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Oskar Schlemmer Photo

Oskar Schlemmer

German Painter, Sculptor, Theater Designer, and Choreographer

Born: September 4, 1888 - Swabia, Germany
Died: April 13, 1943 - Baden-Baden, Germany
Movements and Styles:
"I believe that a more profound mysticism can be shaped using objective depiction of nature. The mysticism of painterly means"
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Oskar Schlemmer Signature
"The history of the theater is the history of the transfiguration of human form"
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"My themes - the human figure in space, its moving and stationary functions, sitting, lying, walking, standing - are as simple as they are universally valid"
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Oskar Schlemmer Signature
"In spite of secularization and the 'dead end of abstraction', I still think art has a job to do. 'Absolute' art, the art of 'pure' form and color, belongs to the sphere of architecture and all that it encompasses. Painting needs a medium from the visible world in order to present itself. The noblest object is the human being"
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"Stage means the entire realm between religious cult and naïve public entertainment"
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"The stage is after all architectonic: it is ordered and planned, and it provides a setting for form and color in their liveliest and most versatile form"
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"The stage was there on the very day the Bauhaus opened, because enjoyment in designing was there on that first day. This enjoyment was first expressed in the celebrations, in the invention of masks, the making of costumes and the decoration of rooms. And it was expressed in dancing, dancing, dancing!"
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Summary of Oskar Schlemmer

Schlemmer's work in the arena of performance was both experimental and subversive. He purposely broke free from the usual constraints and rules of theater and dance, creating completely new versions of the artforms. He was one of the first artists to modernize the genres and his work formed the basis for many modern performance ideas that followed. He also explored painting and sculpture, winning international acclaim for his work and, as a result of this, he was commissioned to produce a number of high-profile murals including a series for the Folkwang Museum in Essen. During the 1920s, he was one of the Masters at the progressive Bauhaus school, working and teaching across a range of mediums. The Bauhaus revolutionized the way in which art was taught and created and Schlemmer is seen as a key figure in shaping its forward-thinking and collaborative ethos.


  • Schlemmer was novel in bridging the gap between pure abstraction and representational art. Whilst his work was predominantly abstract, he retained elements of the physical structure of the human body in his paintings, sculptures and performances. He presented people as architectural forms, simplifying the human image and breaking it into its constituent parts.
  • His theater and dance work combined his interest in the representation of the human body with kinetic studies and an investigation of the relationship between performer and space and he transformed his observations into abstract geometrical and mechanical choreography and costumes. The most famous of Schlemmer's works, The Triadic Ballet (1922), is an important example of this process in action.
  • Schlemmer's work aligned with Bauhaus thinking on merging art and technology, man and machine. His paintings often present genderless automatons and his dancers moved in unusual and machine-like ways. In relating humans to machines, Schlemmer was at the forefront of a movement to utilize technology to seek a deeper understanding of the human condition.

Biography of Oskar Schlemmer

German poster for <i>The Triadic Ballet</i>, at the Leibniz Academy (1924)

Despite the fact that Oskar Schlemmer's Triadic Ballet was first shown in 1922, his multi-media design aesthetic remains avant-garde today. The video to Lady Gaga’s hit Bad Romance reimagined the German artist’s choreography a century on, to critical acclaim.

Important Art by Oskar Schlemmer

Progression of Art
Relief H-6 PA (1919)

Relief H-6 PA

Schlemmer's reliefs mark a half-way point in his exploration of the human body from two-dimensional paintings to three-dimensional sculptures. His negotiations with Cubism are also apparent as he divides the human figure into geometric sections. The viewer sees the figure from the front and the rounded shapes denoting the head, torso, and legs are intersected with horizontal and vertical gridlines. These elements of the body are raised from the surface, but also delineated through the use of metallic paint in black, brown, silver, and bronze. Patterned sections make the figure stand out from the surface and offer more depth to the relief.

Reliefs were a medium that many artists of this time experimented with including Hans Arp, whose wooden reliefs of the 1910s and 1920s raised geometric shapes beyond the confines of the two-dimensional canvas. Schlemmer's relief works also exhibit many similarities to the Wall Pictures of his friend Willi Baumeister. Relief H-6 PA can be seen as Schlemmer's attempt to reinterpret the European avant-garde, and particularly Cubism, along the lines of his own fixation with the human figure. In his move towards sculpture through his experimental reliefs, the artist was able to reconsider the body's relationship to space, and utilize geometry for anthropomorphic rather than abstract ends. This work foreshadows Schlemmer's use of geometry in performative art and theatre, in particular the Triadic Ballet.

