PRINT November 1971

The Early Work of Kurt Schwitters

An object that tells of the loss, destruction, disappearance of objects. Does not speak of itself. Tells of others. Will it include them?
—Jasper Johns

IN 1919, KURT SCHWITTERS CHOSE the word “Merz” to describe what he called his “pasted and nailed pictures” because he could not “define them with the older conceptions like Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism or whatever” and because he wished to make them “like a species.”1 This insistence on a generic title reflects Schwitters’ consciousness of having achieved an independent and original status for his art. Schwitters’ historical reputation rests largely on the innovations of his early years. These established the framework for all his subsequent work, work which at no time repudiated the initial premise of an assembled art using found elements as tools for forming. Yet this premise was not in itself original: the modern use of collage was at least six years old when Schwitters first adopted it, and the formal character of his early work is in fact not free from a dependence of “older conceptions,” as Schwitters would have it. In this sense, Schwitters was not an innovator at all. Like many of the artists associated with Dada he willingly utilized devices and techniques from earlier vanguard art (and only after the German period for which he is best known did he break with established pictorial conventions, and then not completely).2 Of course, no art can be entirely innovating, but when considering Schwitters’ one finds constant reference to contemporary advanced styles—be they Cubo-Expressionist ones in the early years or Elementarist ones in the mid- and later ’20s. If Schwitters was an innovator it was despite his derivations, or even because of his finely developed exploitation of derived techniques. This essay considers the structures of Schwitters’ art from 1917 to 1923 and seeks to clarify these principal issues: the nature of Schwitters’ development from painted to constructed abstraction; the significance to that development of Schwitters’ parallel “stealing” from earlier art and lifting of nonart elements into an art context; and the crucial differences, both in procedure and in implication, between a structure founded in paint and a new “object vocabulary.”


Although Merz was not so named until 1919, Schwitters’ first assembled works date from 1918 and his first abstract paintings from the year before that. This hectic and speculative period was, however, preceded by some ten years of painting in different realist styles, from a very early concern for exact mimetic effects to a later more flexible and “expressive” use of the oil painting medium stimulated by an ever increasing awareness of modernist idioms. Schwitters’ years as a student at the Dresden Kunstakademie (1909–14) coincided with the dissemination of the major German Expressionist styles; but it was not until he had left the Academy that his work began its move through borrowed modern forms and not until 1917 that its movements through these forms became rapid enough, or its results interesting enough, to deserve serious attention. Since Schwitters’ Merz was patently abstract in composition and constructive in approach most of this naturalistic early work seems of little direct significance for what follows; except for the fact that Schwitters never entirely abandoned naturalistic painting but continued to produce landscapes and portraits right up to his death in 1948, and that he often affirmed the importance of all aspects of what he made, without too much hierarchical distinction.

Although Schwitters’ introduction of found objects in replacement for more conventional pictorial materials appears in principle a dramatic change of approach, it was in fact a natural extension of preoccupations developed within the more convention-bounded work and coming to a head in 1917. For Schwitters, the importance of naturalistic painting was that “it rests essentially on measurement and adjustment. . . . For me it was essential to learn adjustment, and I gradually learned that the adjustment of the elements in painting is the aim of art.”3 That is, painting is an art which manipulates a variable number of pictorial “elements.” This conception forms a bridge between the early naturalistic works, where the manipulation was a means to an end—accuracy of representation—and the later “conscious elaboration of purely artistic components in the Merz object.”

In an article written in 1920, when this bridge had been crossed, Schwitters described how his art had changed: “First I succeeded in freeing myself from the literal reproduction of all details. I contented myself with the intensive treatment of light effects through sketchlike painting (impressionism).” His landscapes from about 1914 represent this position. But they are only very superficially Impressionist in style: Schwitters’ color sense and touch is heavy and somber and his interpretation of painting as tonal and tactile already well established. Importantly, the objects are fused not in terms of light but of expressive mood. Loosening the means of his representation was for Schwitters the first significant step towards making the forms work for their places in his pictures. That is, by denying himself a predefined spatial context, the painterly translations of objects had to create their own intuitive, self-determined, spatial cohesion. Moreover, the newly emphatic material density of the pigment stressed the physical “building” nature of the compositions, exploiting the special properties of oil painting to create a unity of separate statements of color on different planes, and subsuming illusionistic space to that created by the surface adjustment of heavy impastos. It was, in fact, an approach more Expressionistic than Impressionistic; it heralded a breakthrough beyond representation to abstraction in 1917—a breakthrough almost equal in significance for Schwitters’ development as was the use of extra-artistic elements a year later since the character of his transition to abstract art held implicit this later innovation. Schwitters described it thus: “I emphasized the main lines by exaggeration, the forms by limiting myself to what was most essential and by outlining, and the color tones by breaking them down into complementary colors.” He was approaching the idea of a pictorial vocabulary where “every combination of lines, colors, forms has a definite expression.” The basis was as ever adjustment; but he “adjusted the elements of the picture to one another . . . not for the purpose of reproducing nature but with a view to expression.”

The result of this procedure was not, however, necessarily an abstract art, but often a still referential manner developed “from an impressionist foundation (that) had, as its first aim, not the beautifying of the organic form, but a strong characterization through an omission of incidental details.”4 Kandinsky, whose words these are and to whose own early “abstractions” Schwitters’ work of this period frequently referred, called this “stylization.” But stylization led the way to an autonomous abstract art by turning away from the copying of perceived effects towards what Kandinsky called “the creation of the various forms which, by standing in different relations to each other, serve the composition of the whole”5—hence creating the possibility of going beyond the “external” expression of stylization for an “internal” one. “Natural forms make boundaries which often are impediments to this expression. Thus they must be set aside and the freed space used for the objective side of the form—construction for the purpose of composition.”6 The descriptive titles of some of Schwitters’ 1917 paintings were thus preceded by the classification, “Expression,” and these usually very awkward works make overt reference to Brücke and Blaue Reiter sources. But more interesting, and the link between the stylized realism of the “Expressions” and Merz itself, was a series of “Abstractions” of 1917–18. While evidencing the same Expressionist sources (substantiated by titles such as Die Gewalten—close to Marc—or Schlafender Kristall—reminiscent of many German “angularists”), they tighten and simplify the pictorial grammar to a two-part structure of loosely gestural painting and tense linear scaffolding. This is, of course, a structure particular to early Cubism, and (to anticipate a little) it should be noted that for Schwitters (as for all his contemporaries) coming to terms with Cubism was the single most crucial factor for his first mature works. It was Schwitters’ misfortune to learn his Cubism through Expressionism and, not yet understanding its premises, to mistake its looks for its logic.7 But the very nature of his misunderstanding is itself informative. Schwitters’ interpretation of modernism was heavily indebted to Herwarth Walden’s Der Sturm propaganda, and by 1918 Schwitters identified himself enough with this interpretation to make a point of introducing himself to the Sturm circle in Berlin. (This in itself separates Schwitters from other German Dadaists who repudiated Sturm Expressionism as outmoded.) It is difficult to locate particular Sturm characteristics within painting since in that field Walden was primarily a promoter of already existing Expressionist forms. More easily specified, however, is a Sturm style in poetry. Schwitters, we remember, was not only an Expressionist painter at this time, but also an Expressionist poet (closest, perhaps, to Stramm). And much of his early verse displays typical Sturm concerns with a highly compressed language system of “clenched” forms, often within a “word-chain” arrangement—hence creating a structure of individual word-units, each holding rich “meanings,” which serve as sources for “readings.” The implications of this structure for Schwitters’ assemblages are readily apparent. And an analogous concern for “presented, meanings” seems significant even in the earlier “Abstractions.”

