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Oskar Schlemmer: Bauhaus' Mr. Clean

September 14, 1986|WILLIAM WILSON

SAN DIEGO — Guys with shaved heads have a bad mythical reputation. They are either arch-villains like Benito Mussolini or Erich von Stroheim or they are creepy skinheads designed to make Clint Eastwood's day.

The German artist Oskar Schlemmer had a shaved head. He also had a name that literally means glutton . You would have to say that the poor man had an image problem, a circumstance certainly not eased by the fact that most Americans have barely heard of him. He was an eminent faculty member at the legendary German Bauhaus, which pioneered the modern integration of the arts and also nurtured Kandinsky, Klee, Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. If his name rings a bell here at all, it is because for years his painting of students ascending Bauhaus stairs hung in a stairwell in Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art.

Oh yeah, sure. Now I remember. That guy.

Right. Well, that guy is now at last under retrospective review for the first time in the United States despite the fact he has been dead since 1943. An exhibition of 250 works was organized by Arnold L. Lehman and Brenda Richardson, respectively, director and curator of the Baltimore Museum of Art, and one hopes they are proud of themselves. The Schlemmer show is the most revealing reevaluation of a foggy chapter in classic Modernist art history seen hereabouts since the L.A. County Museum of Art's exhibitions on the Russian avant-garde and German Expressionist sculpture (if not, of course, quite so grand in scope).

It is also heartening to see such an exercise at the San Diego Museum of Art, an institution that devotes so much of its time to fluffy crowd-pleaser exhibitions it sometimes threatens to drift beyond the pale of serious critical attention.

Anyway, the Schlemmer show braces the artistic backbone and redeems the reputation of skinheads everywhere. Looking at Schlemmer's art reminds us that the tonsured pate was surely originally a gesture of renunciation and devotion made by persons of the monkish persuasion.

Oskar Schlemmer was born in Stuttgart in 1888 and seems to have spent the bulk of his life associated with schools and such-like institutions. When he wasn't an art student at someplace like the Akademie fur bildenden Kunst , he was (briefly) a soldier and then a Bauhaus professor from 1920-29 at the school's incarnations both at Weimar and Dessau, where he taught drawing and painting and headed their theater program.

Read through his art, Schlemmer must have been a near-perfect teacher. His imagery always centers on the human figure, but it is a figure conceived on a drafting table, joints executed with a compass and joined by limbs that look like they were turned on a lathe--tubular tear-shaped arms and legs and heads (usually hairless) that look like nobs on a stair post.

In other hands, such a highly mechanistic approach gets kinky in a hurry. With Schlemmer, the figure remains rather sweetly neutral, like students so idealistically enchanted they are just good comrades instead of males and females. In Schlemmer's staircase painting all, the figures are ascending in a setting so symbolically perfect as an expression of the antiseptic and aspiring student life that its poetic aptness almost gets past us.

Schlemmer's geometric Playskool-toy geometric figures and their extension into forms of Cubism and Purism reflect the Bauhaus' vision of a benign modern industrial Utopia full of clean happy workers and friendly machines, a fantasy still lingering between the wars even as Chaplin's "Modern Times" satirized it and the Second World War prepared to expose it as a rapacious monster.

But Schlemmer's idealism also harks back to the Renaissance, to Da Vinci's universal man and Durer's studies in anatomical proportion, which are basically about the sublimity of ideas and theory. Schlemmer's version of this is an adorable drawing called "Man in the Realm of Ideas," showing a figure dancing happily amid the words Psychology , Ethics , Philosophy and so forth. It's so ingenuous that at first it seems like satire, but so heartfelt it makes you remember that in high school, budding intellectual buddies could--with a straight face--greet each other with: "Hi. Had any profound thoughts lately?"

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