Kurt Schwitters: Space, Image, Exile

Kurt Schwitters: Space, Image, Exile

by Megan R. Luke

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Kurt Schwitters: Space, Image, Exile by Megan R. Luke

German artist Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948) is best known for his pioneering work in fusing collage and abstraction, the two most transformative innovations of twentieth-century art. Considered the father of installation art, Schwitters was also a theorist, a Dadaist, and a writer whose influence extends from Robert Rauschenberg and Eva Hesse to Thomas Hirschhorn. But while his early experiments in collage and installation from the interwar period have garnered much critical acclaim, his later work has generally been ignored. In the first book to fill this gap, Megan R. Luke tells the fascinating, even moving story of the work produced by the aging, isolated artist under the Nazi regime and during his years in exile.   Combining new biographical material with archival research, Luke surveys Schwitters’s experiments in shaping space and the development of his Merzbau, describing his haphazard studios in Scandinavia and the United Kingdom and the smaller, quieter pieces he created there. She makes a case for the enormous relevance of Schwitters’s aesthetic concerns to contemporary artists, arguing that his later work provides a guide to new narratives about modernism in the visual arts. These pieces, she shows, were born of artistic exchange and shaped by his rootless life after exile, and they offer a new way of thinking about the history of art that privileges itinerancy over identity and the critical power of humorous inversion over unambiguous communication. Packed with images, Kurt Schwitters completes the narrative of an artist who remains a considerable force today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226090375
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/14/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 76 MB
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About the Author

Megan R. Luke is assistant professor of art history at the University of Southern California. She lives in Los Angeles.

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By Megan R. Luke

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-08518-0


Radiating Space

What could have possibly prepared visitors who called on Kurt Schwitters at his home in Hannover for their encounter with his now-legendary Merzbau (see plates 1–4)? Within numerous artistic networks active in Central Europe throughout the 1920s, he had enjoyed widespread acclaim for his performative poetry and intimately scaled abstract collages. By the time he fled Germany for Norway in January 1937, this sculptural environment of unprecedented ambition and scope had taken root in his studio and extended through several rooms and on various floors of his family's house. The Merzbau thereby signaled a decisive turning point, both for the artist's own aesthetic concerns and for the history of art more generally. Schwitters used it to focus his efforts on the articulation of space and the choreography of its apprehension and, in the process, radically destabilized accepted norms of what a sculpture could be. Destroyed during the Second World War in an Allied air raid in 1943, the Merzbau survives today through a small cache of photographs and the contradictory anecdotes of numerous eyewitnesses, oft en recorded decades after their disorienting confrontations with the work and its maker. Taking their cue from these accounts, art historians have insisted on the continuity of this project with Schwitters's work in collage, assuming a smooth and unproblematic extension of his pictorial practice into "real" space. Yet are we entirely clear on how, precisely, he bridged this leap into three dimensions?

Together with its later iterations during Schwitters's exile in Norway and England, the Merzbau registered how completely he transformed his practice, first when confronted with the exuberant internationalism of artists working in the wake of cubism and Dada and then again in response to their diaspora following Hitler's ascent to power. Schwitters pursued sculpture in earnest only after intense collaborative research into spatial composition. He understood the perceptual demands of this medium to be independent from his early emphases on pictorial framing and the harmony of part/whole relationships, which he had enlisted to transform the refuse of urban life into abstractions of pure color and texture. The Merzbau cemented his turn away from the picture plane conceived as a guarantor for compositional organization and coherence, and it registered instead his newfound interest in the dynamic interchange between artwork and beholder in a shared space. However, analyses of the Merzbau are overwhelmingly preoccupied with its material heterogeneity—a focus on its origins that symptomatically disavows the trauma of its loss to wartime violence. All have relied upon Schwitters's own intentionally mystifying account of his studio activities written in 1930, in which he cataloged the disparate fragments that made up the unruly structure he called his Kathedrale des erotischen Elends (Cathedral of Erotic Misery). For many historians, the source of the Merzbau lay in the fetishistic grottoes of this "cathedral" and in its other totemic objects, such as the death mask of his first son, a broken hurdy-gurdy, Christmas lights, a suspended flask of his urine, and so forth. To this day, the potentially explosive spatial consequences for a practice once confined by abstract composition and the planarity of collage remain conspicuously unspoken. Attention to the materiality of the Merzbau certainly has the potential to disrupt its easy sublimation into a reproducible inscription of light and shadow onto the flat, circumscribed plane of photography. Nevertheless, our fascination with Schwitters's antihierarchical, possibly scatological manipulation of any-material-whatsoever has inadvertently conspired with the structure's survival as written discourse and, more importantly, as photographic image to prolong the very "space-phobia" (Raumscheu) characteristic of modernism in the visual arts that the Merzbau was intended to foreclose once and for all.

