Friday, December 31, 2010

The Mask Dancers: Lavinia Schulz & Walter Holdt (English version)

 "Große Technik, männlich" ("big technics, male")
 "Kleine Technik, weiblich" ("small technics, female")


"Springvieh" ("jumping beast") 

 "Tote Frau" ("dead woman")

(Deutscher Text HIER)

Several times I passed by these wonderful strange life-sized objects at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg; there are twelve of them. I always liked them, but I didn't see them as very important because I thought of them as sculptures. But I was wrong, as I learned when finally I managed to read the explanation texts at the wall: In fact, these objects were not sculptures but costumes or rather full-body masks. Between 1920 and 1924, their creators Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt performed self-choreographed expressionistic free dances in these and some other masks. Without any doubt they were as creative as Oskar Schlemmer at the Bauhaus Theater with his Triadisches Ballett, and they were successful at times. But the story of this couple ended tragically, and today the both of them are nearly forgotten - reason enough to become curious.

 Probably Walter Holdt and Lavinia Schulz, 1922
(Photo: unknown)

This photo is a detail of a group photo taken on February 10 or 11, 1922, during the artist's festival Der himmlische Kreisel at Curiohaus in Hamburg. It's not definitely clear whether these two really are Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt, but if so, then this is the only known photo showing them unmasked and uncostumed, and the only known photo of Walter Holdt at all.

Lavinia Berta Schulz (born June 23, 1896, in Lübben/Lusatia) came to Berlin in 1912 at the age of sixteen, after having an ear surgery that took nearly one year of recovery. It's not possible to find out what she did and where she lived in Berlin, but for sure she must have studied painting; her works and sketches clearly show an academic background. Besides this, in all probability she studied acting and ballet dance.

She got into touch with the Sturm circle around gallery owner and publisher Herwarth Walden (1878-1941). The best-known artists arising from this circle were his wife Else Lasker-Schüler (she also invented his pseudonym; Walden's real name was Georg Lewin), as well as allround-dadaist Kurt Schwitters who published his first poems in Der Sturm magazine. Walden's dramatic advisor Lothar Schreyer (1886-1966) gave Lavinia a job at their Sturmbühne theater, first as a costumer and seamstress. But obviously it didn't take long that she also convinced him about her acting and dance talents. 

Lothar Schreyer
(Photo: unknown)

According to Schreyer's memoires, Lavinia Schulz generated a sort of theater scandal in October 1918 when in Sancta Susanna (a play by Sturm playwright August Stramm) she sang rather expressionistic (Schreyer called it "Klangsprechen", "tone speaking") and had a nude scene. One half of the audience was floored overwhelmed, the other half was disgusted at high volume, and the police had to safeguard the actors from furious demonstrators in front of the building.
What's true is that Stramm's 30-minute play dealt in a rather drastic way with the troubles of a young nun trying to practice celibacy, and the Military Supreme Commander did not allow any public advertising for the performance. But in fact, the "scandal" was not as big as Schreyer might have wished it to be. A slightly mocking review of this show in the Vossische Zeitung from October 16, 1918 ("Theaterstürmchen", which means something like "theater storm in a teacup"), makes clear that Lavinia was not completely nude but wore a sort of mini bikini. And the audience, due to non-existing public announcements, consisted mainly from members of the Sturmbühne support association, so they knew what to expect and remained patient and silent. - However, Schreyer's radical way of dramatizing the play must have been strange enough for the audience.

Nobody knows whether there really were demonstrators in front of the building at the evening of the performance. But it would have been well possible: When in Hamburg a different version of the play (set to music by Paul Hindemith) had been performed, conservatives and catholics protested and wanted it to be banned. This led to counterdemonstrations by communists, social democrats and members of the "Wandervogel" organisation.

