From Weimar to Wuppertal: So Much Bauhaus in One Place

by Christiane Gibie

Dr. Kurt Herberts, a paint and coatings manufacturer in Wuppertal, created a refuge for displaced artists during the Second World War, including Oskar Schlemmer and Willi Baumeister, whom he employed as professors for paint science research at his company. Herberts intended this “Wuppertaler Arbeitskreis” (Wuppertal Working Group) to create a “psychic forcefield” against the defamation and occupational bans by the Nazis.

Baumeister in seinem Atelier, 1940Zoom image
Baumeister in seinem Atelier, 1940

The 75th anniversary celebration for the Lackfabrik Dr. Kurt Herberts presented quite an unusual scene for the invited guests at Wuppertal’s Concordia hall on December 6, 1941. Black-robed figures in hooped skirts and bizarre headgear, decorated with colorful basic shapes such as bars, triangles and spheres, were magically illuminated against a black background as they performed a measured striding dance to sarabande by George Friederic Handel. The director, Oskar Schlemmer, called his piece a “Lackballet” (paint ballet), and recruited office workers from Herberts’ company to the stage due to a lack of dedicated dancers. The members of the Nazi party witnessing the spectacle had no idea that they were actually watching an abbreviated performance of Schlemmer’s “Triadic Ballet,” composed by the ostracized long-time instructor at the Bauhaus schools (first in Weimar, then in Dessau from 1925 on), which he had composed in 1923 after he took over the Bauhaus stage. The “Triadic Ballet” had become the trademark for the experimental choreographer, who referred to his works as “metaphysical theater” and “costume ballet.” The “Triadic Ballet,” a combination of theater and visual arts, was performed a number of times during the 1920s and early 1930s, as well as in several elaborate reconstructions at German theaters following the war, some of which are available on YouTube.

Schlemmer left the Bauhaus in 1929, directing art academies in Breslau and Berlin up until he was forced to resign by the Nazis in 1933. He could do little as they destroyed murals in the Bauhaus workshop and put up posters at the Berlin Academy, warning of destructive, Marxist-Jewish elements in the faculty. Schlemmer’s mural cycle at the Folkwang Museum in Essen was taken down, and a retrospective of his work in Stuttgart was closed soon after it opened.

The Wuppertal Working Group

Along with Oskar Schlemmer, the painter Willi Baumeister, who had recently been let go as director of the Frankfurter Städelschule art school, and Franz Krause, an architect and extraordinarily creative and versatile artist, comprised the “Wuppertaler Arbeitskreis.” The paint and coatings manufacturer Dr. Kurt Herberts, a very successful entrepreneur characterized by ingenuity, a creative will, a modern point of view, humanistic aspirations and great enthusiasm for art, established the working group. Wuppertal’s Ernst Oberhoff, a docent at the Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts), was also involved, as were sporadically Alfred Lörcher, Georg Muche, Max Pfeiffer-Watenpuhl and Gerhard Marx.

The architect Heinz Rasch, advertising director for Herberts’ business, offered Willi Baumeister and Oskar Schlemmer positions as professors for “maltechnische Forschungsvorhaben” (painting research) at Herberts’ coatings factory in 1937-1938, in an effort to disguise their artistic endeavors from the Nazis, and they were later even classified as “important for the war effort.” Both artists were close to Franz Krause from their time studying in Stuttgart, and knew Kurt Herberts, who had also studied there and, influenced by Rudolf Steiner’s lectures, turned to anthroposophy. The positions in Wuppertal not only relieved some of the “degenerate” artists’ material worries for themselves and their families, but also gave them a spiritual home. “So much Bauhaus in one place and all useful people,” commented Oskar Schlemmer on the hope on the horizon.

Kurt Herberts was taking a huge risk by employing these artists. His factory produced goods that were important for the war, including camouflage for the Western Front and the campaign in Russia. He did well financially and was appointed as a Wehrwirtschaftsführer (war industry leader). Nevertheless, Herberts kept his distance from the Nazi leaders, never joined the party, and by his own account repeatedly came under the scrutiny of the Gestapo.

The artists in the working group were contracted to demonstrate the applications of Herberts’ industrial paints via artistic means. They were additionally asked to create objects for furnishing the company.

