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graphic works

  • The birth and the first years of Merz were accompanied by technical and formal experiments in the realm of graphic arts. Thus, Schwitters made more than 200 charcoal drawings in 1918 that gave an account of his path, begun with his pictorial work of 1916 – going from Expressionism, Cubism and Futurism all the way to abstraction. Generally given a title preceded by a "Z", for Zeichnung, and a number, these drawings have Expressionist themes: the city and the feeling of isolation it creates in men; its matching piece, nature, with the peace of the countryside and the purity of the mountains; and religious subjects. Two types of compositions can be noted: one is based on the diagonal and it breaks the motif through the triangulation of facets; the other, based on a curved-in oblique, leads the motif in a circular motion. These two modes are sometimes combined, as in the first Merzbilders of 1919, and characterized by the rotation of circles and arcs of circles around diagonal axes. It would seem that structure takes the place of images, and that it alone remains – which is the case in several drawings. If Schwitters seemed to have learned the lessons of Expressionism and Cubo-futurism, he said that he was also inspired by the "eternal laws of nature," perceived in 1910 in Switzerland and which he considered to be at the origin of abstraction. Geological laws, which determine the structure of crystals, and cosmic laws, which direct the movement of the celestial bodies, exert in fact a real influence on his works as well as his titles. (Abstraktion Nr 16. Schlafender Kristall, 1918; Merzbild 25 A Das Sternenbild, 1920].
  • While working as an industrial designer in a steel factory in 1917, Kurt Schwitters discovered the wheel – the second determining element in the development of his abstract work. "I acquired the love of the wheel, understanding as well that machines are abstractions of the human spirit" [Kurt Schwitters [1921], in Serge Lemoine (dir.), Kurt Schwitters, exhibition catalog (Paris 1994) 17]. The wheel imposed itself in the watercolors of 1919-1920, often identified by the notation "Aq." followed by a number, and in the series made between 1919 and 1923, which integrated drawing, glued and stamped elements. The wheel, by the movement it suggests, by the arrows that accompany it, and by its insertion in mechanical gearing, carries in its wake signs (arrows), inscriptions (words, letters and numbers) as well as a whole panoply of banal imagery – house, windmill, trains, face, heart, bottle, coffee mill, glass, animals, etc. – whose hybridization often produces grotesque results – a church with a pig’s tail, for example. These elements were put in relationship with each other without any logic, so as to create absurd images, characteristic of the upside-down world in which Schwitters’ poetic muse, Anna Blume, lived. A world of "men walking on their heads, in which windmills turn and locomotives go backwards." (Kurt Schwitters [1920], Serge Lemoine (1994) 83].
  • If all these graphic works announced, or shared certain characteristics with Merz (notably in terms of composition and their use of found elements and nonsense), the "i drawings" series, undertaken in 1920, its origins would be found there – all the while being different. In general, Schwitters made them out of spoiled sheets he recovered from printing shops, which he used as such and from which he cut out a portion that he deemed worthy of the status of a work of art. An i Drawing isn’t quite a "ready-made" made by a machine, but an object generated at a moment in the production process in which the machine has lost control and has been overtaken by chance, giving place to an unexpected work – judged "defective" by the printer but worthy of attention, according to Schwitters, who was convinced that a work of art could be found and that it was up to him to discover it. There, in the approach that discerned a formal whole of quality, is where the work of the artist resided. It had nothing to do with the tinkering that preceded the Merz works. Here, the doing was absent, the machine replaced the hand, and the composition was taken over by chance. This minimum practice of art imposed the choice of the letter "i", which is supposed to be the easiest one, when learning to read and write.
  • In any case, the task of the artist remained large, just as nature – and the modern nature produced by man – rarely created things that "were rhythmically equilibrated". Plus, "a greater mastery is needed to extract a work from nature – one not made by art – than to organize a work." [Kurt Schwitters [1922], Serge Lemoine (1994) 113]. This may be a reason why there are many fewer i Drawings than there are Merzzeichnungen.
  • TEXT CREDITS
    Isabelle Ewig, 'Kurt Schwitters / Graphic Works', translated from the French text, published in the catalogue Dada (Editions du Centre Pompidou : Paris 2005) 894. The translation was part of the Press Pack, published by MNAM Centre Pompidou 2005, p. 79-80 [Courtesy MNAM Centre Pompidou].
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