Long before the Merzbau was reduced to rubble—indeed, at the threshold of its very conception—Schwitters actually articulated a sophisticated theory about how we construct and perceive space that resisted the paradigm of pictorial composition. He only came to describe the spatial dimension of painting, sculpture, and architecture after a period of sustained work as a graphic designer, during which he participated in intense discussions with numerous artists about the typography of the printed page. Yet rather than publish his conclusions in his own Merz magazine or in any of the avant-garde and architectural journals to which he regularly contributed, he ultimately chose to broadcast them through performance and photography in a series of didactic slide lectures throughout Germany. He gave his last known presentation of this lecture on April 3, 1930, for the Frankfurter Bund für künstlerische Gestaltung (Frankfurt Union for Artistic Design), which he titled "Gestaltung in Kunst, Architektur und Typographie" (Formation in Art, Architecture, and Typography). All that remain are seventeen pages of his shorthand notes on twenty-nine individual examples of recent painting, sculpture, architecture, and typographical designs culled from his collection of glass slides. Forty-nine of these slides survived his exile from Nazi Germany, and they are preserved today at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover. In addition, three differently dated slide lists demonstrate that he delivered earlier versions of this lecture to various unions of graphic designers and architects in Berlin (June 9, 1929), Stuttgart (November 8, 1929), and Hannover (February 13, 1930). They show that he steadily reduced the number of images he projected and revised their sequence as the tour progressed. These talks were likely based on a more extensive lecture he presented in January 1929 at the Amsterdam School of Music at the invitation of the architectural group de 8.

Schwitters used this tour to describe a recent revolution in the history of modernist form, charting how artists and architects of his generation challenged conventional methods for the illusionistic representation and corporeal manipulation of space. Over the course of the year when he delivered this itinerant lecture in Germany, he successively refined his selection of images. In each version, however, his analysis of effective typography relied exclusively on examples of the work of fellow members of the ring neue werbegestalter (Ring of New Advertising Designers), a loose union of graphic designers he established in 1927. This discussion always concluded a lengthy retrospective assessment of the pervasive concern among his contemporaries with Raumgestaltung, the formation of space. To illustrate this concept, he first examined abstract painting and sculpture, contrasting work in these media to the architectural designs by members of Der Ring in Germany and by affiliates of De Stijl in the Netherlands. Schwitters also took care to integrate specific examples of his earliest work in assemblage within the context of his analysis of the art and design of an international network of peers. Hence this lecture also provided him the opportunity to look back on a decade of his Merz practice at a moment when his work was undergoing a seismic shift as dramatic as his initial embrace of abstraction and collage. As he abandoned a fundamentally pictorial practice in order to shape whole environments, he assessed his earliest avant-garde gestures in tandem with a systematic review of contemporary art and design, summarizing what Merz was and making a case for how it would change in the years to come.

