bauhaus
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●Edition 4: Still Undead
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On the Reconstruction of Kurt Schwerdtfeger’s “Reflektorische Farblichtspiele” (Reflective Colored Light Plays) from 1922

Kurt Schwerdtfeger, Reflektorische Farblichtspiele, 1922, reconstruction 2016.
Photo: Microscope Gallery, 2020; Courtesy of Microscope Gallery and Kurt Schwerdtfeger Estate

The room sits in complete darkness. Drumsticks strike a rhythm. Illuminated shapes appear—floating in space—in hues of yellow, red, green, white and other colors created by their overlapping. The images flow, at times expanding and contracting along to the metronomic sounds, or in sudden flashes punctuated by brief moments of darkness. Controlled, yet unexpected and unpredictable, the generally abstract imagery varies at its extremes from narrow, monochromatic shapes resembling stems or branches to expansive multicolored plant-like forms.

So opens “Vegetative Form,” the first of the five Sätze, or movements, comprising Kurt Schwerdtfeger’s Reflektorische Farblichtspiele (Reflecting Colored Light Plays) (1922) as last performed under the guidance of the artist in 1966, as well as in recent performances held more than fifty years later. In the fall of 2016 the work was reconstructed and restaged, based on documentation of the 1966 performance, at Microscope Gallery in New York. The performance took place as part of a series of live expanded cinema events titled Dreamlands: Expanded, organized in collaboration with the Whitney Museum of American Art as part of Dreamlands: Immersive Cinema and Art, 1905–2016, an exhibition curated by Chrissie Iles, who also first suggested the possibility of restaging Reflektorische Farblichtspiele. Since then the piece has been performed several times, including in 2019 as part of the exhibition bauhaus imaginista, curated by Marion von Osten and Grant Watson, at Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin and Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern. There it was the key object or Gegenstand of the exhibition’s fourth main chapter “Still Undead.” Most recently it was again presented at Microscope Gallery in 2020, this time in the context of an exhibition dedicated entirely to the work.

The reconstruction and restaging of Reflektorische Farblichtspiele has proven critical to an overall understanding of the work, as well as its historical significance and visionary approach.

Origins

Kurt Schwerdtfeger conceived of Reflektorische Farblichtspiele in 1921 as a student at the Bauhaus Weimar, studying under Oskar Schlemmer, Johannes Itten, Paul Klee, and Joseph Hartwig. The artist later wrote: “While conceptualizing a shadow play titled ‘Days of Genesis’ for a Lantern Festival it seemed necessary to use not only shadow figures but color shapes on black as well. At that very moment I perceived the idea of color-light plays in abstract form with free-moving, superimposed shapes of colored light moving in time.”1 The work was developed over the following year while Schwerdtfeger, a student in the sculpture department, was attending a course in stage performance, Bauhausbühne. Reflektorische Farblichtspiele debuted in February 1922 at the loft of Wassily Kandinsky in Weimar, when Schwerdtfeger was 25 years old.

As realized, the concept of Reflektorische Farblichtspiele is deceptively simple: multiple colored lights are projected through moving stencils from within an otherwise concealed cubic apparatus, out onto a screen. Sliding panels, operated by hand during the performance, obscure the stencils to varying extents—at times completely—shaping the images and their movement on the screen. The switching on and off of lights causes the colors to combine and overlap, generating new tonalities and the illusion of three-dimensionality.

Schwerdtfeger’s earliest performances consisted of three Sätze, each utilizing a different stencil to produce specific imagery—some geometrical, others inspired by the natural world. Two of the stencils from the original 1922 performance appear in photographs printed in the first Bauhaus catalogue, which accompanied the 1923 Bauhaus-Woche exhibition in Weimar, where the Bauhaus was presented to the public for the first time. The first stencil consisted of one circle, two semicircles, one square, and several rectangles, with one semicircle seemingly covered by a grid. The second contains semicircles and curved forms.

