Kurt Schwitters, who was born in Germany in 1887, was a painter, a poet, and, most famously, a collagist. He loved to play with expressive or artistic systems of every type, whether they were alphabets, numbers, colors, languages, or music. He composed sonatas out of sounds (including a sneeze), poems out of letters and numerals, paintings out of Dutch tram tickets, farmyard illustrations out of type fonts.1 His poems made shapes trail across paper, while some of his paintings consisted of words pinned onto card or board. “A play with serious problems,” he wrote later, in his manifestly imperfect English, “that is art.”
Although Schwitters would come to be seen as among the most inventive visual and literary artists of the twentieth century, to his neighbors and contemporaries he was a local eccentric who lived on the periphery of the urban social world where avant-garde movements like Dada thrived; he invented his own medium and his own visual language, well before he produced the works for which he became known. Under his ministrations the walls of the house he lived in with his parents in the deeply provincial German town of Hanover developed strange plaster extrusions and stalactites and angular outgrowths in room after room, and turned into a sort of Expressionistic Caligari grotto. Somewhere in its windings was something he called the Cathedral of Erotic Misery, where a snail might scratch its back and appease an itch.
That was the original Merzbau. The word “Merz”—itself a neologism chiseled out of the name of a bank: the Kommerz und Privatbank—became synonymous with Schwitters. Sometimes he signed himself “Merz” or incorporated it into his name—even though, as the only son of well-heeled parents, he had five perfectly good ones of his own: Kurt Hermann Eduard Karl Julius Schwitters. (When his own son came to be born, he named him, with a straight face, Ernst.)
From 1919 on, everything he did was called Merz. Merz sculptures, Merz towers, Merz drawings, Merz poems. It was, you might say, a Merz life. The meaning of the word evolved through Schwitters’s various projects, but he did offer one definition—which gives an idea of what he meant by collages—in 1919 when he wrote:
The word Merz denotes essentially the combination, for artistic purposes, of all conceivable materials, and, technically, the principle of the equal distribution of the individual materials…. A perambulator in which wire-netting, string, and cotton wool are factors having equal rights with paint.
Schwitters is an instance of a primary creative type; had his life taken a different turn, it is easy to imagine him an inventor, like Leonardo. He loved pseudonyms, heteronyms, caressive deformations, and nicknames. Was “Hanover” insufficiently exciting as an address? Well, try “Revon”! The painter and poet Hans Arp was only ever “pra” to him; wacky postcards were addressed not to “geliebter Arp” (beloved Arp—strange enough, one might think), but “beleibter pra” (portly pra). The wife of another friend, one Morf, was referred to as “die Morphinistin.” Edith Thomas, the English nurse of his last years, was “Wantee,” surely—though I’ve never seen it commented upon—an eccentric personal extension of the Anglo-French passive (like desiree or trainee or amputee). Running together the beginning of his first name and the end of his second, he called himself “Kuwitter”—cow-weather, yes, but also cow-whiff.
When Kate Steinitz, a painter and writer who also lived in Hanover, paid her first visit to the artist in 1918, it was Schwitters’s parents who came to the door:
First they showed me around their own apartment with its comfortable velour furniture and lace doilies. They were especially proud of their winter garden, which even in wartime looked to be flourishing: well-tended herbs and vegetables, among ornamental rubber trees and ferns. Then Schwitters père escorted me to the staircase. A strange smell greeted me there, not quite sculptor’s studio, not kitchen, not zoo. But the smell, or should I say, the characteristic whiff of Schwitters, was put together from all of these components: the boiled glue or starch that Schwitters used in his collages and other works…. The sculpture smell came from the clay and plaster of Paris that he used in his subsequently celebrated Merz Column. Kitchen and baby smells were ubiquitous at the end of the war, when coal was in short supply, and people didn’t like to air their rooms. And then there was the zoo smell. “Kurt keeps guinea pigs,” said his father, and rang the bell.