Because Berlin was a politically very turbulent place at that time, Schreyer decided to move back to Hamburg. As he had worked from 1911 to 1918 as dramatic advisor at the Deutsche Schauspielhaus, he was well known there. Now he started his own Kampfbühne, organized as an association of actors and supporters. They had no own venue, they rehearsed and performed at the Kunstgewerbeschule am Lerchenfeld (today that's the Hochschule für bildende Künste, HfbK). He asked Lavinia Schulz to follow him. She did so in 1919. 

At Kampfbühne, Lavinia Schulz met Walter Holdt (born December 20, 1899, in Hamburg). He came from a merchant's family and had a trading apprenticeship. He had joined the Kampfbühne by recommendation of the Schauspielhaus and was a very gifted dancer. Besides this there's not much known about him. 

It must have been love at first glance. Apparently Lavinia as well as Walter feared that their parents wouldn't accept their marriage, and because they wanted to save themselves a white-bread wedding in presence of their complete kinship, they married secretly on August 30, 1921.

Lavinia Schulz as Angel of Annunciation in Schreyer's "Nativity Play",
Kampfbühne, 1919
(Photo: unknown; estate Schreyer)

Lavinia Schulz was a highly impulsive and emotional person. On and off, quarrels with her husband ended up in fisticuffs. As Schreyer said, working with her was "a serious test of nerves". In a letter, Lavinia wrote: "Since my 17th year I feel my life is nothing but purgatory, when will I be through?" Composer Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, with whom they shared their apartment in 1921 and 1922, noted in his autobiography what Lavinia had told him when they first met: "Deprivation, hunger, coldness, nordic landscape with storm, ice, and catastrophes: That was her world, and she had found herself in it with Holdt." - That sounds pathetic, and probably it was exactly that.

 Lavinia Schulz: Two self portraits (pencil drawings, undated)

As art historian Athina Chadzis writes, the couple was mainly interested in 
  • checking out new lifestyles that were triggered by the industry,
  • the relations between arts and making money by being an artist,
  • whether and how religion and cult should be the driving force or subject of arts,
  • the Northern world of fables and ideas, which culturally they preferred (up to the degree of polemic) to the Christian and Jewish religions,
  • finding new definitions for the national identity that had gone lost by the war. 
The couple didn't leave any theoretical essays or writings, but we know they saw the Edda as their Holy Book. We can derive their worldviews from letters and notes, as well from reports of their friends and collaborators. 

Although he said that Lavinia was his most gifted student, Schreyer finally saw no way anymore to go on with the collaboration at Kampfbühne. Lavinia's and Walter's "excentric conniptions", as he called it, could mount to brawls on stage. This was too much, and so he saw no other way but giving them the boot. (In 1921, the Kampfbühne era ended anyways when Schreyer was appointed to teach at the Bauhaus at Weimar - an adventure that unfortunately didn't turn out very well for him.)

Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt immediately teamed up then under the name Die Maskentänzer ("The Mask Dancers").


From now on, they allowed themselves absolutely no seperation anymore between arts and everyday life. They dedicated their life in a nearly religious and later self-destructive way to the expressionistic mask dances they developed.

They lived in the basement of a tenement block at Besenbinderhof near Hamburg's main station, without floor cover, warm water and bed, they slept in hammocks.

They started designing their own fantastic expressionistic costumes (they called them “full-body masks”) and also manufactured them. The masks were perfectly tailored and sewed; nobody knows where they had learned this. As the materials they used may show, the costumes had to be cheap: gunny, wallboard, cardboard, wire, gypsum, papier mâché and industrial garbage; several applications were made from household stuff. 

Of course Lothar Schreyer's work was a big influence on them, but as conservator Stanislaw Rowinski notes, the usage of colors sometimes also follows esoteric rules, and several mystic or esoteric symbols can be seen on the masks. Some of these symbols, like the four-elements-sign, were originated by Johannes Itten; Lavinia apparently corresponded with him.

