There are artists who, although not perhaps of the very highest order, nonetheless define issues and create a vision so central to the aesthetic dilemmas of their time that they come to occupy a place and to exert an influence out of all proportion to the scale of their actual achievement. Kurt Schwitters, whose work is currently the subject of a major retrospective exhibition, is a figure of this sort.[1] At once immensely gifted and possessed of a quirky, original intelligence, he was also curiously limited in the principal endeavors of his career. Schwitters’s limitations, moreover, were neither inadvertent nor involuntary. They were deliberately chosen, and remained crucial to what he achieved. His special quality is therefore to be found almost as much in what he refused as in what he embraced. He is one of the authentic “little masters” of the modern movement, yet owing to the circumstances of his career—especially his association with Dada—he is an artist fatally easy to misconstrue. The fact is, without some grasp of Schwitters’s quarrel with Dada—and of what it was in Dada that he refused—his work can hardly be understood. It might even be said that without some grasp of that quarrel, Dada itself cannot be fully understood.

In this respect, as in others, the exhibition organized by John Elderfield at the Museum of Modern Art has been something of a landmark in the history of the artist’s reputation. Although the exhibition, which numbered well over two hundred items, was rather too large, I think, for the size of Schwitters’s achievement, it had the great virtue of giving us a definitive account of that achievement for the first time. And in Mr. Elderfield’s comprehensive monograph on the artist, published to accompany the exhibition, we have been given a study of Schwitters which does more to clarify both his art and its place in the art history of his time than anything else yet published.[2] It is not, I imagine, a monograph that will be enthusiastically welcomed in all quarters, for it makes few concessions to the mythology which has long enclosed Schwitters’s work and the whole Dada movement in a penumbra of avant-garde piety. Schwitters was, of course, one of the quintessential figures in the avant-garde which flourished in Europe in the period between the two world wars. Yet what that avant-garde represented and what sorts of dissensions and debates divided its members are questions which have by no means been settled. On the contrary, considering the fame of the artists involved it is remarkable how little such questions have been seriously studied. To this aspect of Schwitters’s life and work, Mr. Elderfield’s monograph makes a most important contribution. If only for its concluding chapter, entitled “Postscript: Merz and Modernism,” Kurt Schwitters should be required reading for every student of modern art.

Schwitters was born in the provincial city of Hannover in 1887, and it is unlikely that he would ever have taken up residence elsewhere if the Hitler regime had not forced him into exile in 1937, the year in which the Nazi campaign against “degenerate” art came to a frenzied climax. As it was, he escaped arrest that year by fleeing to Norway, which he had been visiting for some years and where he now continued to work until the German invasion compelled him once again, in April 1940, to flee for his life. This time he made his way to Britain, where he was promptly interned as an enemy alien. After his release in October 1941, he eventually settled in the Lake District where he died on January 8, 1948 at the age of sixty. In the last months of his life he lived mainly on a grant from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

He had begun as a painter of portraits and landscapes, and he continued to paint from nature throughout his career, even eking out a living of a sort from the tourist trade in the Lake District in his last years. This is but the first of the many paradoxes which surrounded Schwitters’s career—that the artist who achieved an international renown as an exponent of abstract collage and assemblage and as the author of a similarly “abstract” species of poetry never abandoned his allegiance to a mode of pictorial expression generally condemned as moribund in the avant-garde milieu with which his name and his art are so closely identified.

Another of these paradoxes is to be found in Schwitters’s relation to the politics of his time. There can be no question but that Schwitters was deeply affected by the revolution which came to Germany in 1918-1919 in the wake of the First World War and led to the establishment of the Weimar Republic. During the war he had been conscripted to work as a mechanical draftsman in an ironworks. Painting and poetry could be pursued only in his spare time. The revolution changed all that; it liberated him as an artist. He was thirty-one years old. “He quit his job to devote himself full time to being an artist,” Mr. Elderfield writes, “saying that the revolution had brought with it a sudden release from the tensions and frustrations of the war, and the chance for a new start.” And this meant, among much else, something really new in his art. For it was only then that Schwitters began for the first time to make the abstract collages and assemblages, using bits of refuse and found objects—“new art forms out of the remains of a former culture,” as he said—which are his most distinctive and original work. Yet despite this new sense of personal freedom which the revolution gave Schwitters, its political program appears to have meant little or nothing to him, and it was his adamant refusal to attach his art to the politics of revolution that caused the ideologues of the German Dada movement to condemn him as hopelessly bourgeois.