Cast Nickel - Museum für Angewandte Kunst Köln - Cologne, Germany

Figura Astratta (Abstract Figure) (1921-23)

Figura Astratta (Abstract Figure)

The tubular shapes of Abstract Figure resemble the standing human form with arms outstretched. The streamlined body can be seen as that of the New Man, a fantasy figure in post-war Germany who was thoroughly modern and forward-thinking. The use of bronze and nickel reflect these notions and give the work a machine-like aesthetic, an idea that was explored by staff and students at the Bauhaus, where Schlemmer was teaching at this time. The inter-disciplinary environment of the school meant Schlemmer could easily access the resources and materials of the metal workshop to create this piece.

Abstract Figure was one of Schlemmer's first forays into expressing the human figure in three-dimensions. Following the First World War, Schlemmer increasingly placed an emphasis on the more spatial aspects of his art and how the dynamism of the human body could be displayed through sculpture and theater. Of such experiments, the artist wrote: "Sculpture is three-dimensional. It cannot be taken in at once, but rather in a temporal sequence of different locations and angles of view. As a sculpture is not exhausted by a single direction of view, the visitor is forced to move, and it is only the circumambulation and the sum of impressions that leads to the full experience of the sculpture".

Bronze and nickel - The Art Institute of Chicago

Triadisches Ballett (Triadic Ballet) (1922)

Triadisches Ballett (Triadic Ballet)

Schlemmer's ballet premiered at the Stuttgart Landestheater in September 1922, with music by the German composer Paul Hindemith. The production went on to tour throughout Europe in the 1920s, to cities including Weimar, Frankfurt, Berlin, and Paris, spreading the Bauhaus ideas of modern art. The ballet didn't have a plot, but rather three acts of different moods and color which Schlemmer described as a "party of form and color". Act One was yellow, Act Two, pink, and the final Act was black. It was performed by three dancers, two female and one male, who wore a total of 18 costumes. The costumes over-emphasized the forms of the human body, turning the dancers into geometrical constructions and they moved both with and against the wearers as they danced the ballet, restricting some movements and highlighting others. The mixed media of their construction variously reflected and absorbed light further emphasizing certain body parts and structural elements.

Schlemmer was not the first to explore the traditional dance form of ballet in a modern way. At this time, the Ballets Russes, founded by the Russian art patron Sergei Diaghilev, was at the height of its popularity. Diaghilev commissioned new music from the composers Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev, accompanying by sets designed by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Schlemmer's Bauhaus colleague Wassily Kandinsky. In the Triadic Ballet, however, Schlemmer was the first artist to fuse dance and modernism through his exploration of abstraction in real space. It also marked a breakaway from classical ballet's focus on the soloist and the duet, instead emphasising a collective approach to dance. Schlemmer described his attempts to explore the relationship between body, shape, color and space as "artistic metaphysical mathematics". As well as the physical movement of the dance, the costumes can be seen as a living embodiment of Schlemmer's previous sculptural and pictorial work. The performers appear machine-like in their faceless costumes, reflecting on the zeitgeist of the New Man.

Photograph of seven of the original Triadic Ballet costumes. Costumes are mixed media, predominantly metal and fabric.

Grotesk I (Grotesque I) (1923)

Grotesk I (Grotesque I)

Schlemmer's Grotesk I shows a greater level of abstraction than most of his other work. Indeed, it is only discernible as human by the inclusion of the large ivory eye and mouth. Designed by Schlemmer and carved from walnut by Josef Hartwig, the Technical Master of the stone-sculpture and wood-carving workshops at the Bauhaus, the process of its creation demonstrates the collaborative working practices at the school. The sculpture takes the form of sweeping curves in a large S-shape, delineating the upper and lower body.

The piece can be seen as an exploration of the materials from which it is composed, contrasting the figure's curved shape with the firmness and solidity of the wood and the patterned grain of the polished surface. Built onto a metal pole which acts as a spine, the figure can swivel, changing the relationship between the body and its foot-like base. This ability to see the sculpture from a range of angles, allows the viewer to consider the human figure and its relationship to its environment in a fluid and dynamic way.

