Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Born on this day. Kurt Schwitters

Das Undbild, 1919, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.

June 20, 1887. Kurt Hermann Eduard Karl Julius Schwitters was a German painter who was born in Hanover, Germany. Schwitters worked in several genres and media, including Dada, Constructivism, Surrealism, poetry, sound, painting, sculpture, graphic design, typography and what came to be known as installation art. He is most famous for his collages, called Merz Pictures.

Berkeley Art Museum and Film Archive. Reproduction of"Merzbau:  installation in Schwitter's house in German, Destroyed during WWII

From a review I wrote in 2011 when the Berkeley Art Museum and Film Archive had an exhibit of Schwitter's work. “Kurt Schwitters, Color and Collage” which opens Wednesday at the Berkeley Art Museum is the first major overview of the legendary German artist’s work presented in the United States in twenty-six years. The exhibition includes approximately eighty assemblages, sculptures, and collages made between 1918 and 1947 that elucidate the relationship between collage and painting—as well as color and material—in Schwitters’s work.

Cover of Anna Blume, Dichtungen, 1919

It also features the reconstruction of part of the artist’s monumental walk-in installation piece, Merzbau, which was bombed by the Allies in 1943. Originated by the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas, BAM/PFA’s presentation is the only West Coast stop for the exhibition.

Kurt Schwitters was a man of contradictions.  He was born, raised and lived in Hanover which was the epitome of German bourgeois life

He was conventionally trained, could and did paint academic portraits and landscapes all his life. He had a bourgeois marriage and lived from the rents of property owned by his bourgeois parents.

Yet, he was one of the most original artists of the 20th century.  In 1919 Kurt Schwitters cut four letters from an advertisement, for use in a collage. He concocted the nonsense word"Mertz" from the combination of letters in the collage. He used that nonsense syllable for the rest of his career.

He was a poet, an artist who collaborated with the Dadaists and other cutting edge art movements of the post WW I period, a typographer, a writer who produced his own magazine called, (what else), “Mertz.”

Merz also amounts to type on paper, a sign without a signified, an artist's book without image or story. Schwitters experimented with repeated strings of typewriting as poetry. Conversely, the constructions could pass for real papers, the material behind a still life. Think of each work as a tray, like an in-box today. Schwitters, were he alive, could present the tray each morning to a businessman. 

He is most famous for his collages and assemblages, made of discarded and worthless materials reassembled into art of nuance and beauty.  He didn’t invent the collage; Picasso and Braque did. But he shifted the collage from its cubist origins through the inventive use of urban trash. For starters, Merz means a fragment of the world, in two dimensions. As in abstraction right down to Stella, each object, each pencil stroke, and each touch of paint stands on its own. These fragments he has shorn against his ruin, and one lingers a long time over their gentle browns and delicate textures.

Merz also takes on the real world, between the disasters of World War I and the Great Depression. Part of a company name, "Commerz- und Handelsbank," it accepts the anonymity of advertising, printing, mass reproduction, and corporate power. It accepts the aging and decay of these tarnished rituals, along with the dirt and broken wire left over from war. For all his care, Schwitters does not allow an easy escape into fine art.

Train tickets, chocolate wrappers, bits of paper, any material that was soiled, abraded, crumpled was used for his constructions. He used these materials in a painterly fashion. Gauze, netting, transparent cellophane were also among his favorite materials. The nuances of gray and brown that are so prevalent in the his works (and in the show) is partially due to his choice of materials but also caused by exposure to light and the natural disintegration of materials that were never meant to last.

Schwitters' collages were not meant merely to shock, annoy, puzzle or defy the conventions of society. "What we are expressing in our work," he once said, "is neither idiocy nor subjective play, but the expression of our time as dictated by the time itself."
Looking carefully at the pieces, one picks out text which is juxtaposed into the pieces which are by turns playful, visually beautiful, puzzling, an unexpected piece of social commentary in a cancelled stamp of the deposed Hohenzollerns dynasty or a fragment of an English ration book, all arranged with the exquisite precision of a Persian miniature.

In his collages, spatial relationships are suggested, images shift against text, and fragments are overlaid with color or more textured materials. There is no story, there is only (usually) - as if only were an adequate word - of the direct experience of art without narrative, politics or message.

He works with and against the picture plane to create shifting surfaces, ostensibly abstract but often layered with text. "His collages," wrote Critic Diego Valeri, "are little miracles—tasteful, sensitive, communicative, and even touching. To the unwary eye, they may seem mere exercises in patience. But to the discriminating onlooker, they turn out to be small but exquisite works of art.”

Then, too, Merz makes no sense at all, and its very nonsense leaves room once more for play. His newsprint rarely spells out political points or puns. German Expressionism and Dada knew herz and schmertz, heart and pain, all too well. In place of their pessimism, Schwitters evokes their sounds as a comforting cliché, like moon and June. Life goes on somehow, and so, after all, does painting. (John Haber reviews).

After the Nazis came to power, Schwitters' situation became desperate. In 1937, waiting an "interview" with the Gestapo,  he fled to Norway and from there to England, where he was interned for part of the war. Even in the internement camp , he taught and produced over 200 works. He died in England in 1948.  

Images from the Berkeley Art Museum, 2011 exhibit, Used with permission


In Search of Lost Art here

MOMA here

NY Times here

Telegraph here:  

1 comment:

Carla Ives said...

I had never heard of Merz or his "Merz Pictures." And while not the kind of piece I usually admire, I DO like the collages with the words in them. I'm not sure why I do, but I do.