Guys with shaved heads have a bad mythical reputation. They are either arch-villains like Benito Mussolini or Erich von Stroheim or they are creepy skinheads designed to make Clint Eastwood's day.
The German artist Oskar Schlemmer had a shaved head. He also had a name that literally means glutton . You would have to say that the poor man had an image problem, a circumstance certainly not eased by the fact that most Americans have barely heard of him. He was an eminent faculty member at the legendary German Bauhaus, which pioneered the modern integration of the arts and also nurtured Kandinsky, Klee, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. If his name rings a bell here at all, it is because for years his painting of students ascending Bauhaus stairs hung in a stairwell in Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art.
Oh yeah, sure. Now I remember. That guy.
Right. Well, that guy is now at last under retrospective review for the first time in the United States despite the fact he has been dead since 1943. An exhibition of 250 works was organized by Arnold L. Lehman and Brenda Richardson, respectively, director and curator of the Baltimore Museum of Art, and one hopes they are proud of themselves. The Schlemmer show is the most revealing reevaluation of a foggy chapter in classic Modernist art history seen hereabouts since the L.A. County Museum of Art's exhibitions on the Russian avant-garde and German Expressionist sculpture (if not, of course, quite so grand in scope).
It is also heartening to see such an exercise at the San Diego Museum of Art, an institution that devotes so much of its time to fluffy crowd-pleaser exhibitions it sometimes threatens to drift beyond the pale of serious critical attention.
Anyway, the Schlemmer show braces the artistic backbone and redeems the reputation of skinheads everywhere. Looking at Schlemmer's art reminds us that the tonsured pate was surely originally a gesture of renunciation and devotion made by persons of the monkish persuasion.
Oskar Schlemmer was born in Stuttgart in 1888 and seems to have spent the bulk of his life associated with schools and such-like institutions. When he wasn't an art student at someplace like the Akademie fur bildenden Kunst , he was (briefly) a soldier and then a Bauhaus professor from 1920-29 at the school's incarnations both at Weimar and Dessau, where he taught drawing and painting and headed their theater program.
Read through his art, Schlemmer must have been a near-perfect teacher. His imagery always centers on the human figure, but it is a figure conceived on a drafting table, joints executed with a compass and joined by limbs that look like they were turned on a lathe--tubular tear-shaped arms and legs and heads (usually hairless) that look like nobs on a stair post.
In other hands, such a highly mechanistic approach gets kinky in a hurry. With Schlemmer, the figure remains rather sweetly neutral, like students so idealistically enchanted they are just good comrades instead of males and females. In Schlemmer's staircase painting all, the figures are ascending in a setting so symbolically perfect as an expression of the antiseptic and aspiring student life that its poetic aptness almost gets past us.
Schlemmer's geometric Playskool-toy geometric figures and their extension into forms of Cubism and Purism reflect the Bauhaus' vision of a benign modern industrial Utopia full of clean happy workers and friendly machines, a fantasy still lingering between the wars even as Chaplin's "Modern Times" satirized it and the Second World War prepared to expose it as a rapacious monster.
But Schlemmer's idealism also harks back to the Renaissance, to Da Vinci's universal man and Durer's studies in anatomical proportion, which are basically about the sublimity of ideas and theory. Schlemmer's version of this is an adorable drawing called "Man in the Realm of Ideas," showing a figure dancing happily amid the words Psychology , Ethics , Philosophy and so forth. It's so ingenuous that at first it seems like satire, but so heartfelt it makes you remember that in high school, budding intellectual buddies could--with a straight face--greet each other with: "Hi. Had any profound thoughts lately?"
Schlemmer's art is a psychological rarity in that it is art of extraordinary quality done with virtually no trace of ego. In many ways, the guy was a real mechanic, willing to turn his hand to any job circumstances required. He could get up a perfectly seamless lyric Expressionist painting, draw a huge robot-like figure in chrome wire, design a logo for the Bauhaus and after dinner get on with his theater designs. If he discovered a lack in himself, he fixed it. He had, for example, a natural bent for flat design but very little talent for painting figures in atmosphere. He compensated by developing a methodological approach that works surprisingly well. He is always an artist of exceptional skill and sunny disposition (edged with appropriate wryness) but he was at his absolute best as a dance-theater designer.
The purity and curious sexual detachment of certain kinds of dance accorded with his playful sensibility. His costumes for the "Triadic Ballet" are masterpieces of fairy-tale science-fiction sculpture like "Star Wars Goes to Oz." Nothing in their wonderful formal play is compromised, from the silhouette-in-shield cutout of a warrior figure to the wire-slinky tutu of his airiest figure. In fact, the costumes were so constricting that dancers were able to make only rudimentary movement therein, making them more like moving sculpture than terpsichorean trappings.
Schlemmer's art is so amazing in its skill, generosity and range that one wonders why it has been so ignored until now. It reminds one of almost no other art or career, save that of fellow skinhead, the Russian Alexander Rodchenko.
The fact is that Schlemmer was not a formal innovator like Picasso, Mondrian or Duchamp and so, until recently, there has been little reason to regard him as much else than a good soldier. Two circumstance have changed that.
The advent of Neo-Expressionism has inspired a look back at the originals. Certainly some of Schlemmer's pastel sweetness was absorbed by Sandro Chia and turned saccharine. The gentle odd, Balthus-like classicism and sexual wistfulness of Schlemmer's 1929 "Fallen Figure With Column" has been brutalized by legions of clumsy revivalists. Neo-Ex has at least the virtue of making its sources look good.
Then there is Post-Modernism, with its revived urge to integrate the arts and a surge in the various hybrid forms that fold into the omelet of performance art. As presently practiced, integrated arts too often become either embarrassing amateur psychotherapy or slickly designed theater. Schlemmer's art tells us it ain't necessarily so. The problem is to find a temperament like his in our exhibitionistic epoch.
Schlemmer was basically so self-effacing that his art can sometimes seem mindless and neutral, until one looks twice to find the cool intelligence and idealism that informs it.
When the Nazis started exercising their spectacular flair for right-wing pageantry, Schlemmer was urged to politicize his theater program to conform to the left-tilt of the Bauhaus. He refused, believing the theater must reflect universal concerns that are beyond politics.
When the Nazis proscribed his art and made it impossible for him to either sell or teach, he neither fled nor fought. He painted murals for a commercial company and worked in a paint lab. Basically, he just wanted to do his thing and not be bothered. There is a certain dignity in that--and a large dollop of excessive optimism. The stress of survival in a familiar world turned suffocatingly grotesque certainly weakened Schlemmer, making him vulnerable to the diseases that carried him off at age 55--one of the more poignant beacons of innocence to be snuffed in that awful time.