. Schlemmer's interest in the theater was essentially in the ballet. His Triadic Ballet, first performed in Stuttgart in 1922, was a great success at the Bauhaus in 1923. With music composed by Paul Hindemith, Schlemmer used three dancers dressed in puppet-like costumes before various backdrops. The ballet was choreographed to reveal the figures' relationships to each other as well as to the space around them. Schlemmer saw the puppet as an idealization of the human form, a form that was able to move with perfect machinelike grace once it was liberated from the earthbound realm by the puppetmaster. Thus Schlemmer created a human form that was at once timeless in the perfection of its parts and contemporary in its mechanical movement.
Schlemmer's paintings from this period reflect the spatial concerns evident in his theatrical productions. The Dancer, painted in 1923, shows a single puppet-like figure frozen in step. Unlike the earlier Figure of a Youth Schlemmer set this figure within a vague stage setting where the figure interacts with the surrounding space. In other pictures from this period Schlemmer often included several figures in the same composition.
The conservative political climate of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s forced the Bauhaus to move to Dessau in 1925. Schlemmer accepted the offer to head the experimental theater workshop in Dessau. He remained there until 1929, when he took a teaching post at the Breslau Academy. While at Breslau, Schlemmer resumed work on the mural commission he received in 1928 for the Fountain Hall of the Folkwang Museum in Essen and designed stage sets for an opera and ballet by Igor Stravinsky.
The 1930s were difficult years for Schlemmer and his family. In 1933 he was dismissed from his teaching position at Breslau by the Nazis, who considered his art degenerate. The Schlemmers then moved to Eichberg near the Swiss border. Unable to show or sell his work, Schlemmer's painting took on a decidedly mystical tone. The former balance that Schlemmer achieved between the rounded conical forms of his figures and their placement on a two-dimensional surface gave way to very flat, almost transparent, figures bathed in a mystical light. In 1937 Schlemmer moved to Sehringen before his pictures were displayed at the National Socialist exhibition of "Degenerate Art."
Schlemmer's last years were spent working at a paint factory owned by Kurt Herbert in Wuppertal. The factory offered Schlemmer the opportunity to paint without the fear of persecution. His last series, the so called "Window Pictures," were very small pictures painted while looking out the window of his house and observing neighbors engaged in their domestic tasks.
During the summer of 1942 Schlemmer fell ill. After clinical treatments at numerous hospitals Oskar Schlemmer died in Baden-Baden in April 1943.
Museum catalogues provide the fundamental information on Schlemmer's art. His letters and diaries are available in English translation edited by his wife: Tut Schlemmer, The Letters and Diaries of Oskar Schlemmer (1972). Useful background material may be found in H. H. Arnason, History of Modern Art (1968) and in Frank Whitford, Bauhaus (1984). □