Kurt Schwitters belonged to the generation of young German artists who were the first to react to the idea, spreading in the years round the First World War, that there was aesthetic and moral virtue in abandoning rules, discipline and all assumptions as to what constituted Art. Art was to be whatever they chose to make of it. The works they produced were very much of their historical moment, but that philosophy has endured to this day, and the world is full of creative people who assert that what they produce is Art, and that they have little regard for preconceptions or regulations governing how it comes into existence. The idea was at least partly political but was even more importantly simply a celebration of the throwing-off of the traces of nineteenth-century civilisation. This was really what Modernism was about. So it’s fascinating to see how its first practitioners worked and what they produced.
Schwitters was born in Hamburg, into a fairly solid bourgeois world that was to be shaken to its foundations by the War and Germany’s political and financial woes over the next decade. These led into the Third Reich, under which he was denounced as ‘decadent’ and forced to flee the country. His ‘decadence’ consisted in a whole-hearted commitment to his own expressive freedom. He allied himself to all the new movements that flung tradition to the winds: Dada, Cubism, Expressionism, Surrealism, abstraction – he absorbed something of all of them, and made his own contributions to them himself.
He gave a name to his work – ‘Merz’ – which applied to all of it, paintings, collages, sculpture, and a whole building (‘Merzbau’) incorporating three-dimensional constructions from reliefs to free-standing sculptures. He made these in Germany, in Norway where fled in 1933, and later, in the form of a ‘Merzbarn’, outside Ambleside in the Lake District near Kendal, where he died.
Of all his varied productions in many media, this ‘Construction’ exemplifies his ideas very comprehensively. It is really an elaborate collage with three-dimensional objects as well as pieces of paper (but not the bus tickets and scraps of newspaper that often link his characteristic work to the daily life of towns and cities), unified by washes of reddish-brown colour. It is so diverse, with such random elements, that to make a coherent image out of them is in itself a poetic achievement. And he adds his title, in translation ‘Construction for noble women’ as a sublimely irrelevant joke, though not as meaningless as it appears since it invokes a notion of high art as the domain of the wealthy and privileged, which puts his rusty mechanical scraps presented as a picture – as ‘Art’ – into a surprising perspective.
It’s worth noting that during his time in Norway from the 1930s to 1940 when he moved to Britain, Schwitters painted a number of traditional landscapes in oils, restrained and almost monochrome snowscapes that tell us he was always capable of reminding himself of the poetry of the natural world while he invented his witty and highly personal variations on the detritus of urban living.
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