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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Kurt Schwitters

                                Construction for Noble Ladies, 1919, Kurt Schwitters
As an art instructor for more than twenty-six years, I came to realized that the easiest, and probably the best, way to teach the skills and instincts of good picture composition was in exposing students to the art of collage. It's fun to create images and designs using images and designs. The materials are simple, a sturdy piece of cardboard, scissors, a little tape (for temporary positioning) and a glue stick for quick, easy, and most of all neat permanent mounting. The other necessity is a hefty supply of old magazines. It also helps if each student as a large manila envelope to store their selected cuttings until mounted in that this was usually an hours-long project which had to be spread over several days. However, the first and foremost concept to be taught was that this was, in fact, art. And secondly that creating good art in this manner was not as easy as it looked. It all came down to selecting and positioning. Either one, done haphazardly, led to less than satisfactory results. The key phrases were "think before you cut," and then "think twice before you paste." Students were instructed to discard images they'd selected if they simply didn't "work" with the design, and then to experiment, trying many different possibilities before selecting the "best" solution. Simple as it sounds, believe it or not, these were surprisingly difficult concepts to instill in our age of instant gratification and all too often, the search for "instant art." One of the artists (besides Picasso) whom I often referred to was the work of the German Dada artist, Kurt Schwitters.
For Kate, 1947, Kurt Schwitters
Self Portrait, Kurt-Schwitters
Very often the work my students turned out bore a strong resemblance to a piece by Schwitters titled, For Kate (above), dating from 1947, the year he died. Young people tend to be quite literal and preferred to create humorous "scenes" as opposed to the abstract designs with a message which characterizes most of Schwitters' work as seen in his Construction for Noble Ladies (top) created shortly after he began to shift his efforts from painting to collage and assemblage (the sculptural equivalent of collage). In many of his works, he goes so far as to mix the two, attaching actual objects amid his swatches of printed material and miscellaneous textures. Why paint a picture of a wheel when you can attach the real thing to your painting's surface? Though Pablo Picasso and his cohort, Georges Braque are undeniably the inventors of collage, having done so, they moved on to Cubism and other more fertile grounds of creative endeavor. Kurt Schwitters and a few others picked up where Picasso and Braque left off, exploring the full potential of this new art form.

Picture with Light Center,
1919, Kurt Schwitters
The Und Picture,
1919, Kurt Schwitters
Kurt Hermann Eduard Karl Julius Schwitters (a baby needs six names?) was born in 1887, the son of the proprietor of a Hanover ladies dress shop. Later the elder Schwitters and his wife sold the dress shop and bought rental properties, which allowed them and their only son a generous income for as long as they lived in Germany. About the same time, Schwitters suffered his first epileptic seizure, a disability that would exempt him from military service until the late stages of World War I when conscription began to be applied to a far wider section of the population. After studying art at the Dresden Academy alongside Otto Dix and George Grosz, although Schwitters seems to have been unaware of their work, or indeed of contemporary Dresden artists of Die Brücke. Around 1909, Schwitters returned to Hanover and started his artistic career as a Post-impressionist. In 1911 he took part in his first exhibition, in Hanover. As the First World War progressed his work became darker, gradually developing a distinctive expressionist tone as seen in Picture with Light Center (above, left) and The Und Picture (above, right), both dating from shortly after the end of the war. The latter demonstrates one of Schwitters first uses of collage in his work.

A poster by Schwitters linking
Dada with his poem, Anna Blume.
About the time the war ended, Schwitters met members of the Berlin Avant-garde, including Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch, and Hans Arp, who were to influence his work considerably. In the turmoil that was post-war Germany, Schwitters attained a remarkable degree of fame following a show at the Der Sturm gallery in June 1919, coupled with the publication of the poem An Anna Blume (usually translated as 'To Anna Flower', or 'To Eve Blossom'), a Dadaist nonsensical love poem. Schwitters’ first overtures to the Zurich and Berlin Dada groups made explicit mention of Merz pictures, a totally meaningless name he gave to his paintings around that time. It was with these works that Schwitters brought his collaged paintings to full fruition as seen in two of his paintings from the 1920s, Santa Claus (below, left), and Something Or Other (below, right), both from 1922.

Santa Claus, 1922, Kurt Schwitters
Something Or Other,
1922, Kurt Schwitters
Merzbau (Merz Building), 1923-1937, Kurt Schwitters
Along with some of his collages, Schwitters was also into dramatically altering the interiors of a number of spaces throughout his life. The most famous was the Merzbau (Merz Building, above), the transformation of six (or more) rooms of the family house in Hanover. This took place gradually beginning about 1923, finishing in 1933. Schwitters subsequently extended the Merzbau to other areas of the house until he was forced to flee to Norway in early 1937. Most of the house was let to tenants, so that the final extent of the Merzbau was less than is normally assumed. By 1937 Schwitters environmental sculpture had spread to two rooms of his parents' apartment on the ground floor, the adjoining balcony, the space below the balcony, one or two rooms of the attic and possibly part of the cellar. In 1943 all this was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid.

Untitled, 1946, Kurt Schwitters
Chicken and Egg,
1946, Kurt Schwitters
Schwitters' sculptural works reappeared after WW II as some of his last pieces his Chicken and Egg (left), from 1946, and the untitled work above. As the political situation in Germany under the Nazis continued to deteriorate throughout the 1930s, his work began to be included in the Degenerate Art touring exhibition organized by the Nazi party from 1933. In 1937 Schwitters, fled to Norway to join his son Ernst, who had already left Germany the year before. His wife decided to remain in Hanover, to manage their four properties. In the same year, his Merz pictures were included in the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich, making his return impossible. When the Nazi's invaded Norway, Schwitters was once more forced to flee, first to a refugee camp in Scotland on the Isle of Man, then to London. He died in 1947 from acute pulmonary edema and myocarditis. He was sixty years old.

Hitler Gang, 1944, Kurt Schwitters


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