Birthday greetings for Harry Kramer on 25.1.

by | Feb 10, 2021 | Raise the curtain

Harry Kramer (1925-1997), son of a craftsman who worked in the railway repair works, first in Lingen and later in Neumünster, is a trained hairdresser, a trained crew member of main battle tanks and a tap dancer. In his childhood and youth he learned to carefully observe his surroundings, learning about machines – railways, rails, locomotives and learnt to mock. Afterwards he went to Hamburg for training in modern expressive dance. Despite his height of only 1.65 m, engagements and success followed in Hamburg, Bielefeld and Münster, where he met his long-time partner and later wife, the dancer Helga Brauckmeyer (1929-2017). (BLOG article Grass & Kramer)

Harry Kramer’s Mechanical Theatre “13 Scenes

On 15 April 1955, Harry Kramer’s Mechanical Theatre “13 Scenes” had its premiere at the Springer Gallery on Kurfürstendamm. A second programme, “Signals in the Shadows”, followed. 

“13 Scenes” consists of bizarrely abstract sculptures that are set in motion by two players in collage-like scenes on a black stage accompanied by short pieces of music; jazz and musique concrète – arranged or composed by Wilfried Schröpfer. “Signals in the Shadows” no longer needs players, the figures move mechanically driven through the wide, very low peep-box stage space. 

“Marionettes” are not beautiful puppets in Harry Kramer’s 50s

They are stiff, strange, bodies deformed by war, by work, by age: almost objects, carved or modelled sculptures whose surprising yet monotonous movements can irritate or touch. He is not interested in language – he is more interested in material structures, colours, plays of light and shadow on peculiar, carefully designed surfaces. 

Kramer builds his machines, heads, human torsos and puppets on wires using paper, glue, wood and wire. He laminates fine paper in many layers over clay, which he then removes with a scraper. The surfaces are smooth, simple forms – they live in movement through shadows cast and sometimes they shine. He combines them with items he has collected – tin cans, coat hangers, a humming top made of tin – and invents a grotesque, breathless mechanical gesture organised by ametronome and circular, pendular movements. 

Machines, figures, materials – everything is sculpture and, moreover, ephemeral – as ephemeral as the light that passes over it

The dancer, Harry Kramer, is a perfectionist in construction and movement. One does not see the player; the production of the movement is uninteresting. His work is about the movement itself: expressed with moving light, motors, moving mechanics, “autonomy” or with the “dance” of the human body in it. And all this without meaning.  Empty of function without use. A transient and vulnerable anarchy subject however to the inexorability of a metronome.

Mechanics – a dramatic artifice

“Mechanical”, according to Harry Kramer in 1960, “does not refer to the machines used, but denotes the motor function of the intended action, i.e. a dramatic device. Products of his mechanical theatre include: the sequence of circling, springing, vibrating elements, mechanically and pseudo-mechanically driven machines, a landscape of pictorial columns, monuments, the broken, the lost, the forgotten, brought into view by the searching light, a state of incessant movement, sleepless, tormented and without meaning.”

Harry Kramer and the art scene

Sometime in the 1990s, Fritz Fey Jr. acquired, among other things, some puppets from the Mechanical Theatre’s 1st programme “13 Scenes”. Harry Kramer had given most of the puppets from “Signals in the Shadows” to the Munich Puppet Theatre Collection early on. Since Fey apparently never parted with his camera, he was also able to interview Harry Kramer and film him during production and repair work. 

The new acquisitions are stored in the archive and in the showcases of the permanent exhibition. They are to be considered lost, there are gaps in the catalogue of his works.

At this point the Museum of Theatre Puppets Luebeck made contact with the enthusiastic art scene. The 2012 special exhibition “Lost and Found Kramer” not only added to Harry Kramer’s catalogue of works. It was followed by an international symposium on Kramer, a reading, film night and two student works (an ensemble from the Kassel Film Academy and a soloist from the puppet theatre course in Stuttgart).  A conference volume has been published, old friends of Harry Kramer met here once again.

Harry Kramer on film stills shot by FritzFey

Harry Kramer would have been 96 years old on 25.1.2021.

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