There is little doubt that Schwerdtfeger employed both stencils for his performance of Reflektorische Farblichtspiele at Stadttheater Jena during the Bauhaus-Woche in 1923. After leaving the Bauhaus in 1924, he also performed the work at Herwarth Walden’s Sturm Gallery in Berlin. In Der Sturm, the gallery’s magazine, Schwerdtfeger announced the presence of four movements, of which no further details exist today. Within the same statement—the artist’s only known writing on the work from that time period— Schwerdtfeger described Reflektorische Farblichtspiele as a “synthesis of movement, light, color and form.” He also mentioned rhythm as the structural foundation of the work, along with the “economic, mechanical movement by the hand of a human itself as a factor for independent, law-abiding optics.”2

Reflektorische Farblichtspiele was clearly informed by the work and philosophy of Johannes Itten and Oskar Schlemmer. However, Schwerdtfeger transposed his concerns for color interaction and for abstract figures in space—commonly pertaining to the domains of painting and sculpture—into the realm of moving image and, more precisely, that of light projection performance. The element of light—still novel despite its presence in the Bauhaus Lantern Festivals, which began in 1920—can possibly be seen in this work as a connecting thread between color theory and abstract dance.

Schwerdtfeger’s awareness of the theatrical component of his work is indicated by his recurring use of the term szenarisch in an undated, hand-typed description of the work. The concealed activity within the structure shares some relationship to that of the backstage of a play (skēnē). Where scenery and costumes are changed in the theater, stencils are removed and replaced in the apparatus, and where curtains are drawn, panels are shut to achieve total darkness at the end of each Satz.

It is important to note that the Reflektorische Farblichtspiele apparatus is fundamentally a rear projection device, in which light is directed from behind the screen towards the audience. This presents both a structural and experiential difference from the traditional cinema, where the projection travels from the back of the room, past the audience, and onto a screen at the front. In Reflektorische Farblichtspiele, light lands directly into the eyes of the audience, but has no apparent visible source, as the projection system is hidden within the black box. Such mysterious qualities of the performance point back to the rituality of the festival setting within which the piece was conceived.

Although Reflektorische Farblichtspiele has been discussed over the years in the context of abstract film, light sculpture, visual music, and expanded cinema, it is first and foremost a work of live performance. Decades before moving image performance would make its appearance in galleries and museums as an art form—a denotation the artistic practice still struggles to attain today—Schwerdtfeger recognized it as such, perhaps due to his immersion in the all-encompassing interdisciplinary approach of the Bauhaus.

Reconstruction and Restaging

Unique historical works such as Reflektorische Farblichtspiele present a conundrum. It is only possible to reconstruct the work by understanding it; and, at the same time, it is only possible to fully comprehend the work through its reconstruction.

Although the few, detailed documents dating from the early performances of 1922, 1923, and 1924—including artist’s notes, correspondence, photographs, catalogs, and press clippings—proved very helpful in establishing the artist’s original intentions and his embracement of the ever-changing nature of the work, no formal instructions, construction plans, or other documents outlining how the apparatus functioned have yet been found. The main source for the recent reconstruction and restaging was a DVD with video transfers of two 16mm films by Rudolf Jüdes, then director of Kunstverein Hannover, documenting the live performance in 1966. Color footage captured the complete, nearly 20-minute long performance and the distinct imagery and rhythms of the five Sätze that were, in chronological order, revealed to be: “Vegetative Form,” “Bauhaus – 1922,” “Streifen und Gitter” (Stripes and Grids), “Rotes Quadrat” (Red Square), and “Hommage à Oskar Schlemmer.” Black & white footage showed the behind-the-scenes inner workings of the structure as well as the performers in action manipulating stencils and other materials used to create image and sound.

The apparatus in the film was itself a reconstruction of the one used in the 1922 light play. Schwerdtfeger built it with his students at the Kunstpädagogische Hochschule in Alfeld, Lower Saxony, in the 1960s. Seven months before the Kunstverein Hannover performance, Schwerdtfeger and his students performed Reflektorische Farblichtspiele at the newly established Bauhaus Archive in Darmstadt, in connection with a lecture by Sybil Moholy-Nagy on Constructivism.3 Shortly after this public performance, Jüdes visited Schwerdtfeger’s studio. Impressed by the beauty and energy of the piece— he compared it to a storm with thunder and lightning[footnote Musische Geometrie, Kunstverein Hannover, Hannover 1966, p. 10.]—Jüdes invited the artist and his students to perform at the opening of the exhibition Musische Geometrie at Kunstverein Hannover. Despite Schwerdtfeger’s untimely death a few weeks before the opening, the performance occurred as planned. Due to the artist’s sudden passing, documenting the piece became an imperative for all involved, resulting in the production of the films discussed above.