Remarkably, these unpublished lecture notes, slide lists, and glass slides are the only sources for a theory of space that we have from the creator of the Merzbau. The textual record is telegraphic and elliptical, yet it was never meant to be anything other than a supplement to a narrative that would unfold through images projected in light, repeatedly and in various locations. As Schwitters synthesized his rapidly changing ideas about spatial experience, the performance of a slide lecture could visualize his arguments and make them literally palpable for his audiences. His sequence of images, together with his notes, articulated a remarkable confluence of aesthetic problems, including the constitutive function of the frame for any work of art, the demands of composition and the special priority of the center, the possibility for movement within an image, the status of individual artistic media and their common purpose, the validity of all material for artistic formation, and the combination of these materials into a unified whole. Through this lecture Schwitters offered his own history of spatial configuration in the new art and architecture of his day, inaugurating a preoccupation with space that we must reconstruct and contextualize if we are to understand the conceptual stakes of the Merzbau and how this work would come to dominate his practice in the 1930s.

Space and Composition in the New Typography

The ring neue werbegestalter joined together key figures working in Germany and the Netherlands who aimed to promote and popularize modern graphic design, which was immediately recognizable by sans serif typefaces and spare, syncopated compositions employing strong diagonals and generous negative space. Apart from Schwitters, members included Willy Baumeister, Max Burchartz, Walter Dexel, César Domela, Hans Leistikow, Robert Michel, Paul Schuitema, Jan Tschichold, Georg Trump, Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart, and Piet Zwart. Together they frequently exhibited with kindred designers from the Bauhaus, and indeed they shared the school's mission to cooperate with industry in the widespread promulgation of modernist form. In comparison to the Soviet contemporaries whose work they greatly admired, the attitude of the ring was less revolutionary and utopian in spirit and rather more educative and promotional. In his capacity as chairman of the group, Schwitters proposed that it fund a collection of glass slides that would serve as an archive of members' work to be kept in Hannover. This collection could be made available to members on loan as needed for lectures. These lectures served to advance the trends of Neue Typographie (New Typography) and the activities of the group much like two collections of members' designs that toured in exhibitions throughout Germany and to select cities in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark, and Sweden. A defining characteristic of Neue Typographie was its exclusive use of photographic illustration, and in Schwitters's hands it would also be the chief vehicle for its wider dissemination.

The last official exhibition of the ring was mounted in 1931 at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, organized by de 8 and the Rotterdam architects' association, Opbouw. This opportunity was secured for the group by the most recent addition to its roster, Paul Schuitema, whose poster for the exhibition prominently included a photographic self-portrait (fig. 7). In this image, a bespectacled Schuitema holds up a loupe to his left eye, nearly covering his entire face with his right hand. These prostheses to his vision double for the very camera lens to which he directs his gaze. Schwitters later included this image in what appears to be a collage that hung within the Merzbau, evident in a little-known photographic detail of the space taken by his son Ernst from within its sculptural constructions (fig. 8). While it is not known where exactly in the Merzbau this image was taken, it is most likely one of the photographs Ernst took at the end of 1936, two days before his final departure from Germany. Schwitters helped his son in his campaign to interpret the entire space photographically, and he "experienced the atelier in its entirety once more in this way." When Ernst gave these images to his father for his fiftieth birthday, celebrated a few months after both had relocated to Norway in exile, he wrote: "The double image is not a positive and a negative, as one might be tempted to think, but the same spot in two different kinds of light. I printed the two images next to one another so that you can use these pictures to demonstrate the importance of proper lighting, the possibilities for lighting, and the design of lighting [Lichtgestaltung]." More than any other image of the Merzbau, this double-photograph makes explicit the paradigm of light projection for the spatial ambitions of this environment—specifically a light projection informed by the didactic and promotional activities of the ring and the communicative goals Schwitters advocated for graphic design.

Indeed, Schuitema had proposed an international magazine devoted to advertising design, with the idea that it would be represented in the Soviet Union by El Lissitzky, in Prague by Karel Teige, in Vienna by Lajos Kassák, and in Germany by Schwitters. Schwitters declined to take on this project, but when no other member of the ring volunteered, he proposed that the group publish a series of monographs devoted to the work of each member patterned after the publications generated by the architects of Der Ring, the union that had served as the prototype for their organization. After all, the ring already had standing agreements with Das neue Frankfurt and the Werkbund's Die Form, periodicals devoted primarily to architecture and urbanism, to publish the designs and texts of its members. However, as funding remained a serious problem, Schwitters narrowed his ambition to publish a single monograph on the group as a whole. The ring itself never saw this project to completion, and the closest volume we have to what he had in mind was the catalogue published by the architects Heinz and Bodo Rasch to accompany their exhibition Gefesselter Blick (Bound gaze), which opened in February 1930 in Stuttgart. This book, which Schwitters worked hard to help realize, included short texts and reproductions of works by all twelve members of the ring together with a number of other designers who either had been considered for membership or had exhibited elsewhere with the group.

