Kurt Schwitters is an important German artist of the early twentieth century. Not only did he pioneer domains like graphic design and collages but also contributed significantly to a multitude of art forms. Indeed, his artistic interests were so varied and multifarious that it spanned a spectrum of written, spoken and visual arts. This essay will present a short professional biography of Schwitters, with a focus on his graphic design and collages (Merz Pictures), as well as his collaboration with Dutch colleague Theo Van Doesberg.
Schwitters is one of the early exponents of the Dada style of drawings and prints. Despite his mastery of this form, he was perceived as an outsider by other proponents of this style. For example, in 1919, he was officially rejected by Tristan Tzara and fellow Zurich Dadaists for perceived bourgeois sensibility in his works. Although art is supposed to remain above and beyond politics, Schwitters’ association with the bourgeoisie continued to tag his reputation. Besides this strain of controversy in his professional life, Schwitters “may have incorporated elements of both Dadaism and Surrealism, the truest description of his style is another nonsense word, one he corned himself: “Merz”.” (Alspaugh, 2011)
Merz is Schwitters’ unique invention. Under this system, art works were composed of collages of discarded paper. Schwitters is often credited with taking collage art to new heights and testing its limits. He pushed the frontiers of imagination and invention within the scope of this medium. He thus ended up
“becoming a virtuoso in the reclamation of urban detritus. The overall impression here is one of deliberation and focus, an intimation of the artist culling through banality to uncover formalistic schemes of classical elegance. Indeed, there is a spirit of charity in Schwitters, a largeness of mind, and a dedication to preserving the minutest fragments of man’s progress on earth.” (Alspaugh, 2011)
One of the most notable Merz works include Vogel (Bird), produced in 1923. This masterpiece was followed by two other untiled works, named retrospectively as ELITE (1924) and Okolade (1926). The collage art form is usually appreciated for its raw graphic appeal. But Schwitters changed this conception by incorporating intellectual elements in his style. He elicited his titles from the available printed word material in his collage. This meant that the discerning viewer can draw a range of extra-cognitive reactions from the work. In the Merz masterpiece Vogel (Bird), for instance,
“it is tempting to see the flattened cigar band with its illustration of three cherries as the wings of a bird. A sky blue wash around the central area reinforces this impression. In reality, the word “vogel” is simply a brand name that appears on the cigar band as well as on the square stamp at the left.” (Danto, 1985)
In some ways, Schwitters’ craftsmanship is an amalgamation of his influences in other mediums and forms. When he was working as a mechanical draftsman during the 1920s, Schwitters was exposed to a range of avant-garde specimens of photography, typography and graphic design. It is during these key formative years that Schwitters developed his own artistic vision and artistic trademarks. A special influence upon Schwitters has been the aesthetic philosophy of Russian constructivism, with its unique mélange of “axial shifts, parallel lines, and spatial divisions. These influences, which tended to focus on the urban world, moved Schwitters to expand the field of legimate artistic materials.” (Alspaugh, 2011) It also set a pattern where Schwitters freely cross-borrowed ideas from graphic design and collage forms. This cross pollination of ideas is most evident in such works as relief Merz 24, Picture with Sweep (Untitled – 1937) and I Relief with Cross and Sphere (1924).
It is in this spirit of hybridization of elements across artistic disciplines that Schwitters’ distinct Dadaist graphic style has to be studied. This style evolved
“from combining the random methods of Cubist collés and Futurist parole a liberta with the efficiency and economy of mechanical-reproduction techniques. Dada’s anarchic layouts capitalized on the contrast between a page of type and a single word stamped across it like a slogan or on words boldly isolated as in cheap posters and advertisements–all as far removed as possible from elegance and good taste.” (Heller & Chwast, 2000, p. 169)
Throughout his professional career, Schwitters had many fruitful exchange of ideas with contemporaries. Among the leading Dadaists, two apolitical schools of thought rose up. The first group named Der Ventilator and Die Schammade was based in Cologne and was led by Theodor Baargeld, Max Ernst and Jean Arp. Under the leadership of Schwitters came up the second group in Hanover, the Merz. Merz proved to be a very important source of critical reviews of artworks and art movements. In the decade that it was in existence, Schwitters promoted the Constructivist ideas of El Lissitzky and Theo Van Doesburg. The latter’s philosophical distillation evident in De Stijl was, in particular, given elaborate scholarly treatment. (Handler, 1956)
The year 1922 marked an important milestone for Schwitters, for it ushered in new political and economic environments for his art. Theo van Doesburg played a key role in showcasing the works of Schwitters through his exhibitions. Spanning the length and breadth of Europe, these exhibitions visited cities such as Utrecht, Amsterdam, Leiden and The Hague. Schwitters’ solo efforts in Drachten had especially attracted renowned patrons, so much so that he made the city his second home.
It was unfortunate that the association with van Doesburg could not carry on after 1923. This is because the political and social upheavals unfolding in Germany were not conducive to the somewhat lighthearted fare that the Dada represented. Being sidelined in this fashion, many Dada artists, as well as Schwitters explored the more philosophically introspective styles such as Surrealism or Constructivism or the New Objectivity. Yet, the association with Van Doesburg, though brief, was an important phase for Schwitters’ career. (Heller & Chwast, 2000, p. 169)
Towards the end of his professional career, Schwitters himself began to see Merz as his foremost artistic achievement. The Merz endeavour gave his broad-ranging artistic outputs a cohesive identity and stood as an epitome of his art. It is not surprising that Schwitters devoted most of his energy and time (more than fifteen years) towards embellishing this credo of art. It is only fitting that Schwitters came to attract the moniker Merzbilder as a tribute to his achievement. The following assessment serves as a fitting concluding thought on Merz and its inventor.
“There is more to the Merzbild than the aggregated anonymous and unconscious memorabilia of Schwitters’s contemporaries, but one’s initial sharp impression is that he has made into a form of art the compulsive, almost journalistic snatching up of unconsidered trifles…Few can have been prepared for the oceanic ferocity of his creativity, or for the sustained polymorphism of his single artistic, or, more accurately, his single philosophical idea – Merz.” (Danto, 1985)
- Alspaugh, Leann Davis. “”Kurt Schwitters: Color & Collage”” New Criterion Sept. 2011: 105+.
- Danto, Arthur Coleman. “Kurt Schwitters.” Nation 3 Aug. 1985: 89+.
- Heller, Steven, and Seymour Chwast. Graphic Style: From Victorian to Digital. New ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2000.
- Händler, Gerhard. German Painting in Our Time. Berlin: Rembrandt-Verlag, 1956.