The (Monstrous, Beautiful) Costumes of German Expressionism
A love story: dance, costumes, jealousy... and a tragic end.
The artistic collaboration between Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt was arguably one of German Expressionism’s true shooting stars. The entire production, having taken place between 1919 and 1924 in Hamburg, was to result in some of the 20th century’s most eccentric costumes and choreographies —plus a murder and a suicide.
Schulz and Holdt gained recognition for their extravagant creations: wild-looking, primitivist, expressionist, self-crafted, and self-designed clothing and masks. They also created choreographies unquestionably unique and advanced for their time (similar to the Bauhaus ballet anticipating science fiction). Their choreography gravitated between the grotesque, the comical, and the dramatic, and included jumps, strange knee movements, arching, and diagonal twists, often spiraling —a completely revolutionary dance aesthetic affected by its context; the misery and violence if the inter-war years. The music was usually composed by Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt.
In the beginning, the couple’s creations responded to the aesthetics of German Expressionism, but as time went on, they developed a style all their own, and one entirely unique. Schulz once explained: “Expressionism is not the solution, expressionism works with machines and industry.” Certain that art should express struggle, she conceived choreographies as moving metaphors of the violent struggle of the female body for control and mastery of space and its emptiness.
The Hamburg couple’s costumes are equally intriguing and strange, (nearly as strange as the couple themselves). Like robots, their characters embody a Bauhaus aesthetic. If we understand Expressionism as a reaction to Impressionism —a heterogeneous movement that prioritized emotions, feelings and, in short, subjectivity— then this work was meticulously Expressionist before moving radically away and toward its own language.
From the beginning, the couple created from within the very radicalism they maintained, and which permeated their personal lives. Just as their costumes and masks were produced with reclaimed materials (cardboard, wire, and fabric), Schulz and Holdt lived in a tiny, rudimentary apartment: they had no hot water, and slept on straw. The extreme poverty in which they lived was part of their ideology. From this work and living space, they dedicated themselves to designing and making costumes, masks, and dances, even to the point where they dressed during the day in grey stockings so that they could develop choreographies while simultaneously producing the costumes.
Beyond their intense artistic lives, Schulz and Holdt’s romantic relationship —they’d met and married as dancers in 1920— was dramatic and conflictual. Jealousy lead them to a tragic end: in 1924, after an attack of jealousy for alleged infidelity, Schulz shot Holdt to death. She then took her own life in front of her one-year-old son. Several factors (historical, emotional, mental, social, economic) resulted in the conditions that allowed the couple to immerse themselves in an entirely parallel world, conceiving of both ideas and movements, and resulting in wonderful works of art.
In 1924, the couple were captured wearing their costumes by German photographer, Minya Diez- Dührkoop, a singular character all on her own. After their deaths, the photographs were donated to the Hamburg Museum. Decades later, in 1989, the costumes were rediscovered and put on display, too. The Schulz and Holdt images are part of the public domain and can be downloaded from the museum’s digital archive.
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