As a new exhibition at the Centre Pompidou-Metz celebrates German artist and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer, we take a look at how his avant-garde thinking and humanist ideas have left a mark on contemporary culture.
When thinking of a ballet dancer, it’s rare that one pictures a bulbous mechanical creature wearing a metallic mask. And yet, that’s precisely the kind of performing figure that German artist and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943) used in his renowned avant-garde work The Triadic Ballet, a dance experiment that redefined performance art and has left a palpable impact on contemporary culture since its debut in 1922.
To pay homage to this legacy, the Centre Pompidou-Metz in Paris has dedicated an exhibition, entitled Oskar Schlemmer: The Dancing Artist, to the painter, sculptor, designer, choreographer and Bauhaus teacher. The show highlights his forward-thinking concepts and humanist ideas through the display of the extraordinary sculpture-costumes he created, a selection of his sketchbook drawings and archival material from the period.
From the warped, voluminous silhouettes in Alexander McQueen’s iconic spring/summer 2010 collection to the billowy characters in New Order’s “True Faith” video, remnants of Schlemmer’s design influence are peppered throughout modern culture. Most of his work was preoccupied with the exploration of the figure in space. The Triadic Ballet, in which he reduced the human body into simple geometric shapes, was a prime example of this theme. Divided into three acts, the non-narrative dance sequence consists of farcical and dreamlike scenes that emphasize particular forms expressed through dancers in bold costumes: a woman wearing a spiraling wired tutu, a man donning what appears to be an armless atmospheric diving suit. Schlemmer himself once described the theatrical piece as a “party of form and color.”
“The Triadic Ballet was regarded as Schlemmer’s most important project, but it was just the beginning,” says Torsten Blume, a research associate at the Bauhaus Dessau specializing in Oskar Schlemmer and the Bauhaus stage. “That’s when he started to transform the bodies of the dancers into sculptures by covering them with big spheric and asymmetrical costume pieces that limited the movements of the performance. The costumes defined the motions radically.”