Body, emotion and originality on the early Bauhaus stage:
Lothar Schreyer and Gertrud Grunow
One hundred years after the founding of the Bauhaus, one name is particularly striking in its performing legend: Oskar Schlemmer. But the foundation for the stage work at the Bauhaus was laid by Lothar Schreyer, the first director of the stage classes from 1921 to 1923. His early departure coincides with a significant crossroads for the school – as is generally known, the university increasingly detached itself from its expressionistic and esoteric roots, criticised overly otherworldly utopias and turned to more concrete projects and industry. Johannes Itten left the school in the same year as Schreyer, along with Gertrud Grunow, who had been teaching harmonisation at the Bauhaus since 1919 and had been appointed as master of form in 1922 and left the school in spring 1924.
There are most interesting connections between Schreyer and Grunow that have not yet been discussed due to a lack of research on both persons. The synopsis of their practices and theories promises to re-examine the artistic approaches at the early Bauhaus, focussing on the role of the body, the mind and the soul. The concepts of harmony as well as synaesthesia as original form of perception are central to this re-examination.
Colour, shape, sound, language – body and emotion
Schreyer had been working intensively on a new stage form since 1916, which abstractly brought colour, form, movement and sound onto the stage through the use of full-body masks. He developed specific performances between 1919 and 1921 as director of the expressionistic ‘Sturm-Bühne’ in Berlin. With his immaterial stage work Schreyer aimed to directly influence his audience’s feelings. He was concerned with the direct experience of colours, shapes, sounds and rhythms. As early as 1917 he illustrated how movements, colours, shapes and sounds could trigger certain emotions.
Grunow’s theory of harmonisation strengthened Schreyer’s approach and helped the Bauhaus students to master the high requirements of the Bauhaus stage. Schreyer’s student Hans Haffenrichter reports: “the daily training was especially geared to the’speaking sound’ [‘Klangsprechen’]. The actor first had to find his own fundamental tone and from there find his ‘inner sound’. The words of poetry would be practiced exactly according to the ‘Spielgang’, the course of the play in rhythm and cadence, in pitch and sound of the ‘speaking sound’ until the ‘spiritual dimension’ became real. The players’ movements grew out of the sound of the word. Thus every movement and the paths in the stage’s playing field were rehearsed exactly according to the ‘Spielgang’ with mask and dance shield. It was initially quite difficult to master the dance shield, especially when having to speak while moving it. Here Gertrud Grunow could help with her ‘harmonisation exercises’ […].“
Grunow had already developed the so-called “circle of equilibrium” in the early 1910s. It was based on the correspondence between twelve colours and twelve tones. This circle was the starting point for a diverse exercise practice. The teaching was based on her realization that each tone and each colour have a specific position in space, a specific posture and thus elicit a specific movement and body tension as a consequence of the correlation of tones and colours with certain emotions. This was also central for Schreyer.
Grunow’s teaching served as preparation and support for creative work. The aim was to harmonize the body and the soul through imagination, movement and breath. Her students were supposed to shake off their physical as well as mental rigidity. During the Grunow exercises a movement rhythm was executed that was characterised by a change between tightening and loosening, bending and straightening as well as different types of breathing. Students were to learn how to feel body tension and gravity along with their corresponding emotions and inner stirrings.
As a trained music teacher Grunow had already taught numerous singers before being employed at the Bauhaus. A report by the art and youth publisher Erich Parnitzke and contemporary of Grunow gives a good idea of how to envisage her method: “Once I arrived early for ‘my lesson’ and could witness how the Berlin opera singer Kirchhoff was ‘treated’. He was overjoyed to achieve sonority for a certain Mozart aria from the overall gesture of the ‘correct’ physical posture, to which the voice would automatically yield. ‘Do this at home regularly, but not for too long and not too intensely; if you come into the position here aided by ‘terracott’ and there by ‘blue’, you will have the correct voice posture. Don’t sing from the head, but from the spine and hip’ […].”
Apart from voice training and posture, movement also had to be mastered on Schreyer’s Bauhaus stage – which was more complicated due to mask and shield. In his “Erinnerungen an Sturm und Bauhaus“ (“Recollections of Sturm and Bauhaus”) (1956) Lothar Schreyer acknowledges how important Grunow’s work was not only for this task, but also for the success of his colleagues: “I know: neither the preliminary course nor the main course would have successfully been possible without Gertrud Grunow and the Bauhaus would not have accomplished its creative oeuvre”.
Harmony, synaesthesia and the union of the senses
There is a central connection between Schreyer and Grunow in the problem of harmony that was being newly debated at the Bauhaus. Although Schreyer had still called for “aharmonic” art based on an obsolete concept of harmony – it became central to his deliberations at the Bauhaus: “We were convinced that it was our task to help reveal the harmony of fine arts that had been forgotten for centuries through our artistic work and thus contribute to an objective measure for fine arts, just as music has already long known in harmony and counterpoint.” The Bauhaus workshops thus very quickly became laboratories of art theory. “Particularly Gropius (for architecture), Itten, Kandinsky and me consistently worked in this field. We all owe a great deal to Gertrud Grunow’s teachings.”
Again it is Grunow as a music teacher who played a key role and became the link: after all she had built her “circle of equilibrium” on the correspondence between tones and colours and through her idiosyncratic approach to questions of harmony and equilibrium showed new possibilities of how musical harmony and the Bauhaus arts are connected. It is therefore not surprising that Schreyer turned toward a purportedly traditional – that is to say musical understanding of harmony – after all. This was, however, not based on old ideals of the beauty of the visual arts, but stated that it was based on anthropological laws. Grunow`s concept of synaesthesia was central to this: Her underlying hypothesis was based on primal synaesthesiae, perceived primal modes of perception in which all senses merged undefinedly and harmoniously.
Grunow’s contribution to the Bauhaus – website and new research findings
As Grunow’s substantial contribution to Bauhaus has so far hardly been appreciated, I initiated a project together with the Weimar art teacher Gabriele Fecher on the occasion of the Bauhaus centenary, to make the work of the Bauhaus master better known in scholarly research and to a broader public. In November 2018 the website www.gertrud-grunow.de went online. It offers basic information on Grunow, provides a critical bibliography and is updated continuously. An extensive eBook (open access) presents new research findings and encourages further questions.
What is more, the website shows the only film so far released on Gertrud Grunow. It was made by Gabriele Fecher together with the Swiss contemporary witness René Radrizzani, who had been taught by Grunow’s assistant Hildegard Heitmeyer. The film gives an impression of Grunow’s movement practice and how significant it was for the Bauhaus stage, among others.
- Linn Burchert, Gertrud Grunow (1870–1944): Leben, Werk und Wirken am Bauhaus und darüber hinaus, 2018: https://doi.org/10.18452/19512
- Melanie Gruß, Synästhesie als Diskurs. Eine Sehnsuchts- und Denkfigur zwischen Kunst, Medien und Wissenschaft, Bielefeld 2017.
- Brian Keith-Smith (Hg.), Lothar Schreyer. Persönliches: Dokumente und Briefe, Newiston/New York 2006
- Lothar Schreyer, „Das Bühnenkunstwerk“, in: Der Sturm 2, 1917, S. 18–22.
- Lothar Schreyer, „Das Bühnenkunstwerk“, in: Der Sturm 3, 1917, S. 36–40.
- Lothar Schreyer, Erinnerungen an Sturm und Bauhaus, München 1956.
[LB 2018, Translation RH]