The charge was not without some foundation in truth, either. Which is yet another paradox in the life of this avant-garde artist. In his early thirties, while launching himself as a member of the artistic vanguard in a nation that was soon to be as famous for its sexual revolution, its radical politics, its social turmoil, and its economic breakdown as for its legendary innovations in the arts, Schwitters lived with his wife and infant son in the comfortable home of his parents—his father, Mr. Elderfield reports, was a “well-off shopkeeper and property owner”—and appears to have comported himself, in everything but his artistic vocation, according to the conventions of his class. Thus, while Schwitters’s collages, made of cigarette wrappings, tram tickets, advertisements, and other throwaway materials, and his poems, composed of similarly juxtaposed fragments of overheard conversation and newspaper clippings, were quickly taken to represent the very essence of the avant-garde spirit— his poem, “An Anna Blume,” published in Der Sturm in 1919, became for a time the object of a cult—their author was content to remain firmly attached to all the outward trappings of provincial middle-class life. The more incendiary members of the avant-garde had ample reason to be furious with him. Schwitters could not be budged from the course he had set for himself. Even though it was the revolution that gave him his artistic freedom, he seems to have understood from the beginning that his art did not belong to it—that art, as he conceived of it, had a destiny independent of all such political goals, and that his own art, in any event, issued from the kind of inner privacy which was likely to be at odds with the revolutionist’s vocation.

It was Schwitters’s insistence on giving priority to aesthetic considerations (or, as Mr. Elderfield puts it, his “absorption in fine art”) that was at the heart of his quarrel with the Dadaists.

At its most basic [Mr. Elderfield writes], Dada was an assertion of personal freedom and individual rights outside of systems, tradition and conventional mores, and was therefore to be measured as much on personality as on good works. But the merits of an artist’s work were also to be judged by these same standards, which is why art itself, as a systematic, traditional, and conventional activity, posed a special kind of threat for a number of Dadaists, and caused Schwitters to be ostracized as he was.

In a further passage, Mr. Elderfield analyzes very precisely not only the issue on which Schwitters declared his independence from Dada ideology but the much larger issue which continues to haunt both the creation of art and the discussion of it down to the present day.

More than any earlier modern movement [he writes], Dada made an outright attack on the peculiarly modernist preoccupation with aesthetic values and particularly on the grounding of those values in exploratory technique. Dada sought to remove emphasis from what had been basic not only to modernism but to Western art since the Renaissance; the individual controlling hand in dialogue with a circumscribed medium as the source of aesthetic value and the moral center of art. Dada attacked this “formalism” in a way that was clearly unpalatable to Schwitters, who found inspiration in a medium that he had made his own.

And in a particularly important passage in this text, Mr. Elderfield writes:

In Dada . . . image content was more important than style. Art became ideology objectified, in a way that was antithetical to the spirit of original modernism .... In effect, [Dada] split modernism into two camps, dividing the traditional or “classic” modernists from the neo-modernist avant-garde. It was because Schwitters was at heart a “classic” modernist that he never quite belonged with the avant-garde.

It is, of course, this split which still very much divides the art world today between those who, in one way or another, remain committed to the standards of modernist probity and those who reject them in the interests of “ideology objectified.” It is worth noting, too, that what Mr. Elderfield characterizes as the “neo-modernist avant-garde” has evolved in our own day into a movement more and more likely to sail under the banner of postmodernism.

It is, then, largely as a “classic” modernist that Schwitters has been presented to us in this retrospective exhibition. This marks an important revision in our understanding of his principal work—the diminutive collages and only slightly larger assemblages and constructions to which Schwitters arbitrarily gave the name Merz—for it shifts attention away from the raw materials used in the art (the tram tickets, cigarette packs, et al.) and concentrates instead on the formal syntax which governed their deployment in the picture-making process. This shift is not made in the interest of diminishing the importance of those raw materials—which, in the case of Schwitters’s Merz pictures, is just about impossible, anyway—but in order to re-establish the artist’s own attitude toward them. Generally speaking, it is the exaggerated attention given to the “trash” which Schwitters used in making his pictures that has made them so fatally easy to misconstrue. Isolated from the formal use he made of these trash materials, the Merz pictures have often tended to be characterized—one might even say, sentimentalized—as a species of pictorial anarchism, whereas in truth it is their rigorous formality, a formality which the very nature of these materials would appear to resist and subvert, which is their most distinguishing feature. What especially appealed to Schwitters in the Merz pictures was precisely the incongruity— even, if you will, the comedy and pathos—to be observed in the successful transformation of such perishable materials into the higher order of an imperishable aesthetic object.

The name Merz, by the way, was a nonsense syllable which Schwitters culled from the word Kommerz (commercial) in a bank advertisement he had cut up for use in one of the collages he first exhibited at the Sturm gallery in 1919. Thereafter he adopted it as the generic name for all of his abstract pictures and constructions—because, as he said, “I could not define them with older concepts like Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism or whatever.” He used the name Merz, that is, to define a genre as well as a point of view, and it also served as his personal response to Dada, itself a nonsense word which came to have very different implications. In this respect, the name Merz signified for Schwitters his intention to remain aloof from Dada’s extra-aesthetic activities, and thus, in effect, to establish a parallel one-man movement of his own.