This was a beautifully literal and for once rather benign instance of the uneasy cohabitation of art and bourgeoisie. He was not the poet in the attic (as in the famous 1839 caricature by Carl Spitzweg showing a pinched scribbling figure sitting up in bed under an open umbrella on account of the leaking roof); not the irrepressible genius all-rounder slumming it in the bel étage; not the standard scruffy bohemian. He was a tall, handsome figure, as conventionally turned out in stiff collar and tie as any banker or diplomat, but whose relations with Mercury—commerce, Merz—were, alas, less well ordered. He made a living trying to sell people things they didn’t want made from things they really didn’t want—i.e., rubbish off the street—and by shouting and burbling shamelessly at “poetry readings” and public “lectures.” He was also slightly smelly, and given to displays of unpredictable behavior like growling at pretty girls in the street. Arr was his word for them, in the plural Arren. Then again, the man collected stamps. Schwitters signed himself once in Steinitz’s guest-book as “bourgeois and idiot.”
He was described as someone who unsettled his fellows with his unstable and unpredictable blend of clowning and seriousness and unabashed romanticism. Early and often he was characterized as being of “melancholy” disposition. When he was fourteen, a nervous ailment laid him low for two years. “My illness,” Schwitters said,
changed my outlook. I became aware of my love of art. First I knocked off couplets in the style of music hall comedy. One autumn evening, I noticed the cold, clear moon. Instantly, my poetry turned lyrical-sentimental. Then it was music. I learned notation, and spent one entire afternoon composing. In 1906 in Isernhagen I saw a landscape bathed in moonlight, and started to paint. One hundred watercolors of moonlit scenes. Done by candlelight. I decided to be a painter.
It may not have happened quite like this, or in such short order, but one gets a sense of the burgeoning powers within him, the vehement changeable enthusiasms, the bewildering array of possible goals for his endeavors. After finishing high school in 1908, Schwitters spent the best part of ten years studying commercial art. In the 1920s he worked as a typographer and in advertising, and studied painting in Dresden. (The Expressionist painters of Die Brücke—Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, and the others, little older than Schwitters—were based there at the time, but the conventional young painter remained unaware of them.) In 1917, after a short, inept spell in the army, he was doing technical drawing in an iron foundry; they were glad to have him (he was a talented draftsman), and would have kept him; he quit. As late as 1919 and married with a son, he was studying again—architecture, this time—and back in Hanover. But by then he had had a first show of his abstract collages in Berlin and nothing would be quite the same again.
Why did Schwitters, at the age of thirty, following an old-fashioned and rather blinkered early life, having recently started a family, and in a period of uncertainty and upheaval affecting not just Germany but much of Europe, turn his hand to making his charmed little collages of scraps of paper and “found” materials? And how did he do so without the benefit of any of the usual catalysts—extreme youth, stewing in a metropolitan hotbed of ideas, examples of others, decisive personal experience? We are led back to the unsatisfactory but irreducible quality of creativity: the dozens of poems, articles, manifestos, sculptures, drawings, and paintings made by Schwitters in the crucial years from 1918 to 1921, and the invention of Merz as “an absolutely individual hat, that fits only one person,” namely Kurt Merz Schwitters. One thinks of Don Quixote de la Mancha, a man who lived hitherto in comfortable, provincial obscurity, an assiduous reader of no longer fashionable, at best somewhat specialist literature, and blessed with a character that combined the romantic, the playful, and the soberly resolute. One day he took it upon himself to do battle with the whole world, and became a knight-errant for the good name of Dulcinea del Toboso.
Schwitters—like Don Quixote—was a Nietzschean “revaluer of all values.” Merz seems to have been born out of the feeling that the world of 1918 was trash but that it might be possible to redeem it by taking those things it said were trash and making art out of them; and meanwhile and, in any case, by overturning all set opinions and priorities on all subjects. Being a generalist—disregarding the separations and jurisdictions of specialists—was part of the point. This Schwitters did, with all his diverse energies: writing, painting, drawing, gluing, building. He designed a Merz stage, and wished he knew music well enough to make a more serious attempt at composing. He left installations wherever he went: the Merzbau in Hanover (1923–1937) was followed by another in Norway (1937–1940) and a third in the English Lake District (begun in 1947, and now the only one to have partly survived). He wrote a short novel. He wrote a play. He wrote poems. He wrote some dozens of “grotesques” and some rather conventional, though “treated,” fairy tales. The German edition of his extraordinarily varied collected writings comes to five stately volumes.
