Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Collaging Kurt Schwitters

Fine Arts

Kurt Schwitters: "Untitled (okolade)," 1926; collage of cut printed, and marbleized papers on paperboard; the Menil Collection, Houston. (Photo: Janet Woodard, Houston)
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A tinkerer, a maker, designer, poet, an anthology of art history and a one-man industry: all of these describe German painter/collage artist Kurt Schwitters, whose work seems remarkably familiar if only because he's so often been copied by his inheritors and those he influenced, like Robert Rauschenberg, Cy Twombly, Ellsworth Kelly and Damien Hirst, to name just a few. Enduring cataclysmic world events that would dampen anyone's avant-garde, utopian idealism, Schwitters emerged from the ruins of WWI, and later, WWII, collecting detritus from the ashes of bombed-out buildings, and signs of life left behind by those who had moved on. He was a scavenger par excellence, a crucial qualification for an oeuvre he made up as he went along.

Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage, now at the Berkeley Art Museum, is the first major overview of the artist's work in the U.S. since 1985. It presents 75 assemblages, sculptures and collages, dating from 1918 to 1947, as well as an intriguing reconstruction of his life's work, an installation destroyed in an Allied bombing raid – but more on that later.

His collages, executed with an astute compositional eye, are an expression of the dissonant collision of information and experience endemic to modern life, a phenomenon that's only accelerated in the digital age. Schwitters' keen ability to balance disparate elements is evident, right from the start, in two of his earliest pieces created in 1918, "Zeichnung, A3" and "Zeichnung A6."

An original thinker with a provocative spirit, Schwitters explored and dabbled in many artistic and intellectual movements, including Russian Constructivism, Dadaism and Expressionism, but, like Picasso, another notorious iconoclast, he neither wholly subscribed to nor obeyed the rules of any of them. It was said he comported himself like a member of the petite-bourgeoisie, but when he opened his mouth, he was "totally Dada."

For his abstract compositions with paper, Schwitters borrowed, interpreted and exercised his stated aim "to erase the boundaries between the arts," by incorporating painting, typography, poetry, phrases, architecture, and words lifted from unfinished sentences. He collected found materials like train tickets, scraps of paper, advertisements, posters, wire mesh and other discarded objects, and applied a loose, fluid paste, then arranged them and let them set. Sometimes he drew or painted on his works like one inscribed and dedicated to Henry Cowell, an avant-garde Berkeley musician and student of John Cage, who toured Europe. That collage, which has an intricate structure worthy of a musical score, is owned by Jasper Johns.

Though works such as "Pink Collage" (1940), a combination of geometric shapes, jagged edges, tissue papers, and muted, washed-out colors, achieve a near-perfect harmony, the appeal of Schwitters' work is primarily cerebral. One senses control rather than contained emotion at play. Beauty is not necessarily the point – evoking associations and making connections is the goal. The collages and even the sleek contours of the pale beech wood sculptures he made in Norway, which reflect a filtered Scandinavian aesthetic, can be like a Rorschach test for viewers, who will be compelled to identify images from the slivers Schwitters supplies, and speculate about their origins.

Kurt Schwitters: "Mz 11 Starkbild. (Mz 11 Strong Picture.)," 1919; collage of cut and torn printed, metallic and tissue papers on paperboard; the Menil Collection, Houston. (Photo: Janet Woodard, Houston)

By the early 1930s, Schwitters gained recognition among collectors and museum curators in both Europe and the U.S., but that exposure, while gratifying, had the unfortunate effect of bringing him to the attention of the Gestapo. He was paid the backhanded compliment of inclusion in the Nazis' notorious hall of shame, the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition, and fled Germany the same year for the relative safety of Norway. After the Nazis invaded that country, he departed for the Lake District outside London, where his studio was bombed. One step ahead of disaster, war seemed to follow him.

Don't leave the exhibition without going downstairs and visiting a full-sized replica of the artist's lifetime obsession, "Merzbau," a "living" sculptural/architectural installation. The original, which was in Hanover and occupied six rooms of his parents' spacious residence, was destroyed in 1943. Schwitters created four "Merzbau" installations, one in each of the countries he lived; they either didn't survive or were never finished. Once inside the reconstruction by Swiss stage designer Peter Bissegger, you've entered a cross between a white-on-white, Euro-modern studio apartment with color block accents, and a garret with high ceilings that Schwitters dubbed the "Cathedral of Erotic Misery," which contains hidden alcoves called the "Murderers' Cave" or "Goethe Grotto." Portraits, busts and illustrations pop up in surprising places, and there's even a spiral staircase to the "Nest." Schwitters envisioned "Merzbau" as a mutating, evolving space where memories and events could be assembled and transformed into abstract art – a walk-in collage.

Through November 27 at the Berkeley Art Museum. For more info: or (510) 642-0808.

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