Ute Jaïna Schlemmer dedicated her life to preserving the legacy of her legendary artist father, Oskar Schlemmer, who died under Nazi rule at the premature age of 54. The Stuttgart-born painter, sculptor and choreographer remains one of the iconic artistic figures of the 20th century for his ground-breaking avant-garde work that inspired stars like David Bowie and Lady Gaga.
Jaïna was the second of three children born to Oskar Schlemmer and his wife Helena, better known as Tut. Like her brother and sister, she was born in Weimar where the family lived on the beautiful grounds of the baroque Schloss Belvedere, the 18th century royal summer residence built on the outskirts of Weimar. It was an incredibly beautiful setting. But the buildings had fallen into disrepair by the end of World War I and meant that the rent was affordable for the young family.
She grew up close to her father who became known as the master of multimedia art and design. Oskar recognised early on Jaïna’s artistic talents and she often sat in Schlemmer’s studio, watching attentively as he drew and painted. There is a tender portrait of Jaïna by her father, depicting her playing the violin, her face fixed in concentration.
Jaïna’s arrival in 1922 was announced by Schlemmer and his wife to their friends in a striking birth notice that featured one of his trademark abstract designs of the human form stripped of all expression. The card said simply in beautiful calligraphy: “The maiden Ute Jaïna is born”.
Her birth came a year after German architect and Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius invited Oskar Schlemmer to join his famous art school in Weimar from which emerged a revolutionary aesthetic of art and design and, thanks to Schlemmer’s teaching, pioneering stage design and performance. The family’s sojourn in Weimar lasted until 1926 when the art school shifted to Dessau into new buildings designed by Gropius.
Schlemmer taught students life drawing and, most importantly, instructed them on art’s relationship with the human body as well as on design and architecture. His quest for geometric order and structure and spatial talents found its greatest expression in The Triadic Ballet of 1922, a three-act dance considered by critics to be his most significant work and which won him widespread international fame.
Jaïna enjoyed a happy childhood with her sister Karin, who was a year older, and her younger brother, Tilman, in Dessau at the Bauhaus in one of the cubic, flat-roofed studio houses designed by Gropius. They spent many happy hours playing with the other “Bauhaus children” of the teaching faculty at the Bauhaus campus.
In Dessau, Jaïna became a favourite of Nina Kandinsky, the wife of Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, who had fled to Germany after the Russian revolution and joined the Bauhaus school. The couple had no children and Nina would stitch little embroidered bags for her. Jaïna would often visit Nina in the afternoons at their elegantly furnished Bauhaus Master home which was a double studio house. Swiss-born painter and draftsman Paul Klee and his wife, Lily, a pianist, lived in the other half of the house with their son Felix.
There were other wonderful days that also stood out in Jaïna’s memory. Schlemmer’s Bauhaus student, painter, photographer and theatre designer Xanti Schawinsky, visited a funfair in Dessau one day and won a large orange teddy bear in a shooting booth. He gave the bear to Jaïna who treasured it. Jaïna was an inveterate collector who kept and preserved everything. The bear survived with many of her toys all of her moves from Dessau to Breslau, to Berlin, to Mannheim and Eichberg, and to Sehringen. She eventually passed the bear on to her son Raman Schlemmer, and, in 2010, it was exhibited with her Steiff teddy bear in an exceptional collection of objects titled, “The Toys of the Avant Guard,” at the Museum Picasso in Malaga, Spain. The part of the exhibition dedicated to Schlemmer, served as a homage to Jaïna who had passed away earlier that year in Basel, Switzerland.
After Dessau, the family lived in Breslau (nowadays known as Wroclaw in Poland) and Berlin, where their father was appointed professor to the state art academies. On September 2, 1930, her father wrote to his Bauhaus friend, Gunta Stölzel, from Breslau: “The children live happily, go to school and learn as they go.” As in Dessau, the family lived in Breslau and in Berlin in buildings flooded by light that were designed by innovative young architects. The ground-breaking designs of the buildings proved to be a strong formative influence on Jaïna’s sense of aesthetics and proportion.
In 1932, her father was appointed to the Vereinigte Staatsschulen in Berlin (the United State Schools) where the family lived in Berlin-Siemensstadt. Oskar often took the children to La Scala where they saw Grok and the Rivvels Clowns. But those good times were destined to last long.
As Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 and the Nazis grip on Germany tightened, the family’s situation grew desperate. Schlemmer was a staunch German patriot who had volunteered for service at the start of World War I and was wounded twice in action. But the Nazis ignored his sterling war record and denounced him as a “Marxist-Jewish element.” Schlemmer had also always been a strong admirer of German art and literature. But the Nazis condemned Schlemmer’s artworks, despite their geometric lines, precision and proportion, as “degenerate art”.