For all their heaviness of painting, works like Die Gewalten (1917) and Schlafender Kristall (1918) depend totally on their drawing. Modulation is virtually replaced by infilling and the linear framework’ of “signs” which (both specifies the implied volumes and holds compressed the last vestiges of realist content) carries the entire formal and iconographical weight. The relation of this framework to the loose painting which surrounds it is as yet unclear. Schwitters vacillates between an integration and distinction of linear and tonal structures, between a positioning of lines and tones so that their relationship is sometimes contiguous and sometimes reciprocal. Just how the two components of the structure interact was to be of crucial importance in the assembled works and came to imply a choice between metaphoric and metonymic order. That is, if lines and tones (later objects and surfaces) are contiguous this affirms their syntactical connections; if they are spatially separated (reciprocal in relationship) the likelihood of lines (later objects) functioning metaphorically is increased. In 1918, however, this contradistinction was not yet fully apparent, and the implied choice at this stage was between the “form” (tone meeting line and hollowing out volume) and “plane” (tone and line in separate spatial zones) interpretations of painting. A more advanced and cohesive “Abstraction,” Entschleierung of 1918, shows that while tone and line are often spatially adjunctive Schwitters has opted for an essentially flat painting-object. But the separate identities of, and tension and reciprocity between, linear scaffolding and painterly surroundings remain. The tension in this relationship was an integral part of original Cubism; and just as the Cubists’ increased concern for the conventional identity of pictorial elements led them to concentrate more and more on the potentiality of a semiotic interpretation of art-making, so Schwitters paralleled their development, and, like them, arrived ultimately at a collage solution—taking from the world a repertory of descriptive forms without simply imitating it.8

But Schwitters’ early assemblages are so very different from Cubist collages that this analogy is soon exhausted. From 1917, Schwitters’ preoccupations came increasingly to center on creating a vocabulary of pictorial expression to which any kind of referential space structure (such as was retained in Cubist collage) was irreconcilable. The precise chronology of his development into assemblage is not easily fixed. The three “Abstractions” discussed show an increasing sophistication from one to the next (and their order is confirmed by Schwitters numbering these works), but, generally speaking, Schwitters’ course to Merz was most erratic. A sensitive, totally abstract drawing of 1917 seems, for example, amazingly advanced in its intuitive order when compared to a conventionally Expressionist figurative work of 1918. Already implicit in the earlier drawing was the possibility of an autonomous space created neither from the analysis of perception nor by the synthesizing of conventional deductive signs but (as Schwitters was to put it) from the “relationship of form to form, surface to surface, line to line, regarded in a nonaccumulative sense,”9 that is, by an all-over “continual intersection” of formal devices.


A great deal is often made of Schwitters’ broadness of endeavor—of the unpredictable nature of his creativity and of the way Merz encompassed many separate disciplines. While not entirely disputing this, it should not, however, obscure the fact that the formal boundaries of his art are narrowly defined. True, a wide range of effects may be observed in the collages and constructions,10 but they are all generated from relatively few structures. As has been already suggested, Schwitters’ art (whatever genres it occupied) was prescribed by his reactions to Cubism; and his formal vocabulary is a Cubist one tempered by other brands of modernism (firstly Expressionism but also Futurism in these early years). The morphology set forth here examines first the early “assemblages” which show most clearly the logic of Schwitters’ move from painting into constructionist art, and later the collages which draw on sources unavailable to the larger assemblages which, as we shall see, are at first really “paintings modified” to include new materials where the crucial issue, both formal and psychological, is the nature and effectiveness of their inclusions.

Schwitters’ early assemblages from 1919 to 1921 form a distinct group within his oeuvre. Their general characteristics may be specified as follows: in scale, they are relatively large. Most are 30 to 50 inches in height (although a few are in the region of 14 to 26 inches) whereas most collages are around 6 inches, and few more than 12 inches, high. The components of these pictures, as befitting their scale, are similarly large. Some works are technically large collages; but as many combine both low relief pieces of paper and card and more bulky three-dimensional elements (wooden planks, wheels, chicken wire, etc.). All involve a greater or lesser degree of oil painting. As to their forms, they are linear in emphasis—circles and straight lines predominating—and nearly always contained within a vertical format. The color (as much dependent on the oil painting as on the added materials) is tonal and spatial. And the sources of these works are patently Schwitters’ own Expressionist-influenced paintings with strong Futurist overtones.