Four-elements-sign after Johannes Itten 
(red = fire/spirit, yellow = air/person, green = water/word, blue = earth/human being);
on the face mask "Sie" ("She")

 Lavinia Schulz: Mask sketch (pencil, undated, probably never realized)

Lavinia Schulz: Sketches of mask heads (pencil, undated)

The insides of most of the masks were anything but pleasant. Sticking out nails, open wire endings and chafing seams made it inevitable for the dancers to bandage their heads. The costumes were heavy, and sometimes during their performances this became obvious. But this was a principle: Schulz and Holdt refused any relief. Art had to be exhausting, otherwise it couldn't be taken serious.

Mask head, unfinished

Schulz and Holdt developed their own choreographies and performed them, sometimes under collaboration of some ballet dancers. Lavinia invented a graphic notation system for the choreographies. (This makes it possible today to reconstruct at least some of their dances.) From these sketches, artist Heinrich Stegemann made a portfolio of woodcuts:
 Heinrich Stegemann: Tanzschrift Lavinia Schulz (cover, 1921)

Choreographic sketch from "Mann und Tote Frau" ("Man and Dead Woman")

Further choreographic studies by Lavinia Schulz (pencil drawings, undated)

According to contemporary critics, Lavinia seemed to be the more creative one; Walter, on the other hand, was the better and more disciplined dancer, he exactly knew his formal means and how to use them. Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt, with whom the couple shared the apartment for two years, wrote special music pieces for their performances, one of his compositions was called Expression violett - which clearly shows a synesthetic (one could also say: multimedia-based) perception the composer had in mind when working on this collaboration.

In 1921 at latest, the Mask Dancers Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt had become a well-known part not only of the "Hamburg Secession", as the Hanseatic city's expressionistic theater and arts scene was called, also nationwide they weren't unknown anymore.

Poster, probably 1922
(Woodcut, ascribed to Heinrich Stegemann)

(On posters, almanacs and invitations, Lavinia's name is sometimes also spelled "Lawinia Schultz"; Walter, for unknown reasons, sometimes used the pseudonym "Hold Omm".)

Lavinia Schulz' and Walter Holdt's unique performances climaxed at least two of the legendary artist's festivals of several days duration at Hamburg's Curiohaus, and these fests were not just a local event, they had fantastic mottos and were noted all over Germany. It's not quite clear whether the Mask dancers performed at Die Götzenpauke ("tin god's kettledrum") in 1921, but for sure they did in 1922 at Der himmlische Kreisel ("The heavenly whirligig") and in 1924 at Cubicuria - die seltsame Stadt ("Cubicuria - the strange city"); the latter was their last known performance. Visitors and organisers were famous and important artists - Fritz Kortner, Gustaf Gründgens, Paul Kemp, Klaus and Erika Mann, Willi Davidson, Hans Leip, Hans Henny Jahnn, to name just a few. 

The performances of Schulz/Holdt were among the most notable events the whole dance scene in the Weimar Republic had to offer. Seeing them was mandatory. And at this time expressionism was not just a fad anymore, at latest with the release of Robert Wiene's (still stunning) film The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920) it had become an art movement that couldn't be ignored anymore.

 "Der himmlische Kreisel", festival poster, 1922
(Print after a linocut by Emil Maetzel)

It is interesting that Schulz and Holdt, although they were deeply influenced by and involved in the expressionism circles, never wanted to see themselves as a part of this movement. In a letter, Lavinia wrote to a friend: "Expressionism is no solution; expressionism works with industry and machines" – and this industrial touch was something they deeply abominated. This statement makes also clear the big difference between Schulz/Holdt and the "Schlemmer school" at Bauhaus: The latter came mainly from a much more architectural and formally technical point of view, although the results, up to a certain degree, were similar.

Schulz and Holdt, following their convictions about unity of life and art, usually didn't accept being paid for their performances. They would have seen this as a sellout of their artistic independency. As a note of Lavinia reads:
"Probably some among them [in the audience] were wondering that we offer our performances or events for free. You cannot sell spiritual ideas for money. Spirit and money are two antagonistic poles, and if you sell spiritual ideas for money, you sold the spirit to the money and lost the spirit."