The Nazis forced Schlemmer to quit his government teaching post at the Vereinigte Staatsschulen in Berlin. Unable to sell his art and without a job, he had no income. The family was forced to separate for a year. Jaïna went to live with her mother’s parents in Mannheim. Tut’s family, the Tuteins, were Huguenots who had fled Grenoble, settled in Mannheim and made a fortune there before World War I. When Jaïna was living in Mannheim, her grandmother Tutein was running a tobacco business. Her grandparents, seeking to encourage her musical talent, presented her with a new violin and arranged violin lessons.
The Schlemmer family was reunited the following year in the south German village of Eichberg near the Swiss border where they enjoyed an idyllic rural life, raising sheep and Angora rabbits and raccoons. In 1937, Jaïna moved with her family to a house that Schlemmer had commissioned to be built in the southern area of the Black Forest, near the spa town of Badenweiler. Many of Schlemmer’s Bauhaus contemporaries had fled after the rise of the Nazis in 1933. But Oskar and Tut initially could not imagine 1936 that Hitler would remain in power. Later on, it became impossible for them to emigrate from the Third Reich.
To support his family, Schlemmer took various jobs in the years that followed and Tut and the children rarely saw him. He eventually was employed at a lacquer paint factory owned by a wealthy philanthropist, Kurt Herberts, in Wuppertal. The work offered Schlemmer a chance to create his own works in his spare time. But the toxic fumes from the paints in the labarotories undermined his already weakened physical health.
In 1943, Tut sent Jaïna word that her father was dying in Baden-Baden. Jaïna was then studying stage and costume design in Strasbourg, which was under German occupation. She asked the art teacher in charge to issue her a permit pass to travel to Baden-Baden across the Rhine to see her father alive one last time. The professor denied the request, a rejection that remained bitterly etched in her memory. After her father died, as his friends described him, “a broken man” from Nazi persecution, Jaïna finally received a permit allowing her to attend his funeral in Stuttgart.
Later, with the Nazis confiscating “degenerate” art, Jaïna, went on a daring expedition. She courageously organized a horse-drawn wagon to rescue her father’s most important artworks that he had hidden from the Nazis in their attic. She loaded the rolled-up paintings and drawings onto the cattle wagon, covered them with a makeshift tarpaulin and got her brother to sit next to her. Jaïna then drove the wagon east to a hideaway on the quiet German-Swiss border where she was able to conceal the works for the duration of the war.
After her father’s death, Jaïna had to abandon her art studies due to lack of funds. Then, aged 22, she volunteered to serve as a Red Cross nurse, tending to heavily wounded casualties. At first, she worked in a makeshift military hospital set up in a grand hotel in Badenweiler that had been requisitioned. Then, she worked in a field hospital on the embattled northeastern front where the German soldiers suffered immense casualties as they sought to hastily retreat from advancing Soviet forces. In Poznan and Gniezno, heavily wounded and mutilated soldiers poured into the mobile field hospitals for treatment. The horror of those wartime memories never left her.
Then, in March 1945, two months before World War II in Europe came to an end, Jaïna and the rest of the family suffered another tragic blow when her brother, Tilman, was killed on his first day of active service on the Eastern Front. After Germany’s surrender, Jaïna worked as a Red Cross nurse, helping tend to prisoners of war and to traumatized and famished concentration camp survivors. She was only able to return to the studio house in Sehringen and to her grieving mother months after the end of the war.
Jaïna often spoke of her “moral obligation” to ensure that her father’s art lived on and lamented that he still had so much left to accomplish when he died. Friends said that Jaïna carried all of her life a “terrible anger” toward the Nazis over their treatment of her father. Emotionally scarred from enduring the horrors of Nazi rule and the war, she later channelled her energies into a relentless search for her father’s lost works and promotion of his art.
Later after the war, Jaïna was able to resume her stage design studies at the Stuttgart Academy under Willy Baumeister. There she met the man who was to become her husband, Paran Changaramkumarath (G'schrey), who was the son of a German mother and an Indian father. She persuaded Paran to leave what she saw as the artistically stultifying atmosphere of Stuttgart to move to Berlin, a city with a more vibrant emerging art scene where he could also study at the Academy. They married in Berlin in 1950. Jaïna sold the violin given to her by her grandparents to finance their studies. Later that same year, they had a son, Raman.