The title also sets it apart from his other work in that it directly references its quasi-human qualities. Schlemmer mixes natural materials with exaggerated forms to create a sculpture that is both attractive and repellent, depending on how the shapes are interpreted. The piece may have been a response to an exchange between Schlemmer and Swiss artist, Otto Meyer-Amden. Meyer-Amden suggested that Schlemmer's biggest talent was in the production of grotesque imagery, an accusation that Schlemmer rebutted, stating that: "I always defended myself against the grotesque. I wanted to be at the edge but still avoid making the sublime ridiculous". This figure was first exhibited a few weeks after this discussion.

Walnut, ivory, and metal - Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin

Konzentrische Gruppe (Concentric Group) (1925)

Konzentrische Gruppe (Concentric Group)

Based on a sketch from 1921, here Schlemmer depicts several figures looking in all directions, yet consciously ensures that all of them avoid the gaze of the viewer. These non-gendered faces are a common theme in the artist's work, presenting humans as statue-like, mechanical creatures. The background creates an abstract pictorial area through four rectangular planes of sombre hues. This marks an unusual departure from the colorful geometry of many of the paintings and designs of the Bauhaus.

The image is a study of multiple forms and their relationship to each other, focusing on the spatial positioning of the figures. The outstretched hands of two of the middle figures suggest they are exploring the undiscovered space of the painting, whilst the white gap at the top of the canvas features a small silhouette of a figure, hinting at an open doorway, or that the space has further unknown depths. The bodies and limbs of the figures seem to radiate out from the bald-headed figure in the near-middle of the canvas, giving the work its title. The physical similarities between this figure and Schlemmer possibly suggest that the artist has portrayed himself at the center of his own work, the point around which the other figures gravitate. The piece was created as part of a group of works in 1925, when Schlemmer was at the height of his career at the Bauhaus. All of them sold quickly to private collectors and museums, helping to make his name internationally. This led to Schlemmer nicknaming them the "gallery pictures". This was one of Schlemmer's works that was designated as 'degenerate' by the Nazis.

Oil on canvas - Staatsgalerie Stuttgart

Bauhaustreppe (Bauhaus Stairway) (1932)

Bauhaustreppe (Bauhaus Stairway)

Unlike the imaginary architectural spaces of his other paintings, in Bauhaustreppe Schlemmer depicts a real place: the staircase in Walter Gropius's Bauhaus building in Dessau. Based on a photograph taken in 1927 by T. Lux Feininger of students leaving a class, Schlemmer uses the geometrical construction of the staircase like a stage, positioning figures in a carefully choreographed scene. The grid structure of the windows is continued throughout the picture, bringing into play a mathematical element seen in other works by the artist. The use of bold primary colors paired with the strong geometry closely ties the piece to the wider Bauhaus style.

Schlemmer painted this work three years after leaving the Bauhaus and it can be seen as both a farewell to the school and a protest piece against the forced closure of its Dessau site, which was announced in July 1932. He described the painting in a letter as his "best work", and it was to be the last major painting of his career. Schlemmer was not the only artist to tackle this topic, Yamawaki's collage, The End of the Dessau Bauhaus (1932) depicts a uniformed Nazi and a politician marching across the Bauhaus buildings. Schlemmer's work is less overtly political, however, and instead presents the schools as a lost utopia of purpose and learning filled with ordinary students, their contemporary clothing and haircuts grounding them in the present. The painting became a symbol of the impact of the Nazis on art and the image's iconic status was affirmed when Roy Lichtenstein produced his own homage to the work in 1989.

Despite the use of a non-imagined location, Schlemmer is still able to experiment with the movement of bodies in space with the unlikely perspectives and inclusion of the mysteriously floating figure at the top of the stairs. This en pointe ballet dancer challenges the viewer whilst introducing a dance element, reflecting Schlemmer's love of theatricality and movement. The descending dancer may also represent the hope that the difficult political period would come to an end and that the school and its activities would find a way to persist, an almost angelic presence amongst the more mundane daily activities of the other figures. The people in the picture are similar to those seen throughout the artist's career - modular and faceless.

Oil on canvas - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Banister

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson

"Oskar Schlemmer Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Banister
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kate Stephenson
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First published on 25 Mar 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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