Weltenkreise of 1919 is remarkably close in format to the “Abstraction,” Entschleierung, of the previous year, except of course that the linear scaffolding of the purely painted work is now composed of extra-artistic materials. By affixing (or sometimes just anchoring) “lines” and “circles” on top of (or even above) a painterly surface, these relief elements inevitably push themselves forward into the perceiver’s space—establishing themselves as belonging as much to the world outside as to the plane to which they are fastened. That is, the implications of a complementary forward/backward structure visible in the painted work is here maximized, while the “life” sources of the forward scaffolding metaphorically confirms its relative displacement. The painting is unavoidably a kind of theater for forms where materials inhabit rather than occupy (quite belong to) the pictorial space, and none of the assemblages quite escape this effect. But what would be unacceptable in a purely painted work is justified in pictures that are in essence “containers.” Moreover, a too blatant figure/ground effect is reduced by Schwitters’ carrying oil painting over and around the relief elements, and thus camouflaging them back to the plane. And this work is the baldest of the early assemblages. Most contain materials of widely varying degrees of relief—some of which, therefore, have spatially (and hence connotatively) ambiguous functions. In Konstruktion für edle Frauen (1919), juxtaposed elements, similar in form but varied in bulk, work to grade (through) the space, except where they cross the darkly painted (and hence deeply hollowed) areas of exposed ground which set them in relief. The effect is partly of a neo-Picabian machine of weights and balances standing on the bottom edge of the frame. Unlike Weltenkreise, where the ground “presents” its superimposed forms, here it seems to recede behind the edge-anchored materials, and produces the look of a figure grounded on the “proscenium” plane, parts of which are occasionally drawn back into the central graded space. The nature of edge liaisons was to remain crucial for Schwitters’ art. Here, the unevenness of bonding is successfully countered by the insistent rectilinearity of the lower materials forcing themselves forward and the firm frontality of the planks, discs, and wheels. But where there are few planar materials and no significant edge bondings (as in Weltenkreise), the perimeter of the work seems too much simply the edge of a sample of transmitted information, and the work itself comes dangerously close to being but a “channel” for the presentation of effects. The problem Schwitters posed for himself was to relate added materials to the surface and edges of a picture in a way close enough to affirm its totality without yet forcing everything else but high relief forms into an illusionistic hollowed space. Or, to put it in another way, to reconcile what he called the “personality poison” of the materials to the demands of picture-making.

One of the smallest of the early assemblages, Das Undbild (1919), only 14 inches high, shows that Schwitters’ early difficulties had a lot to do with scale. If less imposing than the Konstruktion für edle Frauen, the smaller work is certainly more coherent spatially. The reduced size of materials meant that they could more easily be managed in an intuitive manner cognizant of the procedures involved in the collage technique. More than the previous works discussed, this breaks from the linear emphasis of Schwitters’ earlier style. Material forms do not simply replace painted ones; rather, their common planarity but individual-unit nature (identified by the differences in printed matter) locks the work as surface. And while as yet tonal in effect the single blue triangle offers the new possibility of intense planar color so crucial to the mature collages. And, like the collages, the far more standardized relief of the materials here goes far to avoid the formal and metaphorical ambiguities which combinations of high and low relief elements involved. But in this respect the work is exceptional. Mostly the early assemblages achieve their special character from the particular nature of these ambiguities, which deserve, therefore, further attention.

In using “life” materials within established esthetic structures Schwitters created a duality of formal design and associative reference. By using high relief elements on top of worked grounds he created the likelihood that these elements belong equally to the outside world and to their formal “containers.” That is, they alternate between achieving a self-sufficient denotive status and being sucked back into the greater object which contains them. Neighborhood, therefore, is the factor which dictates metaphorical functioning. Nevertheless, the likelihood of high relief elements being only metaphorical because of their forward positions is reduced by their acting as formal replacements for more conventional materials. Reworking originally painted themes with materials which allowed colors, surfaces, and textures impossible to produce by painting alone, was for Schwitters a way of broadening the scope of his art while the “conventional” nature of the compositions these new materials filled was enough to stress their primarily formal intent. Doubtless aware of the inherent associative strength of his material sources (as well as the irony of using them for esthetic purposes) he was always compelled to emphasize in his writings their potentialities for “forming.” “In a piece of art,” he wrote, “it is only important that all the parts are correlated to the whole. It is irrelevant whether materials had any established value before they were used for producing a piece of art. They receive their evaluation through the creative process.”11 But since the assemblage technique can only with difficulty create structures exclusively dependent on syntactical connections, a tension between inner and outer reference always remains. Moreover, despite the compositional similarities of Schwitters’ “Abstractions” and assemblages, the procedural bases of the two genres are very different; and the earlier planning of “expressive” effects became irreconcilable with the demands that process itself now made. Expression as such seemed to Schwitters “injurious to art”: “The work of art comes into being through artistic evaluation of its elements. I know only how I make it, I know only my medium, of which I partake, to what end I know not.”12 In fact, the means were coming to be the end.

The means was not so much the potentiality of the material or medium chosen as the “forming” process it underwent. “The medium,” Schwitters wrote, “is as unimportant as I myself. Essential is only the forming.” This did not mean, however, that the choice of materials lacked importance; rather that material consistency was unimportant. “Because the medium is unimportant, I take any material whatsoever if the picture demands it. When I adjust materials of different kinds to one another, I have taken a step in advance of mere oil painting, for in addition to playing off color against color, line against line, form against form, etc., I play off material against material. . . .” The artist thus creates by “the gathering together” of any kind of material compositional elements, “considering the importance of the individual materials” (their special formal properties), and “by his choice, division of and removal of the form of materials.”13 This insistence on the “removal” of individual identity from materials might suggest an inevitable development towards using materials whose nonformal aspects were already purged, that is, clean papers, without texts, stains, or other markings which might divert from their being integrated into the work of art. This did happen to an important degree in the mid- and later ’20s; but works of this kind surely miss out on that special balance of metaphoric and metonymic factors central to Schwitters’ art. The inconclusive and irresolved character of spatial and referential reciprocations produces the strangely powerful impact of the early assemblages. The added objects push and pull in space, alternating between being parts of the total object they help to create and individual objects in their own right. The problem, as I mentioned earlier, is how “alien” objects can be introduced into the art object without destroying its autonomy. In analyzing Schwitters’ solutions, two issues seem most useful to explore. First: since the style of Schwitters’ assemblages derives from that of his earlier paintings, the assemblages inevitably take over morphological features which belong to painting. If the most successful modernist art is that which best expresses the uniqueness of its medium, the specific status of Schwitters’ new medium must be basic to an understanding of his art. Second: if Schwitters’ early assemblages involved the “affixing” of new morphological features to established ones, this is particularized by the manner in which the surface of a work accommodates its added objects (“Will it include them?”). Investigating the reciprocations of surface and objects in Schwitters’ assemblages is, therefore, to evaluate their success as new classes of art objects. This suggests some further questions: if the added objects can never perform simultaneously as metaphoric and metonymic elements, how can the picture best contain (or express) this ambiguity without itself becoming indecisive? Also: since the added objects fulfill the functions previously performed by painted elements, how does a “vocabulary of object conditions”14 differ from a purely “artistic” one?