Berlin proved to be an exhilarating and stimulating springboard for Jaïna to exercise her artistic talents. After completing her studies, Jaïna worked as a stage and costume designer for public theatres in Germany and Switzerland while Paran pursued his work as an artist. When Berthold Brecht returned from exile in California, and started directing theatre in East Berlin, Jaïna crossed frequently to the Soviet sector to attend Brecht’s rehearsals with the Berliner Ensemble.
Among the numerous successful plays that featured Jaïna’s stage designs and costumes, two can be noted here: “Der Liebestrank” by Frank Wedekind and “The House of Bernarda Alba” by the Spanish dramatist Federico Garcia Lorca, at the State Hanover Theatre. The works won wide praise in press reviews. At the State Hanover Theatre, she met the actress Elisabeth Wenger-Kübler, who became a lifelong friend. In 1956, Jaïna was appointed stage designer at Theater Basel and lived with Raman in Basel. Stage sets and costume designs by Jaïna are in private and public collections, including the Theatre Collection housed at the University of Cologne, Germany.
Tut and Jaïna also made sure to introduce Raman to the works of his grandfather at an early age. In 1960, Jaïna moved from Basel to Stuttgart so that Raman could attend the Waldorfschule, the original school founded by Emil Molt, a wealthy German industrialist, with Rudolf Steiner. The school’s teachings were based on a philosophy that prioritizes the arts and imagination. Paran, meanwhile continued to paint in Berlin where he died seven years later.
In Stuttgart, Jaïna added to her multiple talents by teaching learning-challenged children. She won wide recognition for her pedagogic talents in that field. Deploying her extensive persuasive abilities, she convinced the city to increase its financial support for the Karl-Schubert School and initiated several new buildings.
The family was struck by tragedy once again when Karin, who had become a well-known actress at the Stuttgart Theatre, died in 1981.
Following her elder daughter’s death, Tut asked Jaïna to collaborate with her much more intensely in archiving and staging exhibitions of Oskar Schlemmer’s works. Tut eventually passed the art works to her only surviving child, knowing that she would keep her husband’s legacy alive.
Jaïna assumed the full-time role, with the help of her son Raman, of custodian of her father’s dance and theatre works along with his sculptures and paintings after her mother’s death in 1987. In the years that followed, she and Raman energetically sought to make Schlemmer’s œuvres known and available to ever-wider audiences at home in Germany and worldwide.
Horrified by the destruction and disappearance of many of her father’s art works during Nazi rule and World War II, and even in the 1990s in Stuttgart, it was Jaïna’s deep desire to keep those pieces that had been saved together.
Especially close to her heart were Schlemmer’s designs for dance and theatre, to which she related especially due to her own training and professional background. She wanted the works conserved in their entirety for future generations to appreciate, study and learn from them.
To achieve this goal, Jaïna spent most of her teaching salary on publications, re-creations and photographic documentation as well as on mounting and framing of her father’s artworks.
Jaïna organized the first exhibition of Schlemmer’s landscape paintings in 1983. This show provided a penetrating insight into what hitherto had been a little-known aspect of her father’s work. At the opening, Felix Klee, son of Lily and Paul Klee, paid tribute to her father as a role model and as a friend.
Jaïna and Raman went on to organise and curate other exhibitions in Europe. Then, in 1981, Raman was contacted by the Baltimore Museum of Art to support an Oskar Schlemmer exhibition. The preparations took more than five years. Tut, who was by then 95, Jaïna and Raman travelled to the United States for the opening of this first major American retrospective of Schlemmer’s art.
For Tut, the exhibition represented the climax of her work to promote her husband’s legacy. She was delighted to celebrate the event with her only living daughter and her grandson, as well as Bauhaus students Trudel Arndt, Eva and Andor Weininger.
Raman’s speech at the gala dinner received a standing ovation from the preview guests, among them major collectors, curators and critics who had travelled for the occasion from New York and Washington. Tut expressed her thankfulness to the audience that there would be a continuation of her husband’s legacy thanks to the efforts of Jaïna and Raman.
At the Baltimore exhibition, the curator extolled in the catalogue Jaïna’s contribution in “coordinating the restoration of the figurines” from The Triadic Ballet that were “such an essential dramatic component” of the work.
Later, the exhibition travelled to three other major museums in the US. In 1987, Schlemmer fans flocked to see the exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam’s renowned museum of modern art and design. Tut was delighted to hear the reports from Amsterdam of the crowds lining up patiently outside the museum to visit the Oskar Schlemmer exhibition.
Tut died that same year at the age of 96, comforted by the knowledge that she had been able to pass on Oskar Schlemmer’s artistic legacy to her daughter and grandson to conserve.