Of course this attitude brought them into financial troubles for most of their lifetime. In all probability they manufactured and fixed costumes for fellow artists to make ends meet, in addition Walter had a day job as a merchant, probably in his parent's business. But in the long run this was inconsistent with their artistic projects, so he gave it up (he hated it anyways).

Holdt then formed a jazz band with Stuckenschmidt and (later composer and conductor) Victor Schlichter; they played the "Alkazar", a nightclub at Hamburg's red light district St. Pauli. Holdt played the drums. But the workload was intractable, and he got sick.

When in December 1922 Lavinia got pregnant, they were supported for a while by their friend, painter Emil Nolde.

But all that couldn't be a solution. The couple lived in more and more grinding poverty, their situation became desperate. In 1923, after their son had been born, they apparently cottoned up to the idea of developing more "folksy" performances to show them commercially at vaudeville and cabaret theaters. But it didn't work.

Lavinia also tried to do fashion designs. They are highly original, but none of them was ever realized.

Lavinia Schulz: Fashion design. Presentation drawing, undated.

A couple of surviving drawings and a miniature stage model suggests that they also thought about starting a puppetry (only because physical reasons it must have been clear to them that they wouldn't be able to go on performing their kind of extreme dances for more than a few years anyway). But it didn't happen.

Lavinia Schulz: Sketches of marionettes, probably never realized

They also planned on making a dance movie; not least with the idea in the back of their heads to send clippings of this movie as "demo" to impresarios, agents and music hall owners. Some of Lavinia's scene scribbles survived:

Film scribbles by Lavinia Schulz, 1923

All these plans failed. Probably due to increasing physical burnout and permanently being broke, their relationship turned more and more into an ongoing crisis. Unfortunately they had completely incompatible ways to deal with their troubles: Walter fell increasingly into depression up to a point that it was nearly impossible to get him out of his hammock. Lavinia buried herself more and more under mountains of pointless work. In addition, she apparently developed signs of persecutional mania; at least she told her mother that whenever she leaves the apartment, somebody would break in to steal her designs. As Lavinia's parents seriously feared her daughter could go crazy, they urged her to file for divorce from Walter. Their situation became intolerable. In 1924, Lavinia and Walter actually were going to die of starvation.

Most newspapers described what followed as "double suicide from privation". Probably this was what it looked like for the reporters; it was the high time of economic crisis and hyperinflation, so desperate deeds of this kind were on the agenda every day. But in fact the sequence of events does not look like a planned double suicide: On July 18, 1924, around 7 a.m., Lavinia killed her (probably still sleeping) husband with two shots in his head. After that she ran into the staircase, screaming that she had killed her husband and now were going to kill herself, then she returned into her apartment and turned the pistol against herself.

The police, called by neighbors, found Walter lying dead in his hammock, Lavinia in front of him on the bedroom floor. Their one-year old son (Hans Heinz, named after Stuckenschmidt) was found unharmed in his toddler bed. Lavinia, who was still alive, was taken to St. Georg hospital but died from her injuries the following day.

Fellow artists and colleages, of course, were completely taken aback when they heard about the death of Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt. Nonetheless, nobody seemed to be really surprised. Especially acquaintances and close friends like Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt always had predicted that this would turn out to be a story without happy end. Lothar Schreyer: "We saw it happen, far from us and unreachably near at the same time, and still today the burden of an oppressive guilt rests on us."

It's a moot point to speculate about their possible future in view of the approaching end of expressionism in the mid-1920s and the emerging influence of New Objectivity.

In 1925, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe staged an evening in memory of Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt. After this, the masks, photos and drawings went into a couple of "acrobat's baggage" boxes and fell into oblivion on the museum's attic. They were not even inventoried. Which turned out to be a stroke of luck because this way the objects didn't fall into the hands of the nazis, who probably would have seen these works as "degenerate art" and might have destroyed them.