Some years after the first assemblages had been made, Schwitters made the following statement on what had motivated them:

When, along with pictures painted entirely with oil paint, I also produced these Merz pictures, I did not . . . intend to demonstrate that from now on pictures could only be made out of junk; in them I merely made exclusive use of materials which other artists, such as Picasso, had employed only in conjunction with other materials. . . . Now, if I have been successful with these compositions . . . I believe I have somewhat enlarged the domain of art, without thereby endangering the standing of great works of art in any age.15

He makes it quite obvious that his intentions were not at all didactic (or Dadaist, really) but that he sought new forms to extend (or even to preserve) tradition. And he recognized that to make art exclusively from found materials was for him far more significant than merely to use found materials in art. That is, he understood (and herein lies his importance) that collage could achieve a newly separate status within a neo-Cubist style. Besides Schwitters, the only artists of his generation to find significant new possibilities for major art within geometric Cubism were Mondrian and Malevich.16 Schwitters’ contribution was to define so fully the medium of collage as to virtually close it up as a vehicle for Cubist art.

What most characterizes the collage style is that it creates an art of additive surfaces. It affirms planarity and shape, and it declares the procedures by which it is made. Moreover, it can readily hold color as a property of its surfaces and reference as an innate attribute of its contents. To this end, it is most coherent when it is all collage, and Schwitters’ pictures confirm this. A reliance on added painting usually weakens the enterprise, as does a reliance on devices culled from painting. The early assemblages subsume the special properties of the medium to features associated with painting; but the presence of nonpainting elements inevitably works to modify the “painting language” because Schwitters insisted on the elements’ own “forming” characteristics. This was to become the underlying logic of his art. In the assemblages, however, the “forming” has pot yet entirely replaced the earlier “expressive” concerns (although Schwitters theoretically repudiated expression in the passage quoted earlier in this essay). Simply substituting representations of his environment with its representative tokens was not itself the crucial issue in his art. True, the “reality” is now of a different kind, but this simply puts expression to work in a new way. And if the new materials are just left stranded on the surfaces of what are in effect paintings, they tend to form individual relationships with the beholder, often at the expense of the integrity of the internal structure. And simply pushing the materials into archaic Expressionist arrangements could only be an expedient solution. Similarly, in the material substructure (the forming of the “ground”) flatter elements seem often to merely till in a preconceived compositional framework (like the painterly infillings of the “Abstractions”). These elements seem to speak far less of their own logic than to create a linear patterning from the intersections of their edges. Schwitters’ art could only achieve maturity by avoiding such compositional preconceptions, and this was only possible “beyond painting” itself.

I will suggest later that Schwitters was only able to achieve this by sidestepping some of the (particularly spatial) problems large-scale assemblage posed; but even in the assemblages he approached this “constructive” stance since he had moved into assemblage itself as a way of reinforcing existing concerns with relationships. Relationship came to be identified with value. “All values exist only in so far as they are related to one another,” he said.17 The putting-together of objects thus became the primary concern. Although Schwitters challenged the boundaries of existing art by introducing alien objects into an established art context, his preoccupation with forming maximized the distinctly “artistic” potentialities of these objects—their aspects which readily formed an association with the qualities of the context they had invaded—thus extending their identities away from their utilitarian origins. However, the special formal properties of these objects modified their new context by expanding its artistic vocabulary (of colors, lines, and planes) to include the “vocabulary of object conditions.” As Schwitters himself put it: “In the relationship of a known and an unknown quality, the unknown varies and modifies the known.”18 To maximize a forming based on “the gathering together” of materials, the inherited formal devices were to give way to the spontaneously additive process which itself became the structure of the new work. Both “compositional” notions and materials (in their semantic roles) were to be subsumed to process itself.

A “material” vocabulary thus differs from a purely “artistic” one in stressing the additive, constructive nature of the art work and the process by which it is made. And yet, the kind of process open to Schwitters was inevitably determined by his sources, both material and stylistic. In this sense, process as such was prevented from achieving its autonomy. The Cubist style restricted Schwitters’ intuitive forming to the confines of its established grid, and only a lot later—in some of the more randomly composed post-German works—did Schwitters risk breaking with Cubism. Moreover, although the visibly different identities of individual materials affirms the additive effect of the pictures, this same individuation of materials cannot but arrest the continuity of the additions by affirming reference. And of all the aspects of Schwitters’ art, it is reference that has continually provoked most comment. If, however, we follow Schwitters’ lead, the metaphoric implications of his work should be passed over. The materials are but so much “stuff” for that “self-related entity,” the picture, which “has no longer an outward relationship to the material elements that formed it.”19 But this is not the impression received from the works themselves. The best of Schwitters’ pictures evoke complex feelings from the identity of the materials used and the nature of their juxtapositions, without in any way diminishing their formal impact. This psychological side of his art has occasioned interpretation of Schwitters’ intentions as ranging from social satire to some mystic infiltration of matter. This concern for intentions has too frequently involved a quarrying for latent content which subsumes the manifest structure of the work, and ignores the fact that the structural and psychological aspects of Schwitters’ forming are parallel and complementary. And certainly (as I hope this essay shows) Schwitters’ work can do without any of those special dispensations favoring psychological “rightness” over formal quality sometimes demanded for artists in the Dada-Surrealist tradition. Nevertheless, the referential status of the materials in Schwitters’ pictures does deserve attention on its own terms. Towards this end we need first to consider the kinds of paper collage work he was making in the early years of Merz since the more limited relief of their materials, when compared to the assemblages, assists an understanding of how Schwitters’ use of collage differed from that of other artists. Moreover, in some of his early collages Schwitters allowed himself far more specifically anecdotal references than ever got into the contemporary assemblages. And in this context emerges the significance of his Dadaism to his work as an artist. We shall see that for Schwitters “even if dada created the basis for excellent works of art, that was not the aim of the time—it was, in fact, the means for making art, art which is not dada, but the result of it.”20


Pictorial complexity was the most characteristic feature of the early Merz assemblages of 1919–21. These works reveal how Schwitters had developed from purely painterly conceptions into assemblage by allowing added materials to hold locum-tenency for pictorial forms; and they express his realization that the new transactions between surface and objects differed from those between surface and paint. The problem of carrying over painterly ideas to high relief formats was the irreconciliation of forward and backward interest: that in works where the substructure is dominated by material “scaffolding,” the paper planes functioned less on their own account than for the linear structure their edges created. And even in the foregrounds, Schwitters’ choice of often predominantly linear materials reinforced this effect. The Weltenkreise of 1919 was a case in point of this line-replacement, except that the lines were positioned on a ground that contained no other materials. This idea of arranging relief forms on a simply stated support was one of the principal directions taken by the later German assemblages since it avoided the spatial difficulties of works with a complicated ground structure. Das Kegelbild of 1921 shows this even more. But here the physical bulk of the material elements is greater and the sense of these elements standing as replacements for painted forms is less. This principle of materials simply functioning as themselves first emerges in the very earliest paper collages which are from the first “constructed.” It seems significant, however, that the problems of transition between different modes of forming is most apparent in the larger assemblages, closer in size to a normal art context than the often very tiny collages. Indeed, Schwitters first called the collages “Merz-drawings,” thus separating them from the painting genre, and only later felt the need to explain that they should also be regarded as pictures. It is also interesting that Schwitters’ later stylistic reassessments are likewise more easily recognized in larger high relief works (this is no less true of the Constructivist-biased reliefs of the later ’20s than of the “rural” assemblages of the ’30s and ’40s), while the collages reveal changes of stylistic emphasis more subtly. The smaller size of the collages seems to have allowed a greater and more personalized control by being more separate from a painting context than the works I have described as “paintings modified.” What is more, the flat material planes of the collages could more easily perform simultaneously as structural and referential motifs, thus tending to resolve the semantic/syntagmatic ambiguities which give the assemblages of the early “revolutionary” years their special character.