The need to distinguish his Merz pictures from those produced by the Expressionists and the Cubists was important to Schwitters, and not so much because he rejected the aesthetic premises of Expressionism and Cubism, which he clearly did not, as because his Merz pictures still owed so much to them. Before he turned to collage, the first modernist pictures which Schwitters created were, after all, in the Expressionist style. These were the first pictures we encountered in the Modern’s retrospective, and although they are mainly interesting as a kind of prehistory to the artist’s maturity, something of their spirit—an element of Expressionist dolor, perhaps—persists as a sort of subtext long after Schwitters abandons the Expressionist manner. When he does abandon it to make his first pasted and nailed pictures, what he turns to as an alternative is a formal syntax and a material medium that owe much, if not quite everything, to the kind of Cubist collage which had been the common property of the international avant-garde since Picasso and Braque first created it in 1912. In one of their aspects, Schwitters’s Merz collages and constructions must be seen as a personal variation on and development of this Cubist invention, which was central to everything he achieved.

In another aspect, they also pay a certain homage to the emphasis which the Futurists placed on the dynamism and romance of machine civilization. Schwitters doesn’t really embrace the Futurist vision, however. In some respects he can even be said to invert it, for he is far more sensitive to the poignancy and loneliness and fugitive lyricism of modern city life than the Futurists, with their incurable appetite for noise and bluster, could ever bring themselves to be. Yet they sounded a note that he recognized as authentic, and he responded by rephrasing it, so to speak, in his own key. Which is pretty much what he did with everything he appropriated from the art of his time.

It was out of all of these artistic and historical materials—as much, certainly, as out of tram tickets, scissored advertisements, and other trash—that Schwitters created his Merz collages and constructions and made his distinctive contribution to abstract art. The special quality of feeling he brought to this work was unlike that of anyone else, however. For in the finest of his Merz creations Schwitters was a sort of abstract elegist. “My basic trait is melancholy,” he once said. If there is a touch of laughter and even mockery in his work, there is an even more emphatic atmosphere of tender sorrow and loss. Schwitters is a dreamer in the wasteland of the modern metropolis who constructs little elegies to its unacknowledged tristesse. Every discarded and forgotten object that comes to hand is a token of feeling to be savored and commemorated. Given his materials, one always expects to find a greater element of satire in Schwitters than is in fact there, for his natural inclination is to sublimate his anger and his despair in a kind of defiant exquisiteness. Even when, in the last years of his life, he turned to a political theme—in a collage called Hitler Gang (circa 1944)—he turned it into the same kind of dolorous chamber music that had been his forte from the outset.

An artist so preoccupied with the elegiac mode and so steeped in the sensibility of sorrow and loss is not well placed, however, to undertake tasks of Utopian reconstruction, and it is for this reason, I think, that Schwitters’s forays into pure Constructivist sculpture in the Twenties tend to be devoid of his special quality and genius. It was interesting, of course, to see what Schwitters had made of his efforts to conform to this more impersonal mode of abstract art. Yet the section of the Modern exhibition devoted to this phase of his work had about it an atmosphere of anonymity that was chilling. It is in the very nature of Constructivist art to discard all those tokens of memory and association that were an essential part of Schwitters’s poetic personality. His purely formal capacities were certainly equal to the challenge which the Constructivist aesthetic posed for him, yet he had to leave out too much of himself in the final result. He was not at heart a Utopian visionary—which is what, in some form, Constructivism requires that its artists be. Constructivism could not accommodate either his lyricism or his melancholy.

It was a somewhat different story, it seems, with Schwitters’s Merzbau constructions— those vast environmental structures which he undertook to create for himself in the last two decades of his life. One cannot be sure, of course, because the three Merzbau constructions which Schwitters worked on—first in Hannover, then in Norway, then in England—have all perished, and we have no firm way of judging them from the photographs and fragments which have survived. What Schwitters appears to have aspired to in these vast constructed enclosures was the creation of a private world that would stand as a physical correlative of his own relation to the outside world. In a sense, the Merzbau idea is a monument to the artist’s own alienation, and thus takes its place as the most ambitious of the many expressions of melancholy and despair which occupied him throughout his career. There is, moreover, something at once appalling, poignant, and admirable in the spectacle of the ailing, exiled artist lavishing his last energies and his last hopes on these monuments to his own isolation. The Merzbau projects surely constitute a heroic episode in Schwitters’s saga, but they remain a biographical and historical datum; they are casualties of the terrible history which drove Schwitters into exile, and there is no use pretending that we can now know what sort of artistic achievement they might represent. The display of fragments, photographs, plans, etc. devoted to the Merzbau constructions in the Modern show inevitably had about them an eerie, funereal feeling. It was a sad note on which to end an exhibition otherwise so buoyant in its affirmation of the lyric spirit in art.



  1. “Kurt Schwitters,” organized by John Elderfield, was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from June 10 to October 1. This fall it will be seen at the Tate Gallery in London (November 6, 1985-January 5, 1986), and then at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, West Germany (February 4-April 19, 1986). Go back to the text.
  2. Kurt Schwitters by John Elderfield, published for the Museum of Modern Art by Thames and Hudson (clothbound, $45; paperbound, $22.50). Go back to the text.