“Abb. 102. Bühnenwerkstatt: Reflektorisches Lichtspiel. Form und Ausführung. K. Schwerdtfeger,” Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar, 1919–1923 (First Bauhaus Catalogue) p.156, 1923.
Courtesy of Microscope Gallery and Kurt Schwerdtfeger Estate

It took repeated viewings of the footage, numerous discussions, sketches, and even rudimental tests, using office and technical supplies at hand, to reach a preliminary understanding of how the apparatus functioned. Still, it was not until the structure was partially assembled that it was possible to test assumptions and make necessary adjustments.

Like its 1966 predecessor, the 2016 apparatus consists of a nearly cubic structure covered in blackout fabric, with a window-like opening at its front in which, before each Satz, five wooden stencils are hung, each containing a carving of geometric or natural shapes and a system of sliding panels. In the back of the apparatus is a series of lights attached to four levels of horizontal beams, activated by an electrical switchboard below. Finally, a projection screen is placed before the box at a sufficient distance to allow the images to come into focus.

For the translation of the work’s operating principles into a functioning apparatus made with twenty-first century materials, the expertise of the German-American kinetic sculptor Daniel Wapner was crucial. Wapner converted theoretical concepts into an actual assembly plan, then built the apparatus, re-engineering and fabricating each of its stencils in a matter of weeks—with final adjustments and fine-tuning taking place after rehearsals had started. Wapner’s sculptural approach maintained the essential hand-crafted character of the apparatus and its stencils. The search for the right type of light bulb—one with the appropriate sharpness, beam angle, temperature, uniformity, and intensity —presented a particular challenge and a lengthy process of trial and error. Schwerdtfeger himself had updated the work from the use of at least three acetylene gas lamps and colored glass filters in 1922 to eleven electric bulbs fitted with colored gels and controlled by an electric switchboard in 1966.

Although the apparatus built in 2016 physically resembles the one from 1966 and operates very similarly, it is neither intended to be a replica nor a loose approximation of its predecessor. For the reconstruction, every choice was made with the understanding that, despite its sculptural aesthetics, the apparatus is ultimately a tool or an “instrument,” a means to an end—the live creation of a visual and sound composition.

Performance

Kurt Schwerdtfeger, Reflektorische Farblichtspiele, 1922, reconstruction 2016 — Photo: Microscope Gallery, 2020 — Courtesy of Microscope Gallery and Kurt Schwerdtfeger Estate

The main priority of the reconstruction was to achieve the ability to produce, as closely as possible, the processes and imagery of Schwerdtfeger’s 1966 performance, especially with regard to color, image, movement, and form.

Whereas Schwerdtfeger’s students learned how to perform the piece directly from the artist and had several semesters to practice, the performers in 2016 had less than a week to rehearse. Despite these limitations, the artists had the advantage of being able to analyze an actual Reflektorische Farblichtspiele performance through the technology of video playback, allowing Schwerdtfeger’s vision and intentions to be transmitted across five decades. The performers selected for the restaging—Bradley Eros and Joel Schlemowitz (stencils), Rachael Guma (sound augmentation and additional visual support), Lary Seven (light keyboard)—are among the most prominent artists working with moving image performance today. They are unusually accustomed to interacting with light projection in combination with sound, especially in live performance contexts. Their individual practices involve primarily analog processes, including multi-projection film, expanded cinema, and other forms of light and sound performance. Additionally, they have at least a decade-long history of collaboration with each other, in various configurations as well as collectively through the expanded cinema group Optipus.

Eros, Guma, Schlemowitz, and Seven immediately perceived that the exact duplication of action and imagery of the 1966 documentation was not the intent. Rather, the essence and spirit of the work would come forth through cooperation and responsiveness to the visual possibilities of the apparatus, as well as the sound it is performed to, which, Schwerdtfeger specifically expressed, should be moderne Musik.