It might seem that the confusion of genres in the early assemblages speaks directly of their period character—of social and political turmoil—and that the more orderly but less dynamic reliefs from around 1924 tell of the new stability of the post-Dawes Plan era. But such easy generalizations are confounded by the structural resolution of many of the earliest collage works. And the fact that Schwitters’ assemblage and collage developments are parallel refutes any suggestion that the collages simply consolidate principles of forming first approached in high relief form. Indeed, the opposite viewpoint is more easily supported; for while no relief assemblages have dates previous to 1919, at least two collages are dated 1918.

From its very inception the referential status of collage received as much critical attention as its formal properties. Apollinaire, one of the first to refer to the technique, wrote of its relationship and relevance to the modern city, and (in words more, appropriate to Schwitters than to Picasso or Braque) that its materials were “already steeped in humanity.”21 But the iconography of Cubism was well formed before collage, and collage did little to expand it. If there were urbanistic metaphors at work in Cubist collages they referred but to a very small section of the city. The real beginning of collage as a kind of “vernacular realism”22 lies more truly in Futurism. Schwitters took formal devices from Futurist painting, notably the centrifugal composition, but another important source for his esthetic was the Futurists’ positive attitude to using a wide range of materials in discontinuous juxtaposition to express the conditions of contemporary life. Undoubtedly the Der Sturm propaganda for Futurist art and theory was strongly influential in Schwitters’ formative years. But it is not to raw Futurist tactics that Schwitters’ earliest collages refer, rather to the more factual use of life materials, and sometimes life images, that characterize the Dadaists’ modification of Futurist devices. In 1918, the same year Schwitters introduced himself to Herwarth Walden and the Sturm group, he met Arp and Hausmann in Berlin. If we are to seek any local sources for Schwitters’ first collages, it must be with these two artists. Arp’s collages of 1916–17 inform some of Schwitters’ very simple first experiments. Hausmann’s 1918 photomontages appear to have directly motivated a little-known but very significant group of works in the same medium by Schwitters.

What the Berlin Dadaists called “the new medium” dealt with “the absolutely self-evident that is within reach of our hands . . . it participates in life itself. . . . The new medium is the road from yearning to the reality of little things, and this road is abstract.“23 Although Schwitters never shared the Berliners’ political concerns, he could readily identify with philosophies like this, especially since he was himself repudiating expression (”yearning“) for abstraction and ”reality.“ His early photomontages are among the most Dadaist of his works—their illustrative bases press them towards subject matter, unlike most of Schwitters’ collages. Because his art developed from abstract sources, very few of his works permitted the introduction of narrative relationships and fewer still contained the human figure. Yet the works of this kind made in 1918 formed the prototypes for a small but interested thread in Schwitters’ later development. Not the least remarkable aspect of his art was the swiftness with which it moved in the early years, and the way it opened up many different futures. Die Handlung spielt in Theben of 1918 shows Schwitters simply presenting the odd mixture of images with an eye to their greatest legibility—as if they were on a notice board. In consequence, the freedom from compositional preconceptions is very apparent. Although it is impossible to know the exact chronology of individual works in this period (and it could be that the purely abstract collages of 1918 precede this work), it does appear that this concern for legibility—directly stating the individual content-holding fragments—itself either suggested or confirmed the possibility of an art whose logic would be entirely that of the materials themselves. Disregarding for a moment the wealth of descriptive incident this work contains, its composition is entirely based on horizontal and vertical forms so different from the tilting ones of the contemporary paintings. Moreover, since Schwitters’ materials purvey information, their planarity rather than their edge patternings is emphasized. But here, anecdote wins over forming. Die Handlung is an early pictorial version of Schwitters’ ”Anna Blume" theme, his mockery of the fashionable bourgeois lady. Annas from photographs and fashion drawings are mixed up with her art-historical counterparts—the smiling angel of Rheims, a madonna by Stefan Lochner—and set among scenes of her own period.

As with Schwitters’ collages in general, the iconographies of the photomontages interrelate. If the inclusion of high art fragments in Die Handlung seems to be satirizing them, this impression. is even greater in a later work, Wenzel Kind of 1921, where a racehorse nudges into Schwitters’ reworking of the Sistine Madonna; and the madonna herself is defiled by an Anna Blume head (like Duchamp’s whiskered Mona Lisa), while the putti (who in Raphael’s painting represented the presence of ordinary human nature) are replaced by machine parts. The racehorse here refers back to a 1918 picture, König Eduard, which celebrates the prewar meeting of the Kaiser and Edward VII, while the machinist-woman theme is specified in Frau-Uhr (1921), close in sentiment to many of Hausmann’s photomontages. Again, the irreverent attitude to woman in this last work is echoed in Das Kotsbild (1920), which is in effect a verbo-visual pun on the word “bitch.” Although “Frauschen” itself does not appear, the meaning is clear enough. Space prohibits a fuller investigation of Schwitters’ iconographies, but these few examples should suffice to indicate something of their scope.

