A melded, cool approach

Oskar Schlemmer's painting "Three Women," at the Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard, bears a certain resemblance to the doll-like mannequins he depicted in some of his famous costume designs for the ballet. But in this painting, their bodies, instead of being jolly and round, have elongated trunks which make them look frighteningly like the pistons found in a motor or engine of a car.

Like the works of Rudolf Belling, Fernand Leger, and the Purists, Amedee Ozenfant and Charles-Edouard Jeannerat (Le corbusier), this picture reflects the fascination of many artists in the early and middle 20th century for the machine. For some of them, the machine was the harbinger of a new world order. But Schlemmer took the spanking clean, streamlined shapes frequently associated with an optimistic attitude toward the machine and gave them a haunting, De Chirico-like surrealism.

Although it is easy to point out sources of style in Schlemmer's painting, "Three Women," this work cannot be passed off as eclectic or derivative. Rather , this painting is fascinating because it takes a variety of tendencies -- many of them conflicting -- at the heart of the modernist movement and makes them into a single, uncomplicated image. Diversity is maintained in spite of this simplicity because Schlemmer's delicate adjustments to the details making up the central image are capable of completely reversing the sensations the picture started out with. Yet this change is not one of those tricky flip-flops in the same category as changing a white pattern on black to black on white. The transition is smooth with a beginning, middle, and end.

For instance, "Three Women" contains all the elements usually considered cool and unemotional. The human figures are pared down to the simplest geometrical shapes. In fact, they can be read as three overlapping planes marching out of the picture from left to right. Their silhouettes are a series of clean-cut curves that might have made a flat decorative design if the necks, arms, and faces had not been shaded to form cylinders and spheres. The right arm of the figure in the upper corner looks as if made of two metal pipes and resembles the joints of Leger's figures.

The faces are cleansed of so many features that those left seem incapable of registering emotion. In fact, only one of the women is seen full face. The dominant feature of the egg-shaped face -- a straight nose whose lines continue right up into the curve of the eyebrows -- gives the picture an air of classical timelessness. Yet in spite of the abstract shapes and blank faces, this picture quite clearly depicts a rather tense little drama.

The face is seen over the shoulder of the main figure. And it is the slope of this shoulder that makes all the difference, for it makes the middle woman appear to shield either the third woman or the viewer from full view of the figure facing us. The columnar middle woman with her back turned, dressed in ablack top, is standing quite still, yet the fact that she extends almost the full length of the picture (so that the top of her head is cropped off) makes her look as if she had just stood up to confront the woman coming in the door.

The encounter is an intimate one. Yet it is not a narrative, because the events leading to and resulting from this incident are left in mystery. Moreover, the machined anatomy of the players makes them curiously anonymous, in spite of the shared antagonism. Through such contrasts this picture manages to convey the mechanical characteristics often found in mindlessness -- a mindlessness not fully human even when it is an emotional response to a familiar situation.

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