With the expert assistance of Raman, Jaïna continued to promote her father’s work. On the centenary of her father's birth in 1988, Jaïna organised more than a dozen Schlemmer exhibitions in public museums as well as in publications, including “Wand - Bild. Bild - Wand”, “Les Noces”, “Fensterbilder” and “Der Folkwang Zyklus”.
Jaïna also contributed to retrospectives of Schlemmer’s art in Europe and elsewhere in the world. She was untiring in sharing her knowledge, experience and expertise and impressed everyone who encountered her with her penetrating intelligence, charm and enthusiastic devotion to the arts until her death.
In 1994-1995 Jaïna was instrumental in arranging the first retrospective exhibition of Oskar Schlemmer's stage and theatre works, which her mother had donated to her in 1982. For this exhibition in museums in Düsseldorf, Vienna and Hanover, she presented newly attributed stage designs and reassembled Oskar Schlemmer’s sketchbooks in their original form. In another major act, she recreated Bauhaus Dance installation and costumes, which together with the armature designed by her to mount the costumes, became her own creations resurrected. She designed several sculptures in steel wire, freely interpreted using Schlemmer’s designs.
She was always present at Schlemmer exhibition previews, be it in Basel, Mannheim, Stuttgart, Barcelona, London, Madrid, Marseille, Paris, New York or Tokyo. Jaïna together with Raman participated in symposium on the Bauhaus in Weimar, Vienna, and 1995 in Tokyo on the occasion of what was the largest Bauhaus exhibition ever staged. In later years, Jaïna travelled with Raman to India and North Africa, and lived in her house in Italy on Lake Maggiore and in Basel, Switzerland, continuing to create and research until her last breath.
One of Jaïna’s many gifts was bringing people together and remaining in touch with them. Her mother, Tut, had been in constant contact with the circle of Bauhaus masters and students as well as Oskar Schlemmer’s many friends and invited them to Stuttgart.
Jaïna followed in her mother’s footsteps. Among the closest friends of her parent’s generation were Lily Hildebrandt, Trudel Arndt, Lucia Moholy, Eva Weininger, Felix and Livia Klee, T. Lux Feininger, Xanti Schawinsky, Clabi Bischoff, Leda Vordemberge Gildewart, Elly Fleischmann, Dorothée Bissier.
She cultivated friendships with the contemporaries of her parents as well as the next generation, the daughters and sons, the grandchildren, descendants of Julius and Lisbeth Bissier, Hirschfeld-Mack, Gertrud and Alfred Arndt, Gunta Stölzl, Marc Chagall, Kazimir Malevich, Kurt Schwitters, Alexander Calder, and Pablo Picasso, among others, as well as with her fellow students, the Alsatian artists at the Strasbourg, and the Stuttgart and the Berlin academies. Jaïna had vivid conversations about art with artists like Willy Baumeister, Julius Bissier and Jean Arp. Jaïna was also friends with numerous contemporary artists such as Sigmar Polke, Karl-Heinz Scherer, Lucinda Childs, Charlemagne Palestine and she collected works by young artists.
Jaïna had a great understanding and affinity for classical and contemporary music. When she started working at Theatre Basel, young soprano Montserrat Caballé gave her debut. She attended concerts at Teatro alla Scala in Milan and Teatro San Carlo in Naples, as well as regularly at the Liederhalle Stuttgart, Lucerne Festival under Claudio Abbado, Philharmonie Berlin, debut performances of music by Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, Philipp Glass, and Wolfgang Rihm.
Also during her mother's lifetime, Jaïna took care of the preservation of the family’s studio house built in 1937, and its garden in Sehringen. Here she had spent many happy moments in her youth with her parents and siblings, animals and visiting friends. But she also experienced days of fear for her father, terror of the Nazis and material hardship. She had been heartbroken about the court-ordered foreclosure and eviction of the property and passed away three weeks before the scheduled date of the court-ordered sale.
Paying tribute to Jaïna Schlemmer, author Andreas Hüneke said at her birthday celebration held at the Kunstmuseum in Basel that she had carried out the “caretaking” of her father’s works “with great joy and wisdom” and that the task “certainly must not have been easy.”
Ute Jaïna Schlemmer was a fighter for art, justice and the culture of remembrance, Today, her son, Raman, carries on the family’s legacy with the same passion and dedication.
Penelope MacRae, author and journalist, 2023
With additional content from the Oskar Schlemmer oral tradition project and archives compiled by C. Raman Schlemmer
Images: © U. Jaïna Schlemmer and C. Raman Schlemmer. ® All Rights Reserved.
Jaïna wore clothes designed by Vivek Narang, Issey Miyake, Cinzia Ruggeri and Bruni Weber, silver jewellery by Chus Burés, scarves from India
Photo on top: Jaïna in Vivek Narang