The only other works that are so Dadaist in mood are some contemporary watercolors and drawings. But these, like the photomontages, eschew any of that aggressive feeling so much a part of the Berlin Dadaists’ makeup. Although Schwitters derived techniques from that quarter, his lighthearted irreverence has little to do with their expression of anger. And only rarely did the rampant fantasy of his literary works affect his visual production. But what is interesting about his Dadaist drawings is that, unlike the first photomontages, they owe a great deal to the Expressionist sources I discussed earlier. Thus, an abstract lithograph of 1919 which Schwitters made for the journal Der Zweemann is remarkably close in format to the nonsensical watercolor, Das Herz geht vom Zucker zum Kaffee, or to the cover illustration for the first edition of Anna Blume (both also 1919). In this latter drawing, a toy train chugs along what are in essence Expressionist Kraftlinien. Even the “drawings” made by rubber stamps, like Der Kritiker (1921), are composed along Expressionist lines. It was not until the “Merzmappe” lithographs of 1923 that Schwitters’ graphic work really reached that equilibrious expression of shape and edge which characterizes the earliest collages, and then only after the new proformalist orientation of that year.24 Drawing was at first an appropriately private avenue for whimsicality. The assemblages are hardly ever at all bizarre (Der Irrenarzt of 1919 is a rare exception), and the collages—though sometimes containing humorous or provocative images or word-fragments—are essentially committed to “forming.” Although the use of waste elements was itself at that time a sociorevolutionary gesture, Schwitters had no strong social feelings. And though the amusing titles of some works belie their visible seriousness, with the passing of time it is their art that makes them last.


At first sight the collages display a somewhat bewildering diversity, but it very soon becomes apparent how close to each other they are. This is not to say that the effects which Schwitters creates are limited. Clearly this is not so. Emphasis might be placed predominantly on color, on tone, or on texture; the compositions might suggest stability, or rising or falling movements; the materials might be dirty and worn or clean and sharp. But formally they all depend either on a radiating Futuro-Expressionist device or on a Cubist grid.

Hansi of 1918 is one of a small group made that year which represent (with the contemporary photo-montages) Schwitters’ first collage works.25 From the start, therefore, he discards the linearism of the assemblages for an uncomplicated expression of flatness. The paper fragments already work as frontal surfaces and already assert themselves as, first of all, stated areas of color. While he was still struggling with illusionism, tonality, and inherited style in the larger assemblages, this more “advanced” Zeichnung was in existence. This apparent contradiction in stylistic development (which has led some to doubt the date of works like this) is only explicable if we remember Schwitters’ openness to influences. There is no reason why this collage should not belong to 1918 since its total freedom from Expressionism seems itself to indicate a first experiment with abstract collage, directly motivated by Arp’s idea of its essentially flat properties. And that Schwitters’ collages of the following few years look not less but more Expressionist implies that he then began to try to use Arp-derived collage ideas in a way closer to what his own style was then like. Perhaps distrusting the manifest simplicity he had created, he tried to make collage more his own—although this meant that the work he produced was sometimes less “advanced.” And not until around 1922, in works like blauer Funken, could Schwitters regularly accept the openness of effect which characterizes the 1918 collage. Instead, he opted by and large for a complicated closely knit design; and some large-scale collages of 1919–21 show how the assemblage and collage modes overlapped. In Das Grosse Ichbild (1919), only very rarely are materials left as Schwitters found them. Nearly everything is glazed over with tonal painting which at the same time sublimates the referential function of materials, creates the luminous angularity of the work (the shading of paint towards drawn lines emphasizing this), and imposes an expressive mood. By 1920, in Merzbild Einunddreissig, this glaze had gone and relatively more raw materials are visible, but now a heavy dose of thicker oil painting is used to apply the mood. Like the assemblages, these are clearly hybrid works (though possessing the commensurate dramatic properties this status effects) and suffer from compositional preconceptions. Materials are still forced into patterns and the treatment of edges remains uncertain. In contrast, smaller works of this same period more successfully express their medium and its own particular qualities.

Schwitters’ collages depend in essence on three procedural devices and two stylistic forms. These are best explained by considering how collages are made, and a group of 1921 works can serve to show this. The pasting of papers in collage has a beginning and an end which the work can reveal to a greater or lesser degree. If all parts of the surface are worked together, the location of beginning and end is disguised; and the effect is an all-over contrapuntal one. If the work is built outwards, the last pastings occupying its perimeters, the edges achieve prominence. If the last-pasted elements are free from the edges (the work built inwards) then this will locate some materials as more or less floating on the surface. The degree to which any of these procedures achieve prominence dictates the effect of the work—although this effect will be modified by the color and relative areas of the materials used, and whether their compositions stress either a Futuro-Expressionist radiating pattern or an allover Cubist grid. The all-over effect of Mz 322, bunt, is thus emphasized by the relative smallness of its materials, the evenness of its textures and the chromatic counterpointing of its hues. And, interestingly here, the last-pasted materials pull loose from the perimeter of the work, except along the bottom edge, therefore giving the effect of space somehow tipping back away from the observer. This again may have something to do with the procedural bases of Schwitters’ art. We noticed something similar in the assemblage, Konstruktion für edle Frauen. Also, several collages are composed themselves along an implied central vertical axis. Mz 222 and Mz 299 (both also 1921) do this; materials converging or splaying in a direct relationship to the body position of the artist. But both these works, especially the former, are outward-built, which itself emphasizes this effect. Works of this kind have also the advantage of seeming to very directly express how the materials themselves create and delimit spaces—until the boundaries arrived at are just large enough to accommodate them—while edge-positioned materials themselves both define literal shape and reflect back into the center. In another collage, Mz 334, Verbürgt rein, this works to locate a focus of interest; but uneven edge-positioning can create distinct directional movements across the whole area (as in 875 G, 1921–24). There are far fewer instances of collages with no edge alignments, and this serves to confirm just how much Schwitters’ style was a synthetic Cubist one. Mz 308, Grau appears mainly inner-built—its central forms being strongest—but here the Cubist axiality could hardly be more pronounced, being emphasized by the “pureness” of the materials and the sharpness of their cut edges. And even in the rare cases when Schwitters tears all the edges in one work, the axiality of the printed matter used once more reminds us of his Cubist sources.

Another link to Cubism is Schwitters’ use of color. Although Cubist collage did not itself make significant use of color, it changed the surface of Cubist painting so that color could be used. The surface was no longer broken to suggest the illusion of interior depths to the degree it was before, but could become instead a flat support for the planes of added materials, each of which could function as an unbroken color-holding surface. Color, being a property of surface, could thus collaborate the flatness of the entire work while creating a tie between individual materials. And in the best of Schwitters’ works, color unifies, ties and flattens, and does this although harsh contrasts and strong complementaries are used. These can be accommodated because the colors physically occupy the individual planes of which the work is composed. However, illusion is never—and here can never be—absent: on the one hand, the spatial position of colored areas (materials) is physically determined (by the order in which they were pasted down); on the other, color may either support the “real” space (in some of the inner-built collages, the last-added planes float Hofmannesque forward of the surface) or act as an incitement to deny physicality (early-pasted materials pushing up from below). Moreover, the degree to which in any given work materials either suppress (totally cover) the ground plane or allow themselves to appear to be resting on it must also affect the perception of their colors. Locked objects defy physicality in direct proportion to the complexity of their locking (total cover with relatively small units confounds the search for just where the ground is), and consequently assist in establishing the interrelationships of colors. Similarly, the size of colored areas (materials) and their degree of “problematic” identity is significant. Materials or colors which give the appearance of being unusual (either in hue or in terms of the incident they contain) increase the relational difficulty, while as the size of objects increase they are not so easily managed in an intuitive way. Schwitters’ predilection for usually worn materials of an intimate size therefore contributes to the optical tying of their colors. Inevitably, the colors are physically inseparable from the nostalgia of the materials that contain them. Although there are some works of this period (Mz 308, Grau, for example) where the colors do operate purely, mostly the stains, crumples, added paint marks, texts, pictures, and varied textures, modify their impact—and these markings also encourage one to react somehow bodily to the work itself. To read the mixture of signs, one’s manner of access must keep changing. This response is analogous to the way the collages were made.