Merz was one man’s salvationist movement, nothing less. In that way it differed from its slightly older stablemate, Dada (born in 1916 at the Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich). According to Merz, everything could or should be art; Dada, though coming out of much the same disgust with the war, held that art was finished, and, with more or less of a sneer, offered something else: a bicycle wheel, a urinal. Schwitters accordingly failed his audition for Club Dada, the rather Bolshevist Berlin branch of the chaotic movement. There is a story about Schwitters going to pay a call on George Grosz in 1920. At the time, Grosz was a leading member of Club Dada. Schwitters rang the bell and said: “I’d like to speak to George Grosz. My name is Schwitters.” “I’m not Grosz,” said Grosz, and slammed the door in his face. A little later, there was a second ring. This time, before Grosz could get a word out, Schwitters quickly said, “And I’m not Schwitters either,” and stalked off.
The leader of Club Dada, Richard Huelsenbeck, was an enemy for life. To him, Schwitters was a Romantic, a dilettante, the “Kaspar David Friedrich of the Dadaist revolution”—“Kaspar” as in Kasper the clown, not Caspar the actual name of the nineteenth-century German painter—“a genius in a morning coat” and “a gifted petit bourgeois” with a reek of casserole. It’s not that there are no politics in Schwitters; taken all in all, his is as political a project as can be imagined. But believing, in accordance with the principles of Merz, that “everything is true. And also its opposite” of course got him no points for political commitment. Club Dada was bound to blackball him. Schwitters was a double reject: he was refusé by the salon des refusés that was Dada, an individualist who persisted in making and espousing—and living and breathing—art once it was well out of fashion in those progressive circles.
Because, make no bones about it, Schwitters failed. How could he do anything else? It’s indicative that in two pages of testimonial quotes assembled at the end of a monograph on him, there are none at all from 1921 to 1957—i.e., practically from his first eruption on the scene to ten years after his death. The man had no prime years, no maturity, no obituaries—or none worth noting. He had no movement, no followers, no patrons with deep pockets, no tame critics, and Hanover as a base. All that he did relied on his own energy and charisma to launch it and guide it. It needed his wit and contrariness, his dexterity, his advocacy, his combativeness. Originality gave it its moment. Personality held it together.
His projects, like a numerous and unruly family, tugged at his sleeves, clamoring for attention. His assemblages fell into physical disrepair as their range and ambition became implausible. In the end, only his pet guinea pigs made free with his Merz installations. (But Schwitters might have countered: What better? One of his unrealized projects was to turn an island off the coast of Norway into a museum, to be visited only by animals.)
His work, inevitably, was divided up, and became the province of teams of separate specialists: the graphic designers, the installation artists, the sound (or “vocovisual”) poets, the admen and Märchen men, scholars of fairy tales (like Professor Jack Zipes), abstracters and collagistes and Weimaraners and Dadanauts, each made uncomfortable by the others, and sometimes all of them dismayed by the persistence in Schwitters of conventional landscape painting (in Norway where he took refuge from the Nazis in 1937, and then in the Lake District where he died) and portraiture. In a compendious catalog of Schwitters’s activities, the Dada historian Hans Richter has him “painting really terrible portraits, which he loved, and which he then cut up and used piecemeal in abstract collages,” as if painting portraits were some retrograde and foolish vice like taking snuff.
In point of fact, Schwitters’s portraits of doctors and dentists—which were never cut up for collages—were not painted simply in return for treatment or money; they are not an unconsolably ironic cri de coeur at the awful humiliations of exile (England, of course, as one would expect, was slightly worse than Norway); and are not some even deeper, more obscure form of mockery. There is always something more simple-hearted—even, at times, almost simple-minded—in Schwitters than his radical admirers seem to want to think.
I wonder if Schwitters ever had the sort of pride, aggression, and contemptum mundi required for the avant-garde. Even in the heady days of 1920, in a piece called “Merz,” he writes rather modestly and demurely:
I play off sense against nonsense. I prefer nonsense, but that is a purely personal matter. I pity nonsense, because until now it has been so neglected in the making of art, and that’s why I love it.
