Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus costume parties (1924-1926)

With “Life at the Bauhaus”
by Farkas Molnár (1925)

Untitled.
Image: Bauhaus costumes by Oskar Schlemmer (1925)

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Translated from the Hungarian by John Bátki.
From Between Two Worlds: A Sourcebook of
Central European Avant-Gardes, 1910-1930
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(The MIT Press. Cambridge, MA: 2002).

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It is the first institution in Europe dedicated to realizing the achievements of the new arts for the purposes of human existence. Its inception was the first step toward a recognition that has become widespread by now: that “atelier art” has divorced itself from life and is dead, and that every person possessing creative powers must seek his or her vocation in the fulfillment of the practical needs of everyday life. Today’s scientific and technological advances will not become assimilated into general culture as long as humankind still lives under medieval conditions. The machine is still a foreign object in the houses of today; the documents of technological culture are still relegated to books atop fancy carved desks, radio music by the fireplace. The age demands a style, a common denominator for its visible phenomena. However, “style” is an unsuitable word, we do not like to use it, for it usually refers to the external pseudo-unity of things, a system of decorative forms.

Each and every object that we have to build anew will be different, according to its material, function, and structure, instead of resembling each other in form. The common denominator will be provided by the object’s functionality and beauty demanded by its practicality; it will be the kinship of objects equivalent in their quality.

Bauhaus costumes, 1920s

Bauhaus costumes, 1920s

The architect Walter Gropius, founder and director of the Bauhaus, was among the pioneers in the fight against entrenched historical forms. His prewar creations (such as the Faguswerk in Alfeld) had already demonstrated that he was able to realize his goals with absolute technical mastery. He conducted the task of organizing the Bauhaus with the greatest consistency and perseverance in spite of the difficult circumstances and lack of understanding on the part of the authorities. The Bauhaus as organized is the prototype of a new kind of educational institution that does not merely “educate for life” but actually places its students into practical real-life situations. It is articulated into three subdivisions: 1) the school itself where theoretical and practical professional instruction is given in workshops, 2) the production workshops (stone, wood, metal, and glass processing shops, as well as textile, ceramics, murals, printing and theatrical workshops) where work is done on commission and ongoing experimental work is conducted, and 3) the architecture and design department, for the design and construction of all sorts of building projects.

At the time of its founding Gropius declared that in our days there are no architects and no artists capable of executing the loftier tasks of our age in practical form. Therefore the new artists would have to develop here, learning in the course of a constant immersion in materials the ability to think realistically, to make cool-headed calculations, and to draw daring conclusions. We live at a time of the greatest possibilities, a time of the greatest need. Unaccomplishable projects can only hinder us. The artist’s pride obstructs development and progress, which is promoted by the forward thrust of mechanical aptitude.

Bauhaus costume, 1920s

Bauhaus costume, 1920s

The 1923 exhibition gave evidence of how much of its promise the Bauhaus has realized after a mere four years of existence. They have built a model home in a manner totally devoid of clichés, introducing outstanding technical innovations in its structure and demonstrating creative invention in the layout of its ground plan. The entire building was completely furnished with built-in and multi-functional, movable furniture. Everything was produced at the Bauhaus workshops, including the rugs and dishes. The architecture department exhibited a large number of photographs showing completed buildings and several series of novel projects for inexpensive apartment buildings.

The exhibition of the products of the workshops included several prototypes that have been adopted by industry for mass production. The theater department produced Triadic Ballet and Mechanical Cabaret. The printing department published a huge Bauhaus volume including reproductions of representative works. Colorful reliefs were installed in the stairways and halls of the main buildings as public examples of innovative spatial design.

Bauhaus costumes, 1920s

Bauhaus costumes, 1920s

The Bauhaus exhibition was able to show very positive financial results even though it took place at a time of the greatest crisis in Germany. Widespread praise in the press and from professional circles was followed by such an influx of orders for various industrial fairs that the production workshops, already overloaded by their instructional schedules, were unable to fulfill the majority of orders. This has occasioned the current crisis at the Bauhaus, since the state that had compliantly erected the original buildings could not afford at present to enlarge the productive workshops, while refusing to approve the involvement of private capital in a state-run institution. Thus Gropius was faced with a choice: to continue with a school which would sooner or later sink to an academic level, or else to establish a corporation in tandem with the Bauhaus staff in order to realize their original goals. Gropius chose the latter, all the more so since the government of Thüringia, not very sympathetic to the school’s latest efforts, had become increasingly stingy with its subsidies.

German manufacturing industry and the circles that promote progress in the industrial arts (Werkbund, Werkfreunde, Industrieverband) have already given repeated evidence of their support of the Bauhaus, and in all likelihood will make the establishment of a G.m.b.H. possible in the near future. Given all this, the Bauhaus will be able to look forward with confidence to a future that will not be restricted to one locality but contains the potential of fulfilling a Europe-wide interest.

Bauhaus costume, 1920s

Bauhaus costume, 1920s

For someone to be admitted to the Bauhaus workshops he or she must not only know how to work but also how to live. Prospective students are required to send an autobiography and a photograph along with their applications. This is especially important in the case of women…Only healthy and intact individuals are suitable for admission. Education and training are not as essential requirements as a lively, alert temperament, a flexible body, and an inventive mind. Nightlife at the Bauhaus claims the same importance as daytime activities. One must know how to dance. In Itten’s apt phrase: locker sein [loosen up].