Once rehearsals began, the performers quickly advanced through the learning phases of their new “instrument.” They acquired a familiarity with their respective roles and an understanding of the outcomes their physical actions produced on the screen; began to coordinate with each other in order to produce specific imagery and rhythm; memorized and emulated scenes from the recorded performance; added personal contributions based on their individual intuitions; and finally, reached the ability to perform the work confidently, completely in the moment. The team also incorporated distinct elements of punctuation and pause from the 1966 documentation that they recognized as important to each section. The opening sequences as well as the unique color schemes, patterns, and rhythms of each Satz were also aligned.

In order to conserve the spirit of the original performance and retain the unpredictability of a live event, it was decided to keep the original music composed in 1966 by Wolfgang Roscher—Schwerdtfeger’s colleague in Alfeld—and imitating what was considered the sound of the Bauhaus. For the 2016 restaging, Roscher’s soundtrack played on analog tape, augmented with live sound interventions on triangle, typewriter, bells, and other instruments by Rachael Guma.

In terms of restaging, the objective was essentially to present the performance “again and for the first time.” The artist’s son Stefan Schwerdtfeger, who had attended the filming in Hannover in 1966 and also viewed the recording of the 2016 performance in New York, remarked that the reconstruction was not to be considered a recreation but the actual work. In this regard, the restaged Reflektorische Farblichtspiele became a revenant, a reappearance.

Rebirth

Left to Right: Bradley Eros, Joel Schlemowitz, Paula Schwerdtfeger (above), Lary Seven, Rachael Guma (below), at Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern — Photo: Microscope Gallery, 2019 — Courtesy of Microscope Gallery and Kurt Schwerdtfeger Estate

Kurt Schwerdtfeger, Reflektorische Farblichtspiele, 1922 (reconstruction 2016), Rehearsal at Zentrum Paul Klee, Bern — Photo: Microscope Gallery, 2019 — Courtesy of Microscope Gallery and Kurt Schwerdtfeger Estate

In a world filled with screens, multi-media devices, LED signs, and billboards, our interaction with light has changed immensely throughout the nearly 100 years since Kurt Schwerdtfeger first performed his Reflektorische Farblichtspiele. Yet the intimate and elemental experience of its brilliant, crisp images interacting and interweaving in space remains as wondrous and inspiring as it was in the 1920s. After the conclusion of bauhaus imaginista in January of 2020, the piece returned to New York where it was performed twice at Microscope Gallery: once by the original team and once by a team composed of Genevieve HK, Tessa Hughes-Freeland, Ray Sweeten, and Stephanie Wuertz. As the piece nears its centennial, new presentations are in the works along with plans for the use of contemporary soundtracks, as the artist had adopted throughout his lifetime.

For the fifty years between the performance at Kunstverein Hannover and the recent restagings, the only way to experience Reflektorische Farblichtspiele was through the film documentation. Although the posthumous recording has kept it alive, Schwerdtfeger himself expressed concerns about possible recordings of the work, stating in a 1958 essay that the flicker of film projection might interfere with the rhythmic movements of the performance and that the colors might not translate.4 His greatest worry, however, related to the conveyance of the tender transparency and immediacy of light: If these were lost, the work in a sense would be lost as well. Schwerdtfeger’s reflection serves as a reminder of the significance of attempts to reconstruct and restage performative works, especially those based on the ephemeral and untranslatable nature of light. Because of such an undertaking, it is now possible to experience Kurt Schwerdtfeger’s Reflektorische Farblichtspiele once more in its original live form, with its visual complexity and irreducible ability to mesmerize.

Kurt Schwerdtfeger, Reflektorische Farblichtspiele, 1922, reconstruction 2016, installation view — Photo: Microscope Gallery, 2020 — Courtesy of Microscope Gallery and Kurt Schwerdtfeger Estate

●Footnotes
  • 1 Private document of the artist, 1950–60s.
  • 2 Kurt Schwerdtfeger: “Reflektorisches Lichtspiel,“ in: Der Sturm, Volume 15, March 1924, p. 46.
  • 3 G.V.: “Reichtum von Weimar und Dessau,” in: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 11 February 1966, Nr. 35, p. 9.
  • 4 Reprinted in Kurt Schwerdtfeger: Bildende Kunst und Schule, Hannover 1959 (4th Edition), p. 198.
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