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METZ, France — Long before Donna Haraway’s efficacious cyborg theory could exert its influence, German artist Oskar Schlemmer’s paintings, drawings, choreography, and costume and set designs featured flamboyant depictions of mechanic, post-flesh figures. Curated by the artist’s maternal grandson, C. Raman Schlemmer, Oskar Schlemmer: The Dancing Artist at the Centre Pompidou’s northeastern outpost beautifully displays how, by dressing his dancers in svelte outfits with geometric motifs and choreographing their sequenced dance motions into spectacular, machine-like repetitions, Schlemmer constructed a prototypical android realm.
In a diary entry from September 2, 1915, Schlemmer wrote, “I want to depict the most romantic idea in the most detached form.” This desire appears to have led to what Schlemmer theorized as a classical, monumental approach to human form. In doing so, he began feeling out the distinctive tensions between grubby anthropological narratives and serene mechanical simulacra that are so typical of our automated period. That personal and impersonal amalgamate may have even predicted the spectacle of moral aridity we have come to expect from certain powerful — and powerfully vain — elites today.
Using complex interplay throughout, his paintings and dance works follow a strange trajectory that mixes technological robotics with emotional appeals to a glorious past that has still not lost its grasp. A versatile and multifaceted artist, Schlemmer was also a utopian with visionary intentions related to the goals of Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius’s concept of the gesamtkunstwerk. But his social-political allegiance was to non-Nazi nationalist ideals that jibed with a conservative romanticism striving for cultural renewal. His flair for a sincerely romantic and robotic approach to the automated figure reflects a notion of aesthetic synthesis intended to symbolize social synthesis within a benevolent, emerging techno-society.
Between 1921 and 1929, when he served as the Master of Form at the Bauhaus, Schlemmer revolutionized and renewed dance as performance art. Thereafter, his career fell victim to Nazi cultural politics. He was forced to resign, due to pressure from the Nazis, from his professorship at Berlin’s United State School for Fine and Applied Art in 1933 and was publicly labelled a decadent Jew and a Marxist (of which he was neither). Schlemmer’s ambition for creating dancing tableaux vivants was to renew the art theories of his time through a combination of Gropius’s gesamtkunstwerk thinking and humanist ideas stemming from the Renaissance. This led Schlemmer to create a proto-robotic art by virtue of a relocation of embodied and mechanic consciousness — now commonly known as the post-human condition. The Bauhaus’s overall theory at the time, as outlined in Gropius’s 1919 text Architecture in the People’s Free State, was that the new materials made possible by new technologies should be used in the design and creation of choreography, art, and utilitarian objects, which in turn would attune to larger architectural gesamtkunstwerk designs, enabling the arts to overcome their isolation from each other. Following this theoretical thread, as seen in Schlemmer’s Tanz Figurinen sketchbook, he became modern dance’s oracle, pointing choreography toward an indeterminate zone between the two competing categories of being today: cyborg sequencing and flowing flesh.
At the center of the Pompidou-Metz’s, sculpture-costumes crafted by Schlemmer are displayed on a large stage around which gravitates a selection of fascinating drawings, paintings, prints, sculptures, photographs, and film clips — which are in turn peppered with works by Giorgio de Chirico, Constantin Brancusi, Alexandra Exter, Vassily Kandinsky, and others. One of my favorite works in the show is Schlemmer’s extremely delicate lithograph “Figurenplan” (1919), which offers up an index of his wild costume designs within a grid. As with his choreography of simple, repetitive motions, it is a telltale hint at what American Minimalism would so successfully create in the 1970s — works like Einstein on the Beach, the five-hour opera by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson with task-based choreography by Lucinda Childs. Other standout images are the photographs of Schlemmer’s “Danse des batons” (1928), where a protoplasmic body and mechanic spatial conceptions are visualized as self-prosthesis, and “Oskar Schlemmer tenant un masque et Élément coordonnée” (1931), in which he depicts his human face as no longer the sole grounds for subjectivity. With “Les signes de l’Homme (Dématérialisation)” (1924/1986), we see Schlemmer raise the hyperreal issue of virtual dematerialization as interface between the human body and the abstracting, universalizing machine.
In the drawing “Der Mensch im Ideenkreis / L’homme dans le cercle des idées” (1928), an effervescent dancer’s body seems already spliced into the cybernetic circuit; material flesh is undone here by a conceptual clamor it cannot contain. Likewise, Schlemmer’s kinetically activated “Danses des cerceaux” (1927) is made up of two machine figures that literally rise up and down, created only from rings of different sizes. Here the notion of the human body receives a cold, strange, almost ecstatic capacity through trance-like repetitions. In the drawing “Dancing Man: Movements and Emanations Create an Imaginary Space” (1921) and in the brilliant costume “Le Ballet triadique, Figure de fil de fer, Série noire” (1922) — made for his masterwork, Triadic Ballet (1922)— Schlemmer seems interested in moving robotic, crystalline bodies through space in a way that appears prescient of what we now know to be the effects of the internet on the human psyche. Indeed, with “Figur Raumlineatur / Figure et réseau de lignes dans l’espace” (1924), Schlemmer seems to have predicted our networked subjectivity by constructing a space of imaginative accommodation for an intensely connected circulate. With costume designs such as “Das Triadische Ballett (Le Ballet Triadique) Boule d’or, figure” (1922), we see his taste for geometric figurative art that is very suggestive of the mechanomorphic, robotic, or prosthetic bodies typical of Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia’s Dada, sex-machinist period, when they discovered industrial design as a pictorial source for transcendence.
In our current period, when many cultural producers are making work that looks increasingly ethnocentric and anachronistic, Schlemmer’s technocratic, cyborg philosophy of art engages contemporary theory in remarkably apt ways. Certainly, his visual and motion propositions — which privileged the sleek and coolly impersonal — point to our current slippery situation between fleshy embodiment and connective circumvention. By mixing moving bodies with mechanically repeating geometries, Schlemmer points us at today’s world of work, where automation is everywhere in the transcendent projects of globalizing neo-liberalism. Yet the smooth, cute, and joyous mood of Schlemmer’s robotic sensibility conveys something that at least temporarily alleviates the feeling that we are living in an epoch of click-bait robotics fueled by predatory virtual capital, where memes and farcical fragments of vanity culture keep repeating before our eyes, ad infinitum.
Editor’s Note: The author’s travel expenses from Paris to Metz were covered by the Centre Pompidou.