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October 28, 2017

A German Dancer Couple Created Extravagant and Playful Costumes Before They Committed Suicide in 1924

Knowledge of the astonishingly bizarre and tragic art of Walter Holdt and Lavinia Schulz is obscure and largely based on the rediscovery in 1986 of artifacts deposited in a Hamburg museum back in 1925.

The artistic power within this couple apparently lay with the woman, for virtually nothing is known of Holdt. After suffering from a severe ear disease, Schulz (1896–1924) studied ballet, painting, and music in Berlin, where as early as 1913 she came into contact with Herwarth Walden’s Sturm circle of expressionists. Through this circle she became friends with Lothar Schreyer, who invited her, “my first student, a genial person with violent passion,” to perform, apparently nude, in his wild production of August Stramm’s Sancta Susanna in 1918.

When Schreyer, disillusioned by his struggle to form an avant-garde theatre in Berlin, moved to his native Hamburg in 1919, Schulz followed him. It is not known whether she met Holdt there or whether they had already met by this time. In Berlin Schulz was a costumer and seamstress for Schreyer’s early Kampfbühne productions, including the 1920, Edda-inspired Skirnismól; Holdt played Skirnir in a heavy, robotically abstract costume but seemed to dance in it without difficulty.

Schulz married Holdt in April 1920, and the couple soon drifted away from Schreyer, for, as Schulz explained in a note, “Expressionism is not a solution; expressionism works with machines and industry.”

Schulz and Holdt led a fanatically austere existence in a bizarre expressionist cellar apartment without a floor, bed, or hot water. They slept on straw and dedicated themselves religiously to the construction of their strange mask dances, wearing gray tights during the day so that they could work on the dances as they worked on the masks and costumes.

The couple became obsessed with recovering an archaic Aryan-Nordic identity free of Jewish-Christian contamination. According to H. H. Stuckenschmidt, who was their friend, Schulz craved hardship: “Poverty, hunger, cold, Nordic landscape with snow, ice, and catastrophes: that was her world, and with Holdt she found it.”

The marriage, however, experienced intense strain. The couple had great difficulty earning any money and longed to find a way to live without it; Holdt apparently possessed a character that was not entirely trustworthy, and Schulz was violently jealous, perpetually terrified that Holdt would betray her for another woman.

In 1923 she gave birth to a son, but in this last year of the great inflation she and Holdt suffered from continual hunger. In June 1924 police discovered their bodies in the bizarre cellar apartment, with the baby between them. Schulz had shot Holdt to death, then killed herself.

(Images courtesy MKG Collection Online, via UC Press E-Books Collection, 1982-2004)


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