Los Angeles

Kurt Schwitters

Pasadena Museum of California Art (PMCA)

The position of Kurt Schwitters in the evolution of the art of collage and its relation to the Dada movement has been confused both in his own time and by the many artists today who, consciously or unconsciously, do homage to him. For since Schwitters was a part of, and at the same time distinct from, the many revolutionary movements of his time, his art has various overtones of meaning. Much is clarified with the opportunity to see a comprehensive exhibition of his works, the first to be made available to the Western United States. To the major retrospective exhibition selection by the Museum of Modern Art, N.Y.C. under the direction of William C. Seitz, Walter Hopps of the Pasadena Art Museum has added several significant pieces and has been able to arrange for the simultaneous showing of the Kate Steinitz collection, without which the full import of Merz cannot be grasped. Merz to begin with had no meaning. It was a fragment of the word kommerziell that Schwitters took from one of his paste-ups. But it came to mean many things; most of all it was the particular aesthetic discipline the artist imposed on himself—a discipline derived at various times from Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism, Neoplasticism and Suprematism, but always applied to his own particular means. For Schwitters, Merz encompassed the fields of painting, architecture, sculpture, typography, music and literature, between which it was his ideal to erase all boundaries in a Merz drama. Merz had some meanings in common with Dada. It was a cry for freedom, but only for freedom from the limitations of traditional art, and never implied a lack of concern for aesthetic discipline. It was for abstract art and therefore favored the ideas of Tzara, Arp, Picabia and particularly Doesburg—all of Dada—but opposed Huelsenbeck and the political implications he would give Dada, and therefore never shared the same breadth of nihilism. Schwitters’ first known use of collage came in 1917 and involved both oil and paste-up—Aerated Painting. Picasso’s first collage had been in 1912 and the Italian Futurists had employed typographical collage as early as 1915. In 1918 Schwitters visited Gropius at the Ducal Academy of Fine Arts at Weimar. His charcoal drawings of the time show his kinship with the Blue Rider phase of German Expressionism. Die Handlung Spielt in Theben, a collage of 1918 to 1919 anticipated the symbolism of Max Ernst. It was an inventive period for Schwitters. In Anna Blume he combines collage with stamp imprints, colored ink and pencil drawing; Banalitaten was a poster printed for Dada; Konstruction fur Edle Frauen, one of about twenty constructions done in his lifetime reflects the imagery we find in his writings of the smoke of the factories of Hanover and the ever-turning wheels of machinery. Merz had been founded. By 1920 the classical influence of Cubism is dominant in both his collages and in the inlaid wooden boxes—Merzkonstruction. The most interesting of these is the remains of the Lust Murder Box. A beautifully crafted piece, it once had a lid with a question mark and concealed inside were the murdered remains of a cupid doll. Thus the erotic side of Schwitters was curiously interwoven with the aesthetic. Similarly, images of his joys and frustrations were closeted in the secret chambers of his first Merzbau. An architectural construction in his home in Hanover, it was called the Column or Cathedral of Erotic Misery. It is significant that Schwitters’ first meeting with Arp was at this time. In 1921–22 Schwitters became associated with Doesburg. Some of the most satisfying of his collages come from the years that followed as he found compatibility between his own medium and the disciplines of Neoplasticism. Subtle variations occur; the colors are rich; the agitation of 1921 is resolved; a serenity prevails as he reached a period of pure plastic art in the mid-twenties. The influence continued after Schwitters emigrated to Norway in 1935. Mixed with it had been other things—a brief period of rococo delicacy in 1930, representational sketches of his earlier visits to Norway, experiments with different collage media. In 1937 the tensions begin to rise again. It is difficult to reconstruct the meaning of Amsterdam. Is it a tribute to Neoplasticism or is it a farce? Or does it reflect the impending threat of Nazi terror that will force him to flee to England three years later? Fragments from De Stijl surround a defaced square of type from The Cleaning Specialist and phrases catch the eye: “your favorite spot,” “Leave it there several ho—,” “you’ll find that the spots,” “an eraser or art gum,” “and smudges.” After internment in England, Schwitters seemed to go through a period of recapitulation. Particularly important are the restatements of his earlier expressionist tendencies. The combinations of oil and collage reoccur. There are some experiments too with the use of greeting cards and the comic strip. The potentialities of collage seem to have been fully realized in the work of the one man. Schwitters would not have thought so. On his drawing board at his death in 1948 was found his last completed collage—a prophetic fragment—On and On. There are still other delightful memoirs of Kurt Schwitters in the Kate Steinitz collection: Merz periodicals that were begun in 1923, a portfolio of six color lithographs, a copy of Anna Blume, his best known book, the Walter Gieseking score to the text and play Fest der Technik, photographs of the Merzbau before it was destroyed by a bomb in 1943, letters and the intriguing guest book of 1920–36. Kate Steinitz met Schwitters in 1918 in their home town of Hanover. Her friendship and comradeship with him continued throughout the years of his creative production. A tribute is due her for her assistance in the organization of the exhibition, and for the design of the catalogue recognition is given Robert Ellis.

Constance Perkins