The boxes on the attic

Hans Heinz, the couple's son, grew up with relatives of his father in Sweden and England. 

It's been not before 1988, that the works of Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt were finally rediscovered and carefully restored. Today these objects are surely among the most unique exhibits the museum has to offer. The son once came to Hamburg to visit the exhibition. He was interviewed by the curator, but of course he had no memories of his parents he could share.

The ensemble

Parts of Lavinia Schulz's and Walter Holdt's work could be seen from October 2010 to February 2011 at Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt in the exhibition "Gesamtkunstwerk Expressionismus - Kunst, Film, Literatur, Theater, Tanz und Architektur 1905-1925" ("The Total Artwork in Expressionism - Art, Film, Literature, Theater, Dance and Architecture 1905-1925"). The exhibition "Danser sa vie" ("Dance Your Life") from November 2011 to April 2012 at Centre Pompidou, Paris, dedicated a room to the work of the couple. Since in February 2012 the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe in Hamburg re-opened its "Modern Arts" department, all works are back there.

  • Ralf Beil, Claudia Dillmann (ed.): The Total Artwork in Expressionism - Art, Film, Literature, Theater, Dance, and Architecture, 1905-25. Ostfildern 2011.
  • Kirsten Beuster: Gegen den Strom … - Die expressionistischen Masken-Tänzer Lavinia Schulz und Walter Holdt. In: Lichtwark-Heft Nr. 72. Hamburg-Bergedorf 2007.
  • Athina Chadzis: Die expressionistischen Maskentänzer Lavinia Schulz und Walter Holdt. Frankfurt/M. 1998.
  • Dianne S. Howe: Individuality and Expression - The Aesthetics of the New German Dance, 1908-1936. New York 1996.
  • Nils Jockel, Patricia Stöckemann: Flugkraft in goldene Ferne... - Bühnentanz in Hamburg seit 1900. Hamburg 1989.
  • Rüdiger Joppien a. o. (ed.): Entfesselt - Expressionismus in Hamburg um 1920.  Catalogue, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe. Hamburg 2006.
  • Stanislaw Rowinski: Lavinia Schulz und ihre künstlerischen Inspirationsquellen. In: Joppien a.o., p. 51-55.
  • Lothar Schreyer: Expressionistisches Theater - Aus meinen Erinnerungen. Hamburg 1948.
  • Hans Heinz Stuckenschmidt: Zum Hören geboren - Ein Leben mit der Musik unserer Zeit. München/Kassel 1982.
  • Karl Toepfer: Empire of Ecstasy - Nudity and Movement in German Body Culture, 1910-1935. London 1997.
  • Vossische Zeitung, 10/16/1918: Theaterstürmchen. 

A radio feature by Yours truly on the Mask Dancers (in German language), broadcast by Deutschlandfunk, November 18, 2016, rerun August 3, 2018. Audio stream, podcast and script available here.

This blog entry has been updated in March 2013. Photos by JR except noted otherwise.

Frank Böhme
Jürgen Döring
Nils Jockel
Jens Oestreicher
Stanislaw Rowinski


  1. Very informative, thank you. Just saw the costumes at the MK&G museum today and was really intrigued... thanks for posting!

  2. Like the first commenter, I was fascinated by the full body masks at the MKG. An internet search turned up almost nothing but our well written history. Thank you. I would love to see reconstructed performances from her choreographic notes.

  3. Christian SchwinghammerJune 7, 2013 at 12:23 PM

    Thank you for a very interesting and well written essay on Lavinia Schulz and Walter Holdt.I actually found out about her via some reading on the photographer Minya Diez-Dührkoop, who took at least one picture of Lavinia in a full-body mask.

    Now I know what to see next time I'm in Hamburg...

  4. Thanks for this very informative essay! Currently, two of the costumes are on display in Leiden, the Netherlands.

  5. that's great The Mask Dancers art to mention their post it could be better idea to describe by the post author Jan Reetze. thank you so much for post.

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