In their introduction to the catalogue, the Rasch brothers echoed Lessing's division between the visual arts and poetry—and, correspondingly, between space and time—to argue that images represent objects whereas writing represents events or specific functions. Yet an image of an object, for example, inevitably releases certain "movements" in the beholder, such as thought processes, while reading will analogously call to mind specific images. They insisted, therefore, that image and text mutually support each other and that an effective mixture is the chief vocation of advertising design. Specifically, typographic composition ought to submit entirely to the direction in which we read. Although this direction is culturally determined and fundamentally arbitrary, the well-designed page is always decussated by vectors that aim toward specific destinations, which delimit a space in tandem with the beholder:

Text produces a definite space. What do we mean by this? When I find myself in a room and look into the room, my eye grasps the space entirely up to the farthest lying spatial boundary, precisely where it cannot go any further (as image). Here, in the spatial destination for the gaze, space begins for me. Starting from here I feel and estimate how great the space is between the farthest boundary and me.... A space has an effect on the eye firstly as image; the eye first claims the farthest boundary as the destination for the gaze and then controls the space, reading it functionally from back to front. It is exactly so with text!

With this explicit thesis on the perception of space, this passage culminated the sustained interest in the formal dynamism inherent to the activity of reading articulated by many of the members of the ring in their writings from the 1920s. This concern for orchestrating the corporeal movement of the beholder was as important for these designers as the other priorities of Neue Typographie, such as standardization, unorthodox orthography, experimentation with "opto-phonetic" scripts, and the use of photography for halftone illustration. The ring consisted primarily of painters (only two of its original members, Jan Tschichold and Georg Trump, could boast formal training in graphic design), and their diverse answers to the crucial question regarding which of the arts had the greatest affinity to typography were dictated as much by the vectorial properties of text as they were by functionalist discourses surrounding effective advertising.

Writing for Die Form in 1926, Willy Baumeister, for example, stressed that the traditional, symmetrical organization of the page is one of "rest" (Ruhe), which balances out the forces and tensions inherent to the composition and does not account for the fact that reading transpires as directional movement:

The symmetrical arrangement of a printed page, such as an advertisement, poster, etc., is nothing other than the decoration of a facade.... A beginning and entry for the eye does not exist for this system. One is constantly drawn to the bisecting axis. This arrangement in no way accommodates reading. A street leading perpendicularly to a symmetrical wall of a building compels us to approach and we finally enter the doors: the purpose is fulfilled. The movement was spatial. In this spirit, a symmetrically ordered printer's plate likewise compels us to approach it spatially, perpendicular to the plate. But in terms of reading left to right, it does not lead into the plane organized with lettering. In the absolutely planar system of the printed page, the entry of the eye can only take place by displacing the center of gravity.


Excerpted from KURT SCHWITTERS by Megan R. Luke. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
A Withdrawal from Appearance
A Composition of Fragments
Boundaries into Horizons
1          Radiating Space
Space and Composition in the New Typography
Paintings That Move Themselves
The Transparent Body
The Limits of Merz and Mondrian
Performing a Theory of Spatial Formation
2          The Wandering Merzbau
Off the Pedestal and Out of the Frame
A Photograph of Erotic Misery
Form Exceeds Function
Reflection and Radiation
The Merzbau in Exile
3          For the Hand
The Skin of a Very Small Sculpture
Rebuilding on Bones and Ruins
Resisting Identity
A Sculpture Is a Painted Stone
4          The Image in Exile
Northern Lights
A Recording Device of the Highest Sensitivity
The Merzbau into Painting

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