Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus Parties

Although often associated with functional design and minimal, modernist architecture, Germany’s Bauhaus movement – as a visit to the Berlin’s splendid Bauhaus Archive reveals – was impressively multi-faceted and aesthetically diverse at its core.

One of its more flamboyant aspects was its theatrical school, which from 1923 was led by painter, sculptor and choreographer Oskar Schlemmer alongside painter and stage designer László Moholy-Nagy.

Both artists had connections to Berlin: Schlemmer lived in the city between 1910-1912, and Moholy-Nagy developed stage sets for the Kroll Opera House. Both also took a multi-disciplinary approach to theatre that spanned architecture and music, painting and dance, not to mention the theatre traditions of the Far East and avant-garde musical and poetic works like Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.

Schlemmer in particular aimed to synthesise choreography and geometry together with other artistic disciplines to ‘elevate’ the aesthetics of human movement and create a new theatrical Gesamtkunstwerk. To enhance the visual element of his productions, he and his workshop colleagues created highly imaginative costumes for the dancers.

The most famous were for his three-act Das triadische Ballett, (Triadic Ballet), an avant-garde dance production that premiered in 1922. The original concept involved three participants for each act as well as 12 specific dances and 18 costumes. Each act employed a different colour scheme (yellow, pink, black and white), and conveyed a different emotional mood from happy to solemn. Each time it was performed, however, various elements changed.

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A 1968 reconstruction of the Triadic Ballet

But as well as the Triadic Baller, Schlemmer organised extravagant costume parties between 1924-1926 that became celebrated traditions for which the movement’s main students and teachers – heavyweight artists like Moholy-Nagy, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Piet Mondian as well as architects like Mies van der Rohe and furniture designers such as Marcel Breuer – spent weeks attempting to out-do one another with fantastical creations.

Themes for these parties and costumes ranged from “Beard, Nose and Heart” to “White” and “Metal” – for the latter event, participants dressed in costumes made of tin foil, spoons and kitchen utensils and accessed the main room via slides. The parties, mostly held at the main Bauhaus school in Dessau (an hour or two outside Berlin), were usually soundtracked by the jazz grooves of the Bauhaus Band, and intended to encourage interaction between Bauhaus and the public sphere as well as develop the ‘play instinct’.

Although there aren’t many photos remaining from these parties, the images below have somehow survived, as have the testimonies of Bauhaus students like Farkas Molnár, a Hungarian architect who chronicled some of these extrarodinary events in a 1925 book chapter entitled “Life at the Bauhaus” (some of which has been translated here).

“Kandinsky prefers to appear decked out as an antenna,” he writes. “Itten as an amorphous monster, Feininger as two right triangles, Moholy-Nagy as a segment transpierced by a cross, Gropius as Le Corbusier, Muche as an apostle of Mazdaznan, Klee as the song of the blue tree…a rather grotesque menagerie…”

The original sources and credits for these images cannot be found. If anyone knows who took them we would love to hear from you.