3.2 / Review

Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage

By Mark Van Proyen October 4, 2011

By all accounts, World War I was an unprecedented catastrophe for Europe, and this fact needs to be taken into account when we look at any art made on that continent during the twenty-five years after the war’s conclusion. But in the case of the work of Kurt Schwitters, this fact it poses a unique problem for interpretation. I say this because the artistic responses to that war’s aftermath tended to align themselves with one of two camps. The first such camp was Dadaism’s program of so-called “anti-art,” which was really art that was against the art that supported the moral pretenses of a “high” civilization that masked the depraved ethics of industrial-scaled slaughter. The second came a bit later, and took the forms of Suprematism, De Stijl, Bauhaus, and Constructivism, all seeking to model the building of a better world based on clarified form and an efficient use of advanced materials. The artists participating in these movements were motivated by the thought that such efficiencies could ward off the recurrence of war by making its necessities a material and spiritual un-necessity. The fact that it only took a mere twenty years to see these articles of faith come to grief should go without saying, but this brings us back to Schwitters and the subsequent interpretation of his work amid that historical context: Dadaist, Constructivist, or both?

Judging from the exhibition titled Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage (originally organized by Isabel Schultz for the Menil Collection in Houston), the answer to this question is a decisive “maybe.” Working with a judicious selection of ninety-five two- and three-dimensional collage and assemblage objects taken from all phases of the artist’s career, the exhibition advances the idea that for Schwitters, collage was essentially a means of making paintings, or more precisely, objects that could suffice as proxies for paintings. The operational word here is “suffice,” and we will get to that momentarily, but first, we can linger on some of the works included in the exhibition. Schultz’s collage-as-painting thesis is born out by one of the earliest work in the exhibition, titled Merz Picture 1A (the Alienist)(1919). In it, we see the painted profile of a face set against a nocturnal blue, with hints of rainbows on the horizon. Atop this painterly world are set a few well-selected collage elements, including some circular ones that suggest thought bubbles. Here we see Schwitters reaching back to the Symbolist roots of Modernist abstraction, revealing a unique balance of painterly and collage elements.

In works created between 1920 and 1926, the years when Schwitters was most influenced by the Dadaist efforts in Berlin and Zurich, we see only occasional additions of paint to his collage elements. These were the years when he was most focused on his famous Merz pictures, “Merz” being a 

Kurt Schwitters - Merz 410. Something or Other - 1922 - Berkeley Art Museum

Mz. 410. irgendsowas. (Mz. 410. Something or Other.), 1922; collage, fabric, paper and turkey feather on cardboard; 7 1/8 x 5 3/4 in. Courtesy of the Kurt Schwitters Archives at the Sprengel Museum, Hannover and teh UC Berkeley Art Museum. Photo: Michael Herling / Aline Gwose, Sprengel Museum Hannover. © Artists Rights Society, New York.


Mz 371 bacco (Mz 371 bacco), 1922; collage of cut and torn printed, handwritten, tissue, and coated papers on paperboard; 6 1/4 x 4 7/8 in. Courtesy of the Menil Collection, Houston and the UC Berkeley Art Museum. Photo: Hickey-Robertson, Houston. © 2010 Artists Rights Society, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

made-up word that Schwitters derived from the German word kommerz, or “commerce” in English. Even though he wrote several essays about the concept of Merz, it is difficult to extract what he really intended by using the term, since his chosen art materials were at best tertiary by-products of commodity transactions that took place far from the moment of their artistic repurposing. What counts for the viewer is that repurposing, as witnessed in works such as Mz. 310 (Carnival) (1921) or Mz. 410. (Something or Other) (1922). The organization of graphic and pictorial elements in these collages is crisp in comparison to the earlier efforts, and their color is relatively upbeat. But we can still see a kind of vertigo in operation here, one that perfectly captures the dynamics of forms disintegrating outward while simultaneously reintegrating back toward the work’s center of pictorial gravity. It is this aspect of Schwitters’ oeuvre that seems to be such a worthy precedent for the current revival of abstract painting that we have seen during the past two years.

Schwitters’ work gradually grew away from its Dadaist influences, moving toward the abstract classicism that was advanced by Mondrian and other De Stijl artists. This trajectory is born out by works such as Körting Picture (1932), which seems eager to join the long parade of late Cubist artists that were active at the time. It is also born out by the artist’s longstanding project titled Merzbau (c. 1923–33), the transformation of his Hanover apartment into what has been proclaimed to be the first historical instance of installation art. Even though Allied bombers destroyed it in 1943, the Merzbau’s interior of abrupt diagonal white shapes and perversely skewed vitrines has lived on in photographic form. Peter Bissager rebuilt it from those photographs between 1981 and 1983, too late to be a part of the Museum of Modern Art’s gigantic Schwitters retrospective of 1985, but it is happily included in the exhibition under review. It was given its own gallery far away from the collage works, allowing viewers to see how Bissager rebuilt it like a movable stage, set to facilitate transport and storage. It doesn’t add much to the overarching thesis of the exhibition’s color and collage theme, but it is most certainly a rare and memorable trip down art history’s memory lane.

The all-too-predictable voices of art history snobs near and far will always try to remind us that collage was invented by Picasso near the end of 1911, and that the Cubist and Futurist artists were almost a full decade ahead of Schwitters’ earliest use of the technique. Even if true, how much should that really matter? Schwitters was clearly barking up a very different stylistic tree from those other artists, his work representing a kind of introspective lyric poetry more than an exercise in stylistic didacticism. When he is at his best, the touch that he brings to his materials is as clear and nuanced as that of a highly skilled painter, even as the world that his intimated by his work bespeaks of an inveterate dreamer.



Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage is on view at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum through November 27, 2011.

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