The first project was to design the stairwell for a new laboratory building. Willi Baumeister, accomplished in painting techniques, designed an 18-part cycle of murals using historical painting processes, in which he portrayed forces of nature, designers and researchers as well as the world of optics and colors. A portion of the mural can be seen today at the University of Wuppertal’s Freudenberg campus. A series of painted objects followed, designed by Schlemmer, Baumeister, Krause and Ernst Oberhoff, to be used as promotional items: enchanting lacquered boxes, cupboards, lamps and screens – aesthetic utilitarian objects created with ingenious painting techniques. They used the company’s own collection of East Asian lacquer art, begun by Herberts’ father Walter and expanded by Kurt Herberts, as a model.

Love of Lacquer

Schlemmer envisioned the spotless lacquer surface as the highest aesthetic ideal, showing no signs of its creation. “Paint... – what is paint? What is its origin, its being?” he wrote to Heinz Rasch in 1940. “Let us allow it to shine and flow, we let it form and become form, as its essence urges it, as the law of fluid compels it!” The artists in the Wuppertaler Arbeitskreis and their patron did nothing without thorough philosophical and artistic reflection, and their projects were not always free of conflict. After the outbreak of the war, Kurt Herberts reported that such conversations often took place in the evenings in the air-raid shelter at his house. Not infrequently, the discussions took on spiritual dimensions. The findings were included in several journals edited by Kurt Herberts, which were published by the company as a series. For example, the extensive paint materials study “10.000 Jahre Malerei und ihre Werkstoffe” (10,000 years of painting and its material) is applicable even today.

Herberts established an Institut für Malstoffkunde (Institute for paint materials science) in an office building in Döppersberg in Wuppertal in 1940, thereby providing the artists with a dedicated space as well as a home for the company’s collection. Although the Nazis suspiciously checked in on the institute, it became a retreat and meeting place for other artists struggling for survival, whom Herberts repeatedly commissioned.

Oskar Schlemmer worked until the summer of 1942 on designs for a lacquer cabinet based on a baroque model to serve as a showpiece for high-quality painted panels, demonstrating modern lacquer art based on East Asian traditions. However, due to increasing bombing attacks and Schlemmer’s serious illness, the project never got beyond the drafting stage. Countless sketches survived and have been exhibited several times.

Following the publication of the study “Aus der Maltechnik geboren” (Born of paint technique) in 1942, the Wuppertaler Arbeitskreis turned to the topic “Modulation and Patina.” They investigated the vitalization of surfaces by various techniques of applying color and material, the modulation and their decomposition processes, the patina. Kurt Herberts described the concept as assigning the painting material an almost equal role as creative contributor as the artist himself. The artists did not then know that the Parisian Surrealists, among others, were experimenting with similar processes at the same time, a movement that came to be known as Art Informel following the war. “It is again this inimitable origin of ‘from whence,’ it is there, it is not painted, one sees no traces of the unfortunate paintbrush and it appears like a piece of nature... – I desired to be able to paint as if ‘from whence,’ and not from the human hand,” Schlemmer noted in his diary.

Oskar Schlemmer’s death in April 1943 deeply affected the Wuppertaler Arbeitskreis. The Institut für Malstoffkunde was completely destroyed, along with its valuable exhibits, during the bombing of Elberfeld at the end of June. Willi Baumeister, Franz Krause and Oskar Schlemmer’s brother Casca continued their work on “Modulation and Patina” in spite of adversity at Schloss Sommerhausen near Würzburg, where Kurt Herberts had given them a new place to work. In late December 1944, Heinz Rasch sent the manuscript for the “Modulation and Patina” project to Switzerland, along with 54 illustrations, where it was to appear in book form. The development of the war, however, delayed the printing, and the work was first published shortly before Herberts’ death in 1989. The remaining panels for “Modulation and Patina” were acquired by Friends of the Stuttgart Art Museum, and exhibited there, as well as at the Museum for Lacquer Art in Münster, which also houses a portion of Herberts’ collection of East Asian lacquer art.

The contracts for the remaining artists with the Lackfabrik Dr. Kurt Herberts ended in January 1944, and they left the bombed ruins of Wuppertal, where they had, as Heinz Rasch wrote years later, “created an oasis of clarity in a convoluted time and left behind a whiff of poetry.”


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