School of architecture and art organized by Walter Gropius (1883-1969) in 1919 in Weimar (Germany), transferred to Dessau in 1925. Open to all the arts, it also included the theatrical arts. An architectural design of the human form, both organic and artificial, accompanied the evolution of the Bauhaus movement from its founding until its rationalist outcome. The central issue was the relationship between the human figure, designed as an “organic” composition, and the artistic figure, thought to be both artificial as well as a means of transcending the material human.
The first theatre laboratory of the Bauhaus was given to Lothar Schreyer (1886-1966) from 1919 to 1923, noted for his Sturm-bühne (an experimental Expressionist theatre ensemble) and by his “mystical expressionism”. Through Schreyer’s concept of total art (Gesamtkunstwerk), puppets and Ganzmasken (fully integrated masks) were instruments used to achieve a new dimension for the purpose of purification and deliverance.
The technological approach, however, characterized the last phase of the Bauhaus. Typical were the geometric, abstract, and mechanical stage projects of László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946), in which sounds, shapes and colours replace the traditional dramatic development and eliminate the human figure or at the very least integrate it into other scenic elements.
An intermediate position is that of Oskar Schlemmer (1888-1943), who took over direction of the theatre workshop in 1923. In the wake of a text by Heinrich von Kleist, Über das Marionettentheater (On the Marionette Theatre, 1810), Schlemmer considered the puppet an artificial model which could inspire the actor to realize the perfect synthesis between the “natural” laws of body mechanics and those of abstract space. (See Dance, Aesthetics of the Puppet – European Romanticism to the Avant-Garde.)
These three positions coexisted within the Bauhaus while most of the many other trends and aesthetic projects drifted.
Familiarity with the Puppet
Artists such as Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Paul Klee (1879-1940) were also indirectly active in the theatre school. They were often confronted with issues relating to puppets. Kandinsky created the sets and miniatures for Bilder einer Ausstellung (Pictures at an Exhibition, 1928) by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881), directed and choreographed by Oskar Schlemmer in Dessau. Klee invoked the puppet theme in several of his paintings; he made for his son puppets of great expressiveness, and he used to join his Bauhaus friends for home performances. At the Bauhaus, the theatre, like other art forms, were present in many “festivals of Bauhaus”. These were occasions where artists were accustomed to disguise themselves, often wearing masks and costumes inspired by the puppets’ universe. Many Bauhäuslers tried puppetry art. Notably the programme of the Bauhaus Week in Weimar (1923) with the presentation by Marcel Breuer (1902-1981) of ABC Hippodrom, where before a black canvas, two-dimensional figures of various proportions were operated by hidden dancers among the audience.
Towards an Object Theatre
According to the Breuer design, the human presence was required when other scenic resources fell short. A show without involvement of the actor was perfectly feasible. Kurt Schmidt (1901-1991) proposed a mechanical ballet (Mechanische Ballett) in which he collaborated with Georg Teltscher (1904-1983) and Friedrich Wilhelm Bogler (1902-1945). Abstraction predominated, influenced by the Dutch De Stijl movement, reducing the “characters” to squares and rectangles of colour worn by dancers moving on a two-dimensional plane at a pace reminiscent of a machine. Similarly, play with light in Reflektorische Lichtspiele (Light Reflected Games, 1923) orchestrated by Joseph Hartwig (1880-1955) and Kurt Schwerdtfeger (1897-1966). These went in the direction of abstract theatre and music research. The projection was made using hand-coloured bulbs to silhouettes of geometric shape, creating a rhythmic sequence. The same year, Kurt Schmidt created the wooden puppet of Abenteuer des kleinen Bücklingen (The Adventures of Small Herring, 1923).
If in the first period, from 1919 to 1923, the Bauhaus artists favoured puppets or figures in two dimensions, with the arrival of Moholy-Nagy, these performances assumed that shape of pure abstraction. According to the Abstrakte Revue (Abstract Review, 1926) by Andor Weininger (1899-1986), one show was based on a system of movable surfaces with coloured bands and turning circles between which were puppets in geometric shapes with light effects and background noise. During the last period of the Bauhaus, the theatre projects were focused on the theatrical stage space as such, beyond the question of the presence or absence of humans. Examples include the U-Theatre of Farkas Molnár (in Hungarian, Molnár Farkas, 1897-1945) in 1925, the Kugeltheater (Spherical Theatre), a gigantic globe-shaped room, of Andor Weininger in 1926, or the Konstruktivistische Raumbühne (Constructivist Space Theatre) of Xanti Schawinsky (1904-1979), submitted in 1927. Finally, to crown this increasing abstraction, mention must be made of Partitur einer mechanischen Ekzentrik (Score of Mechanical Eccentricity) and Lichtrequisit einer elektrischen Bühne (Lighting a Scene Electrified) by Moholy-Nagy, where the “actors” were music, light, shape, and movement brought not by man but by machine.