If you are not familiar with the festivals of the Bauhaus, then you don’t really know the Bauhaus product. These festivals arise suddenly, on the most varied pretexts. Take, for example, a day of great winds. Whereupon a gigantic placard is carried all over the community: FESTIVAL OF AERIAL GAMES. Two hundred airplanes of all sizes, shapes, and colors float in the air at the end of thin leashes.  There is nothing more beautiful than that. Games played by two hundred children of all ages. There are some incredible things that soar superbly. The best in the show was a piece by Fritz Schleifer, our “pretty boy,” whose forte was making constructions of air. As such, he was definitely a “keeper.” Eventually he became a taxi dancer.

Bauhaus costume, 1920s

Bauhaus costumes, 1920s

Summer brings many other delights, such as the water games known as bathing. The philistines are especially incensed, for it is rumored that the Bauhaus folk are fond of forgetting to bring their swimsuits. But this is not true. I passed three summers there without a single occasion when members of both sexes bathed together like that. Of course there were a few exceptions, here and there, but these were extremely rare. But everyone loved the cold water and the stony beach. And boxing. I challenged Gropius, “the Grand Seigneur” himself, to three rounds.

The nights, too, are beautiful. Especially in the vast park in Weimar. You see, this is where the model house is located, just above the Goethe-House, and next to the Bauhaus vegetable gardens. I lived there for a summer. It was the busiest time — during the Bauhaus exhibition. We certainly gave that model house a workout. You would never imagine how valuable a large, central, sky-lit hall can be in such a small apartment that economizes on space. And how practical those small sleeping cubicles can be. The Breuer beds, the Otte rugs, and the telephone, affording a “connection” at any time.  Breuer’s toilette mirror is a veritable wonder. If you place the small mirror horizontally across your face and look into the other, the nose disappears and this way the face is always very attractive; turning it slightly you end up with only one eye on your head, making the facial expression truly monumental.

Bauhaus costume, 1920s

Bauhaus costume, 1920s

Lantern Festival: what a banal term. But it signifies a real attraction, if you want to see a worldly congeries of the most varied assortment of geometric shapes, and masses of transparent color changes.  We, too, can provide some real surprises. Schmidtchen’s things possess a magical appeal. They blow even the philistines’ minds.El Lissitzky takes me by the arm; this serious little Constructivist engineer exudes sentimentality. Bah! Proun pictures. This is reality.

The winters are even more perilous. This is the season when dancing becomes a health requirement. The ballroom (Il Montecarlo) is huge. But strangers are not granted admittance. The district chief decides to give us a tax break. The “Schüpo” is always on our side. This is the time when the girls really blossom. If you knew the Bauhaus girls you would drop your low opinion of German women’s stockings. Of course many of them are from abroad. But among the German ones those whose names begin with I and L are 100 percent more efficacious than Greek goddesses. They are also more beautiful. My best dancing partner was Princess To (born in 1906 in the German Congo).

Bauhaus costume, 1920s

Bauhaus costume, 1920s

Of course the greatest credit goes to Arnold Weininger (born 1899 in Karancs). He organized the Bauhaus band. Jazz band, accordion, xylophone, saxophone, bombast, revolver. When he sits at the piano he rules over all the band masters; he leads the band like Admiral Scheer, he uplifts, he motions, he conducts, he directs. His smile is world-famous. He has also imported Hungarian music. He would make a terrific movie actor. In Hamburg, as author and actor at the Cabaret Jungfrau, he has enjoyed tremendous success.

Here the various kinds of dances are not performed in their customary forms, but as dictated by the throbbing pulse of the blood and the beat. There are also special Bauhaus-dances, just as there were special Bauhaus clothes, until the appearance of Georg Teltscher (when the process of Americanization began). Our dances to original music are the Bauhaus schritt, the Bauhaus trot, the Bauhaus gerade, and so on.

The dancing is suddenly disrupted by a resounding crash. All eyes are upon the stage. The Bühnenwerkstatt is at work. This merits a whole article in itself. The most striking farces, bloody tragedies, persiflages, exoticisms. But there is something even more novel here: those spontaneously arising improvisations. The first was Steegreif in 1919. And everybody performs. One after another they take the stage; much of the time the action is simultaneous in the middle of the hall, up in the galleries and on the podium. The spellbinding story may end as a serious rumble or else as a square dance.  Directed by Kurt Schmidt (his nails artfully blackened).

Bauhaus costume, 1920s

Bauhaus costume, 1920s

The greatest expenditures of energy, however, go into the costume parties. The essential difference between the fancy-dress balls organized by the artists of Paris, Berlin, Moscow and the ones here at the Bauhaus is that our costumes are truly original. Everyone prepares his or her own. Never a one that has been seen before. Inhuman, or humanoid, but always new. You may see monstrously tall shapes stumbling about, colorful mechanical figures that yield not the slightest clue as to where the head is. Sweet girls inside a red cube. Here comes a winch and they are hoisted high up into the air; lights flash and scents are sprayed.

And now one or two intimate details about the bigwigs. Kandinsky prefers to appear decked out as an antenna, 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…

Bauhaus costume, 1920s

Bauhaus costume, 1920s

The dance is non-stop. The members of the Jazz-kapelle break up their instruments. The proprietor loses his patience. Outside the police set up machine guns made of cherry brandy bottles. Inside, the high point is reached. Barometer at 365 degrees. Maximal tension. But it all comes to an end. Hebestreit the executioner shows up. The red arrow points at the emergency exit.

[Originally published as
"Élet a Bauhausban,”
Periszkop (June-July 1925)]

7 thoughts on “Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus costume parties (1924-1926)

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