Oskar Schlemmer was one of the leading artists of German Bauhaus theatre, known for his original depictions of the human body and its surrounding space in the visual and performing arts. 1920 marks the year that Schlemmer was given a teaching post at the Weimar Bauhaus by the movement’s founder, architect Walter Gropius. The vision of integrating society with technology, art, design and life were key to Bauhaus thinking and resonated closely with Schlemmer, who sought to synthesise painting, stage and costume design, dance and architecture into his practice.
One of the artist’s most important contributions to Bauhaus theatre was the 1922 production Triadisches Ballett: an avant-garde ballet for which Schlemmer designed the costumes and choreography of Albert Burger and Elsa Hötzel’s dance troupe. When the Bauhaus moved from Weimar to Dassau in 1925, Schlemmer continued developing his theatre work and also taught a course called ‘Der Mensch’ [The Man], which combined life drawing with the study of science and philosophy.
In 1929 Schlemmer left the Bauhaus to take up a professorship at the Sicilian Art Academy in Breslau, and the next three years would culminate in the peak of his artistic output. He designed the sets for the Breslau theatre productions of Igor Stravinsky’s operas The Nightingale and Renard as well as Arnold Shoenberg’s opera Die glückliche Hand at the Kroll Opera House in Berlin in 1930. Aside from these important theatre commissions, his work was on view in major exhibitions spreading his name and influence across Germany and Europe.
In the early 1930s, Schlemmer introduced the staircase as a setting for his paintings and drawings, which also took on the role of a symbolic protagonist in the scene itself. Staircases and their associated banisters not only allowed for complex groupings of figures along a central axis, but also represented a psychological longing for stability. In exploring the relationship of figures in space and perspective, Schlemmer was drawn to depicting staggered and tiered groups of individuals.
The Breslau years were a time when his works became more expansive and dynamic, involving myriads of figures within organised architectural capriccio settings. As seen in the present lot, Schlemmer creates optical connections between the curving lines of the figures’ hair and facial profiles within the architectural features and their surroundings, such as the scrolling arm of a chair and the slender column with a curvilinear capital on the left hand side. He also uses repetition of colour within the composition – salmon-pink, sandy-yellow, chestnut-brown, pale lavender and charcoal black – which constantly keep the eye moving.
Pastel is used to its full potential in this work, introducing airiness and softness that balances the otherwise rigid forms. The central figure gazes into the distance, turning away from the viewer, which is another recurring motif in Schlemmer’s oeuvre, perhaps subconsciously representing the artist’s inner state at the time, given the distracting political events unfolding in the early 1930s.
One of Schlemmer’s most recognised and historically significant works from this staggered group series is Bauhaus Stairway (1932). As in the present lot, the work captures the dynamic movement on the iconic staircase at the Bauhaus school – the energy of the innovative think-tank and its young creative minds, buzzing between the floor landings.