BY MIN CHEN
German artist and Bauhaus associate Oskar Schlemmer was a man driven by precision. In his practice, which spanned sculpture, painting, and choreography throughout the 1920s, rational order and proportion served as formal guides. “If today’s arts love the machine, technology, and organization,” he once wrote, “this implies an instinctive repudiation of chaos and a longing to find the form appropriate to our times.” His celebrated canvases—1928’s Four Figures and Cube, 1932’s Bauhaus Stairway—bear this out in their rigorous structures and trim figures.
But Schlemmer understood that pure geometry and modularity on their own were cold to the touch. “Granted: geometry, the Golden Section, the laws of proportion, are lifeless and unproductive,” he wrote in 1923, “unless they are experienced, touched, and felt.” Just as the Bauhaus stairway was made to be travelled, his ordered universe required population and interaction with humans to be made warm and vital. “Not abstract, not machine,” he would conclude, “but always man!”
Schlemmer’s work, then, doesn’t just capture the tension between man and machine (if not his own negotiations: “I vacillate between two styles, two worlds, two attitudes toward life”), but mediates between the two, posing creative responses to their coexistence. In 1922, he distilled all that into his much-revered Das Triadisches Ballett (The Triadic Ballet), which he choreographed and designed to explore the human form in space and motion. “My themes—the human figure in space, its moving and stationary functions, sitting, lying, walking, standing,” he said, “are as simple as they are universally valid.”
Corralling elements of pantomime and ballet, color and costumes, the performance streamlined the human body into basic geometric shapes, and set it loose in three acts of increasing surreality. Where the first section adopts a buoyant burlesque air, the second unfurls courtly ceremonial dances before the third descends into a mystical underworld. Twelve dances are contained within the ballet, undertaken by three dancers, two men and a woman. They don costumes that variously consist of ballooning sleeves, accordion-like skirts, blank masks, metal helmets, and other fantastical components that redefine their silhouettes and amplify (and, due to their weight, impeding) their movement.
While reflecting Bauhaus’ aesthetic and synthesis of the arts, Triadisches embodied Schlemmer’s pursuit of structure and the Golden Section. So named after the number three, his ballet, he wrote, “should be called a dance of the threesome: one female and two male dancers; 12 dances and 18 costumes… The three dimensions of space: height, breadth; the basic forms: ball, cube, pyramid; the primary colors: red, blue, yellow…” Clad in their costumes, Schlemmer’s dancers are also less figures and more figurines—walking geometric and architectural sculptures. According to him, “the seemingly violated body achieves new expressive forms of dance the more it fuses with the costume.” In their movement, the dancers breathe life into the artist’s shapes and space, offering experience, touch, and feel as they close the gap between the abstract and the human.
Triadisches was internationally acclaimed in its time and continually embraced long after Schlemmer’s death. Some notable reconstructions include a radiant 1968 version (see below), performed by Margarete Hasting, Franz Schömbs, and Georg Verden for German TV, and a 1977 iteration, restaged by dancer Gerhard Bohner, which was still being performed decades on. The ballet’s influence would also extend far beyond the art world, its modernism resurfacing in performance art, in fashion, in photography, and in two key moments in music.
Witness, first of all, David Bowie performing “The Man Who Sold The World” on Saturday Night Live in December 1979 in a fiercely modular suit cut straight out of Triadisches. Broad shouldered, cinched at the waist, and tapering toward his feet, the outfit effectively reduced Bowie’s body into a geometric form so severe that he was unable to move in it. His co-performers Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias had to move and place him in front of the microphone, not unlike an oversized, overdressed chess piece. (Bowie’s early ’70s Tokyo Pop bodysuit, designed by Kansai Yamamoto, also owes a debt to Schlemmer’s vision.)
Then observe New Order’s 1987 video for their single “True Faith,” off their compilation Substance 1987. Directed by choreographer and dancer Philippe Decouflé, the promo is as brightly colored as it is off-the-wall wacky. In it, figures clad in bulging costumes hop and prance across a street and into a warehouse, a character wrapped in silver coils and red velvet toys with geometric blocks, and infamously, two oddly outfitted guys take turns slapping each other. Decouflé’s romp is looser and more farcical, though its outline is notably Triadisches. His characters reflect not just the Schlemmer’s menagerie, but also, the artist’s preoccupation with color, space, and movement.
Das Triadisches Ballett was but one of Schlemmer’s many contributions to German art and the Bauhaus school. The same year the performance officially debuted on a stage in Stuttgart, Germany, he also designed a logo for the institution—a series of lines, rectangles, and squares that made up the profile of a face, encircled by blocky letters that read, “Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar.” (The logo, of course, was famously repurposed in the late ‘70s by the band Bauhaus.) Captured in it was equally a Bauhausian objectivity and Schlemmerian rigor, though its abstraction does admit the organic. As he once stated, “I would like to present the most romantic idea in the most austere form.” And the logo, for all its reduced and mechanical angles, did draw on the most romantic notion of all: not machine, but man.