We think of Kurt Schwitters as one of our century's most prolific intimists, a tireless fabricator of small, fragile abstract keepsakes who generated a vast and influential body of artwork out of what was supposed to be an antiart antimovement, Dada.
But as his massive retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (through Oct. 1) makes clear, Schwitters was more than the irrepressible master of the scrap heap. He was an inspired composer of powerful and often achingly beautiful objects, a gifted magician whose work transforms and transcends the crudity of its ingredients. To emphasize this, MOMA Drawings Curator John Elderfield has deemphasized the droll, personal side of Schwitters, on which almost everyone else has dwelled. In stressing Schwitters' art at the expense of his life and personality, however, Elderfield may have overcompensated. Schwitters' magnum opus was his life.
Schwitters was born in Hanover, in northern Germany, in 1887, and lived nowhere else until he fled the Nazis' repression of "degenerate" (read "avant-garde") artists in 1937. He was a strange bird his whole life, combining the eccentricities expected of any artistic bohemian with many of the most conventional of bourgeois traits.
He carried on a successful graphic design business, maintaining accounts of long standing with some of Hanover's top firms -- but he was as often as not out of town, going to Berlin or Amsterdam or Prague to declaim his poetry and perform his theater pieces in Dada-style soirees.
He painted portraits, landscapes and other perfectly ordinary subjects in perfectly ordinary ways during his whole life -- meanwhile running around with a portfolio full of collaged paper scraps, found objects, and poems made up entirely of vocal sounds, random typefaces or simple numbers. Schwitters seems to have been not only everything you'd expect a post-World War I European avant-gardist to be, but everything you'd expect him not to be.
One thing you would not expect Kurt Schwitters to be would be "absolutely, unreservedly, 24-hours-a-day pro-art," as his friend Hans Richter described him. The Dada artists, after all, were dedicated to the eradication of modern western values, beginning with the destruction of art itself. In Zurich during World War I, this motley bunch of wanderers, draft dodgers and disaffected esthetes united in their revulsion against a civilization that could wage such nasty warfare on itself for no good reason.
But Schwitters never made antiart, never set out to upend society, to shock or mock it or its culture. He wanted only to add to it and expand its scope. He was sympathetic to social reform, but he saw his contribution entirely in terms of esthetic reform. He joined Der Sturm, a Berlin-based circle of Expressionists, out of respect for their pro-artistic ideals, and he later teamed up with Constructivist and Bauhaus artists in their search for a higher, more refined level of art and design. And though he was Dada by style, he never joined Dada.
Schwitters was close to several Berlin artists, and, in fact, his exploitation of collage came as much out of Raoul Hausmann's and Hannah Hoch's experiments with cut-up words and pictures as out of any inherent love for cigar labels, laundry receipts or helpful-hint columns in the newspaper. But despite Hausmann's earnest intercessions, the other Berlin Dadaists firmly turned down Schwitters' application for "membership." It was obvious to those gruff, surly ideologues that the petty-bourgeois hack portraitist from the German equivalent of Indianapolis was ill-suited to the storm and stress of revolutionary struggle.
Rejected, Schwitters returned home, and, characteristically, started his own art movement. He called it "Merz," a meaningless word conjured up one day from a partially covered bank deposit slip ("Commerz-und Privatbank"). The name "Dada" had been coined (or found by chance, depending on which story you want to believe) in a spirit of deliberately childish defiance. (The Dadaists were the punks of their age.) Schwitters, holding a more positive view of things, devised a name for his artwork in a more "constructive" way. Like the word Dada, however, "Merz" was a nonsense syllable, ripe for broad application.
Everything Schwitters did from then on was Merz -- and everything Merz was, was more than any dozen members of most other movements could have accomplished. Under the Merz rubric Schwitters realized everything from the intricate, exquisitely colored and textured collages for which he is best known to large, simple assemblages, often set back in their own cases and built out of tin cans, wire netting, pieces of machinery and other urban detritus.
Merz even led Schwitters to erect a "Merzbau" ("Merzbuilding"), an environment he was constantly changing and expanding until, by the time he left Germany, it had taken over the whole back of his house. Besides writing Merz poems, Merz plays and Merz stories, Schwitters published his own and others' quasi-Dada prose and verse and put on biweekly Merz evenings in his home.. He invariably brought down the house. These performances and publications dwindled after the Nazis came to power, and ceased altogether when Schwitters fled to Norway. (When Norway was invaded in 1940, Schwitters went on to England, where he died in 1948.)
Sounds like a fun guy, doesn't he? Not one's idea of a drinking buddy, perhaps, but a good deal more playful and yet a good deal more reasonable than most of the neurotic introverts and bitter paranoiacs who populate modern art history.
) It is understandable why John Elderfield has downplayed the presence of Schwitters the man in this huge and handsome display of Merz art. Schwitters the man has gotten in the way of our comprehending Schwitters the artist. As presented by Elderfield, Schwitters the artist does emerge as a gifted inventor of form and exploiter of material. The show is organized chronologically, but works of similar size and medium from particular periods are grouped together rather than interspersed with disparately sized pieces. This is a fortuitous arrangement: It clarifies Schwitters' skills as a builder, designer, draftsman and innovator.
But for all the revelations provided by such a refined ordering of Schwitters' art, the survey at the Modern lacks something.
It does demonstrate Schwitters' knack for coming out of any experience, any milieu, with collaged objects of remarkable qualities. But it does not give us a sense of what it might have been that provoked Schwitters to make these things in the first place..
Schwitters' artwork, a veritable scrapbook of real-world souvenirs, provokes interpretation on the part of even the most casual viewer. Elderfield might have hazarded at least rudimentary stabs at interpretation, as he does in his catalogue essay, if only to preclude the superficial constructs of the less well informed.
Also hampering Elderfield's didactic task is his decision to feature only Schwitters' own work, not amplify its sources and its contexts with the similar work of contemporaries. The catalogue to the MOMA show itself couples many Schwitters works with the art of his compeers. Why not on the walls of the Modern as well?
Despite the near-vacuum in which the art is displayed, the massing of more than 200 Kurt Schwitters artworks under one roof is something of a pipe dream come true for anyone fond of Schwitters, Dada, collage, German art, modern art or art in general. There is no question that Elderfield chose from among the very best, the very "rightest" of Schwitters' huge body of work. But the extent of the show would indicate that Schwitters was rarely not "right." Ultimately, no matter what stricture Elderfield has placed on the work, Schwitters' expansive attitude toward art and life alike burgeons outside any framework that might try to contain it.
Elderfield is not so rigidly orthodox that he suppresses everything extravisual about Schwitters. The discreet but still well-amplified voice of the master reciting certain of his best-known poems wafts through most of the exhibition, wryly puncturing the sepulchral quietude of the normal museum ambience. Merz, after all, wasn't just visual art. Schwitters may have had a single vision of Merz, but he had it out of both eyes.