Earlier I suggested that the esthetic and psychological aspects of Schwitters’ art are complementary. By this I mean that the works are only successful if they announce simultaneously their formal and associative structures. The danger is that they might be only mnemonic devices, and it should not be denied that occasionally a collage comes close to betraying itself artistically by depending overmuch on its role as a trigger for the viewer’s (nonpictorial) emotions. Nevertheless, by either signaling responses within established formal structures (in the assemblages) or letting the signals or triggers create their own structures (in the collages), Schwitters was by and large successful in producing an abstract art whose “content” was both esthetic and moral. And the mechanism of moral content becomes rather like Eisenstein’s “series of connecting shocks arranged in a certain sequence and directed at the audience.”26 It may be argued that what I have discussed here does not touch enough on this “content,” on the emotive or poetic side of Schwitters’ art. The point, however, is that the emotion—or, rather, the sincerity of the emotion—can only exist if the esthetic structure possesses the conviction to hold it. To be other than simply pathetic fallacies, the subjectivities of these works must be included, and the mechanism of Schwitters’ “inclusions” has been my theme here. Since it has been noted that the extent to which materials are “included” directly affects their referential functions, we might, in conclusion, speculate a little on what implications this holds for the viewer.

Since any given work is not referential as one image (because its parts assume neither a narrative or spatial relationship paralleling that of the world), reference can exist only in terms of the individual, added objects. This means that in theory there are two opposite possibilities: added objects may or may not depend on each other, that is, may make relationships between themselves or may affirm their individual autonomy. If individual object autonomy exists, the likelihood of outer reference is maximized; if relationship is maximized (and this relationship is itself in no way metaphorical), then reference is limited. The objects can never be perceived to function simultaneously as both form and reference though they may exist as such. (A useful analogy here is the figure/ground illusion.) This we have observed in the assemblages. We have also seen that the capacity of objects to form relationships depends essentially on their capability to associate themselves with the real surface of the work (as well as on the extent of their interlocking). Maximum reference thus exists on the forward plane when an object seems alienated from those surrounding it. And yet, Schwitters’ concern with “relationships” meant that an extreme alienation of individual objects rarely occurred. Although the very nature of Schwitters’ procedures made absolute pictorial homogeneity an impossibility (the identity of materials being irrepressible), his concern for relationships created a situation wherein the viewer can only momentarily settle on individual objects that can be separately “translated.” An individual object is no sooner recognized that one is forced to let it go in favor of the neighboring object to which it is adjusted. In terms of reference, therefore, the “fixation pauses” during which associative reactions can occur are at odds with the “saccades” between them.27 Since it takes a deliberate effort to keep focusing on individual materials, the viewer is pushed into searching for a common denominator between them (in an emotional as well as structural sense). In an important sense, therefore, a work is only fully experienced by the viewer somehow reconstructing the activity of Schwitters’ forming.

Schwitters’ special brand of forming (“considering the importance of the individual materials”) involved the relationship or interaction of the artist and his material environment in terms not only of its pictorial usefulness but, equally significantly, in terms of its existential status. Since, in this forming, “form” might be understood as meaning “the form his procedures took,” materials therefore function in accordance with their behavioral access—become, as “stuff,” important in terms of their manipulable physicality—and, when in the work, make reference not only as individual iconographical elements but, in relationships, to the character of his procedures. This allying of form and process—approximating of ends and means—identifies Schwitters’ phenomenological approach to art-making.28 He does, in a very real sense speak “not only with things . . . but through the medium of things: giving an account of his personality and life by the choices he makes.”29 Like still life, collage, as Schwitters practiced it, expresses “an empirical standpoint wherein our knowledge of proximate objects . . . is the model or ground of all knowledge. . . . ‘The reality of what we see is what we can handle.’”30 And individual collage or assemblage thus refers to its environmental sources in both iconographic and behavioral terms. Though Schwitters softened the disassociation between the material elements he used, this could never entirely ”succeed.“ Discontinuities could never be completely bridged since the presence of objects in new contexts, while regenerating their formal properties, also revalued their metaphorical roles—replacing their worn-out utilitarian functions with ones belonging to an esthetic situation. That is, while objects do refer to their original uses, equally 0they refer to how they have changed from these uses. They act as evidence of0 their own transformation (in function, though not in looks) through the forming process. The autobiographical iconography of the materials thus acts as a factual reminder of Schwitters’ ”forms“ of behavior—and the relationships of the materials demand some degree of ”completion" by the viewer, who is invited to reconstitute the manner of the behavior (while yet aware of individual iconographic references). Schwitters’ work—emphasizing its procedures—places an important formative responsibility on the viewer, demanding, as it were, not only to be seen but to be known to be seen. In this way, there is no hard and fast line between the art and its audience. These works are art (the objects are included); but by the precariousness of their inclusions (referring beyond their unique art contexts to earlier stylistic conventions and stealing from life) they function also as systems expediting the perception of art, as perceptual fields within which the viewer is encouraged to perform.

John Elderfield



1. Merz, no. 20, 1927.

2. My essay, “The Last Work of Kurt Schwitters” (Artforum, VIII, 2, October, 1969. pp. 56–64), first discussed some of the problems presented here, and details Schwitters’ later solutions.

3. “Merz” (1920), Der Ararat, 1921. From the translation in Robert Motherwell, ed., The Dada Painters and Poets, New York, 1951, pp. 57–65; and for the following quotations.

4. Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, New York, 1947, p. 48, note 6.

5. Ibid., p. 49.

6. Ibid., p. 73.

7. For the problems of learning Cubism through German modernism see Clement Greenberg’s essay on Kandinsky in his Art and Culture, Boston, 1961, pp. 111–114.

