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merzzeichnungen and merzbilder

  • Armed with a pair of scissors and a homemade pot of glue, Kurt Schwitters cut the syllable 'merz' from an ad for the Kommerz- und Privatbank, and integrated it into a composition that mixed painting and various found objects. It wasn’t the first time he did such a thing – under Jean Arp’s influence he had made collages since the end of 1918, and his first assemblage, the portrait for the psychiatrist Karl Aloys Schenzinger (Merzbild 1A/Der Irrenarzt) was dated 13 February 1919. If this painting could be considered as seminal, it is because of the textual element it contains, which, besides giving it its title (Das Merzbild), gives it a generic meaning: "For my first exhibition of these assemblages at the Der Sturm gallery in Berlin (July 1918), I was looking for [p. 78] a term to designate this new genre since I couldn’t place my works under the old labels of Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, etc. So I called all my paintings MERZbilder, like a genre of which this was a characteristic example." [Kurt Schwitters, in Merz 20. Kurt Schwitters. Katalog (March 1927) 100]. Later on, Schwitters expanded the 'Merz' denomination to all of his collages and to his other creations and activities, to the point of calling himself 'Merz'.
  • The choice to make works from "all possible materials" [Kurt Schwitters [1919], in Serge Lemoine (dir.), Kurt Schwitters, exhibition catalog (Paris 1994) 48] was dictated by historical circumstances: "[...] when this racket to which men give the name of war, ended [...] I felt free, and I felt the need to proclaim my joy throughout the world. For economic reasons I took what I found, because we were a people that had fallen into misery. One can also yell using garbage, and that is what I did gluing and nailing. That was called Merz. It was my prayer at having survived the war, once peace had triumphed. In any case, everything was ruined, and it was a matter of building new things from debris." [Kurt Schwitters [1930], Serge Lemoine (dir.), Kurt Schwitters, exhibition catalog (Paris 1994) 242]. A constructive plan, but also "aesthetic" (Kurt Schwitters [1919], Serge Lemoine (dir.), Kurt Schwitters, exhibition catalog (Paris 1994) 48], that presided over the assemblage of materials – a far cry from the claims of the Berlin Dadaists. While the latter organized a "Fair" in a bookstore, juxtaposing original and printed works hanging one work over another without paying attention to what might become of their "productions", Schwitters conscientiously prepared an exhibition at the Der Sturm gallery, framing his pieces, putting the collages under window mats, signing, titling and dating them. While the Dadaists invented the new term of "photomontage" to demonstrate their desire to assimilate their activity to that of a mechanic, Schwitters stuck with the traditional vocabulary, calling his collages "drawings" and his assemblages "paintings". While the Dadaists were saying goodbye to painting, not for one moment did Schwitters imagine himself other than as a painter, but a painter who "nailed his paintings".
  • Schwitters also used materials for their essentially plastic qualities: "What the material meant before its use in a work of art is of no importance." (Kurt Schwitters in Merz 1. Holland Dada (January 1923) 10-11]. Conscious of the fragility of such a statement, he put a dematerialization theory into place, which took place in two phases: "distribution", which began "at the instant [the artist] arranges [the materials] on the surface of the canvas," and "deformation", which is done through gestures of "fragmentation, torsion and covering by other materials or paint". (Kurt Schwitters [1919], in Serge Lemoine (1994) 48]. These operations must transform the materials to the point of taking away from them their "own poison", (Kurt Schwitters in Merz 1, op. cit., 10-11], that is, their identity, their history and any other connotation, be it commercial, sociological, poetic or other. They are then but colors, forms, lines and materials, giving painting a new haptic, tactile dimension: "the box top, the playing card and the newspaper clipping become surface; string, brush stroke and pencil mark become lines; the new layer of paint or the glued wrapping paper become surface coating; cotton wool becomes delicacy". (Kurt Schwitters [1919], in Serge Lemoine (1994) 48]. But failure was inevitable: numerous historians question real objects for their references, and especially for what can be read.
  • The material is then returned to its original context (biographic, cultural, social and political), adding a local perception of the work that is layered onto its global perception, sometimes taking the fore. Thus a tension is established between recognition and non-recognition, which ultimately is very productive on the interpretive level.
  • TEXT CREDITS
    Isabelle Ewig, 'Kurt Schwitters / Merzzeichnungen and Merzbilder', translated from the French text, published in the catalogue Dada (Editions du Centre Pompidou : Paris 2005) 886. The translation was part of the Press Pack, published by MNAM Centre Pompidou 2005, p. 77-78 [Courtesy MNAM Centre Pompidou].
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