But in 1940—after he arrived in Scotland from Norway on the last icebreaker that got through after the German invasion—or in 1947, after the dissolution of his world, nonsense, though still dearly loved, must have seemed more like an occasional luxury. Even his wildly overrated hit poem of 1919, “To Anna Blume,” is sustained more by naive feeling and folksy Berlinisms than by anything stranger or more corrosive. It’s not quite “Tea for Two” but it’s not all that different either:
Oh You, beloved of my 27 senses, to you I love!
You, yours, you to you, I to you, you to me,——we?
That (incidentally) is beside the point!
(It suffers in translation, but the translation at least is Schwitters’s own.)
So what’s left? Only the tenderest, most perishable, most idiosyncratic elements of Schwitters’s great number of works, scattered over the world’s great modern collections, some of them no bigger than the palm of your hand (and smaller than most reproductions), others the size of a sheet of newspaper and about as robust, rarely looked for in advance by the visitor but instantly and unmistakably recognizable even across a room: the collages. Nothing else and certainly not his attempts to produce collage works in writing get the sweetness, the melancholy, the joie de vivre, the wit of the man as they do.
How mechanical and relentless the verbal collage work is by comparison, the blunt intrusions stuffed inside parentheses, no luminosity, no preciosity, no gravity, no edge, no swing, how it smugly strains after oddness: “Translation of the artist’s worldview. (Bunion treatments in a society at peace, war merchandise.) Total experience greens the brain, but what matters is the shaping.” Whatever you want to call it—depth, care, touch, talent, interest, control, form—the writing is mostly defective in it.
The collages encompass Schwitters’s aspiration to embrace “everything and its opposite”: they are personal communications and exercises in abstract rhythm and construction; they are material and immaterial, scooping up ingredients from maize cigarette papers and feathers and gauze to wood and lumps of old iron and artificial bones. They are topical and effortlessly timeless (“Immortality isn’t everyone’s cup of tea,” Schwitters observed once). Not long ago they were offered for sale for a few marks or given away to friends; now they are beyond price. Their component parts—dance cards, cigarette packets, bar bills, all the fragrant and blatant detritus and dechets of commerce—are subsumed but never extinguished in the design of the whole; they can be read as color, as line, as words and letters, as forensic evidence, as coded message; they are, according to the critic John Elderfield, tiny epistles in diary form, made of the materials of the day.
When the painter Edvard Munch—who liked to hang on to things, and look after them badly or not at all—said of his pictures that they would be improved once they had got a few holes in them, he should have been thinking of Schwitters, who seems to use only old and worn ingredients in his collages, things that have already lived. (It’s one of the attributes that makes them so moving, just as badly heard or badly reproduced music can be more moving than expensive acoustic perfection.) The colors seem to refer to particular memories: one can imagine a favorite lost toy, a beloved shirt, the color of the rubber jujube inside a glass marble as unique as an iris, theater tickets and billets-doux furnishing them forth. Schwitters’s colors are ennobled by disuse: ochers and bistres, tart cerise, bluey-greeny-grayey contamination of mold or tarnish or verdigris.
Some of the collages are dry as straw (like Miss Blanche of 1923); others look like a lush underwater scene (like Merz Picture Thirty-one). It would take an awareness of color as acute and unconventional as Rilke’s, schooled on Cézanne—that “old-fashioned blue letter-paper” in the poem “Blue Hydrangeas” with its hints of “yellow, and violet, and gray”—to match the subtlety and exquisiteness of Schwitters’s palette. The lost keeps the found in equipoise; these collages do not approach you with the triumph and self-congratulation of redemption. They never say: This is what you were looking for, I have it right here. What is in them is still lost, as rambling and fortuitous as the contents of a long-unconsulted desk drawer or pocket. Their mystery is absolutely intact. It has merely found its own provisional arrangement: swirls of squares, the heart and then another heart in Rossfett of 1920, determined clockwork cogs in an airy new machine. Luck, glamour, adventure, and travel are regular elements, expressed in the forms of playing cards, skittles, numbers, date-stamped tickets, advertisements for beauty products, flowers, and fabrics. These byproducts from a man who tried his hand at much else, and gained relatively little attention for any of it, who lived with his parents and then in the house he inherited from them in a no-account place in Germany, and then in exile, are among the few wonderful and imperishable things of the twentieth century.
December 9, 2010