8. In terms of Schwitters’ opting for a flat painting solution, the comment by Maurice Reynal, the first critic to discuss collage, is interesting. He inferred that collage emerged as a solution for dealing with the representation of flat objects in a picture. While volumes can be painted, he suggested, “plane surfaces cannot . . . since they are not bodies; if one does so, one falls back into imitation. . . . If I think of a bottle and wish to render it as it is, the label on it appears to me simply as an unimportant accessory which I might leave out, for it is only an image. If I feel I must show it, I could copy it exactly, but that is a useless labour; so I place the actual label on the picture.” (“L’Exposition de la Section d’Or,” La Section d’Or, Paris, 1912, p. 5.)

9. Quoted by Carola Giedion-Welcker, Contemporary Sculpture, London, 1941, p. xix.

10. I do not discuss here Schwitters’ few early sculptures, his Hannover Merzbau (begun ca. 1923) nor his creative writing, but it would be no exaggeration to, say that my remarks here apply equally to these other aspects of his work.

11. Merz, no. 1, January, 1923.

12. “Merz” (1920) in Motherwell, p. 59; and for the following quotations.

13. Quoted by Christof Spengemann, “Kurt Schwitters,” Der Cicerone, no. 40, 1919, p. 580.

14. The phrase is Alan Solomon’s, of Jasper Johns’ work.

15. Unpublished text of 1926. Quoted by Werner Schmalenbach, Kurt Schwitters, New York, 1969, p. 96.

16. Here I am excepting figures close to the center of original Cubism (like Léger or Delauney) or those of Schwitters’ generation who only later developed their personal styles (like Hofmann or Albers). But all found that their first task (taken up also by Synthetic Cubism) was to overcome the way a Cubist grid dissolves at its edges; and all their solutions involved (to a greater or lesser degree) creating some kind of pictorial “container” for the “dramatic” interaction of forms or colors.

17. Quoted by Hans Bolliger, in Kurt Schwitters, Marlborough Fine Art, London, 1963, p. 14.

18. Merz, no. 1, January, 1923.

19. Ibid.

20. Letter to Raoul Hausmann, March 29, 1947. In Raoul Hausmann and Kurt Schwitters, Pin, London, 1962, p. 17.

21. Cf. Apollinaire’s “Die Moderne Malerei,” Der Sturm, no. 148/149, 1913, p. 272, and Les Peintres Cubistes, Paris, 1913, p. 38. But Apollinaire was also aware of the formal changes collage brought, importantly that “the object is the inner frame of the picture and marks the limit of its depth.”

22. William Seitz’s phrase in The Art of Assemblage, New York, 1961, p. 87.

23. Richard Hülsenbeck, En Avant Dada (Hanover, 1920) in Motherwell, pp. 36–37.

24. These six lithographs were published as a special issue (no. 3, 1923) of Schwitters’ magazine, Merz.

25. Hansi is numbered “Zeichnung A2.” A stylistically similar “Zeichnung A6,” also dated 1918, is the only known survivor of what was presumably a small group of first collage experiments bearing the designation “A.” Schmalenbach (p. 120) finds the 1918 dating “curious,” although he also locates the Arp influence I discuss below—but without drawing the same conclusions. The unique numbering sequence for these collages separates them from those with the more common designation “Mz” or “Mzz” (for “Merz-Zeichnung”), which Schwitters began using in 1919. But the sequence of Schwitters’ titlings is confusing (cf. Schmalenbach, p. 119), and the “A” designation itself doesn’t date Hansi as 1918. However, one of a “J” series of Zeichnungen remains from 1920 (Zeichnung 19, Hebel 2), so presumably the “A” series predates this. Schwitters did sometimes make mistakes in dating works, but there is, I feel, enough evidence here (as well as such other indications of his tactics as the 1918 photomontages) to justify my suggestion that in these early years he moved first and asked questions afterwards.

26. Quoted by Peter Wollen, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, London, 1969, p. 39 (itself highly relevant to this discussion of Schwitters’ “meanings”). For Eisenstein, however, this was a mixture of Pavlov and the Marxist dialectic. He also wrote of montage as collision: “A view that from the collision of two given factors arises a concept.” Schwitters sometimes talked of collision (it was the title of his comic-opera of 1928), but does this imply the dialectic as it did for Eisenstein? A footnote isn’t the place to speculate whether the assemblage format by nature lends itself to holding political content, although it is an appropriate question here. Schwitters was of course apolitical, and his kind of juxtaposition was not entirely heterogeneous (collisionary—perhaps closer to Pudovkin’s idea of montage as linkage (“bricks arranged in a series to expound an idea”). Again: does Eisenstein’s “I get away from realism by going to reality” and “I believe that material things, that matter gives us the basis of all our sensations” hold any relevance for Schwitters (though it seems to for Tatlin)?

27. It could even be suggested, therefore, that for the viewer the weighting of formal and iconographical responses is directly proportional to that of saccadic and fixation time in his viewing. But the “reading” of pages and pictures is different, and the analogy cannot be exact. Relevant to the idea of confrontation being in terms either of individual elements or of the whole are some notes to Michael Fried’s “Manet’s Sources. Aspects of his Art 1859–1865” (Artforum, VII, 7, March, 1969), where he discusses the relationship of picture and viewer in total confrontation (note 27) and the problems of portraiture when the subject matter rather than the whole painting effects “facing” (note 91). For Schwitters, the comparison with group portraiture, as well as with still life, is instructive.

28. For a defense of art as making: Robert Morris, “Some notes on the phenomenology of making: The search for the motivated,” Artforum, VIII, 8, April, 1970. Cf. also the relevant sections of Richard Wollheim’s Art and its Objects (London, 1968), including: “ . . . if it is true that artistic creativity can occur only in so far as certain processes or stuffs are already accredited as the vehicles of art, then it becomes important to know how and why these accreditations are made” (section 47).

29. Claude Lévi-Strauss, “The Science of the Concrete,” The Savage Mind, Chicago, 1966, p. 21. Although Lévi-Strauss does not mention Schwitters, he seems a far more appropriate personification of the “bricoleur” of this famous passage than the facteur Cheval and the others. Finite tools for diverse tasks, reordering the remains of events, a “significant treasury,” and so on: these all bring Schwitters to mind. Lévi-Strauss’s later discussion of scale factors is also important here.

30. Meyer Schapiro, “The Apples of Cézanne: An essay on the meaning of still life,” Art News Annual, XXXIV, 1968, pp. 34–53 (quoting from George H. Mead, The Philosophy of the Act, Chicago, 1938).