Crop of front cover of Poisoned Abstraction: Kurt Schwitters Between Revolution and Exile by Graham Bader

Arbiter of Tumultuous Times: Kurt Schwitters

Interview with Graham Bader by David Ebony

The years immediately following World War I were times of global socio-political upheaval. A new world order was evolving, especially in Europe, and particularly in Germany. The country’s losses in the war were nearly incalculable, in human lives and economic failure, and in the demise of socio-political institutions, cultural traditions, and national identity.  Despite its democratic ideals, the government of the Weimar Republic—established immediately after the war in 1919, and dissolved with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933—proved unstable and yielded to a period of discontent and revolution. Artists were leaders in the new revolutionary spirit, none more vocal and aggressive than the practitioners of Dada. With their anti-esthetics, anti-art tactics, the Dadaists sought to upend the status quo in every way possible, socially and politically, as well as culturally.

Kurt Schwitters, Hanover Merzbau, early 1930s
Kurt Schwitters, Hanover Merzbau, early 1930s, detail view showing west wall and the “Blue Window” (photographed 1933 by Wilhelm Redemann [German, 1892–1953]). Paint, paper, cardboard, plaster, glass, mirror, metal, wood, stone, electric lighting, and found materials, approximately 154 ¾ × 228 3/8 × 181 1/8 in. (393 × 580 × 460 cm). Destroyed. © Sprengel Museum Hannover. Wilhelm Redemann.

At the center of this storm was one of the most dynamic and influential artists of the day, Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948). Born in Hanover Germany, he studied at the Dresden Academy, with classmates George Grosz and Otto Dix, and was later associated with the Berlin Dada group. Throughout his career, however, Schwitters retained a unique and independent spirit. Best known for his abstract, Constructivist-like compositions of found materials, he developed a collage process he dubbed Merz. Merz encompassed two-dimensional compositions as well as assemblage, and even architectural forms in his acclaimed Merzbau. This all-encompassing environment, of jagged geometric shapes that filled his home and studio in Hanover, may be regarded as the first work of installation art. It is known only from photographs, which were published and exhibited during the artist’s lifetime, including in a 1936 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. The Merzbau itself, however, was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943, in the midst of World War II. Schwitters was also a writer of note, and his absurdist, proto-Surrealist poem To Anna Blume caused a major stir soon after its first publication in August, 1919.       

The late 1930s and early ’40s were years of exile and immigration for Schwitters, as he was forced to leave Germany in the advent of Nazi violence and aggression. Europe was once again devastated by war, and Schwitters sought refuge at first in Norway, but then, as the Nazis advanced on that country in 1940, fled to England, where he died in 1940, age 60. A story of cultural and political upheaval, the art and life of Kurt Schwitters could hardly be more relevant and resonant today, particularly in light of Russia’s devastating invasion of Ukraine, and the socio-political upheavals and mass migration that the new waves of violence and aggression have caused. Poignant and timely, Graham Bader’s book, Poisoned Abstraction: Kurt Schwitters between Revolution and Exile, offers a unique view of the artist’s work, set against the backdrop of the tumultuous times in which he lived and worked. I recently spoke by phone with Bader to discuss his unusual approach to Schwitters and the increasing importance of the artist’s work today.   

David Ebony What inspired you to write this book? What initially attracted you to the work of Kurt Schwitters?

Graham Bader He’s an artist who I’ve long been interested in, both for the material richness of his images and the range of things he was engaged with—from performance, collages, and constructions, to his writings, and to his engagement with this specific moment in German culture and history. The origins of the book go back some years, to when I was interested in a project more broadly focused on collage and photomontage in the Weimar era, looking at the work of John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, and Kurt Schwitters, as well as other Berlin Dada artists. I began thinking, though, mostly about Schwitters work. Although there seems to have been a lot written on Schwitters, there are serious gaps. As someone who has taught Schwitters in art history courses, I found it hard to assign readings on him because it is difficult to find pieces that you could read for a seminar, that you could really sink your teeth into analytically and argumentatively. I was looking for texts that would work for a group of twelve students around a table, debating esthetic issues and historical problematics regarding specific works by Schwitters, and there was not a lot that I found satisfying. All of these things led me toward writing a book on Schwitters specifically, and particularly one that spends a lot of time looking at works and historical episodes in depth.

Kurt Schwitters, Zeichnung A6 (Drawing A6), 1918
Kurt Schwitters, Zeichnung A6 (Drawing A6), 1918. Paper and fabric on paper, 7 × 5 ½ in. (17.8 × 14 cm). Private collection, Zurich. Courtesy Kurt Schwitters Archive, Sprengel Museum Hannover.

Ebony Rather than a general overview?

Bader Yes. John Elderfield wrote the spectacular book for the Schwitters retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art [in 1985]; that was the last major retrospective before the Menil Collection’s survey in Houston in 2010, just as I was starting to formulate ideas for my own book. Elderfield’s is a magisterial and fundamental achievement, of course, but it does many things, and casts a wide net over the whole career. In my book, I also look at the whole scope of the career, starting in 1918, and ending with Schwitters in exile. But I try to mine certain aspects of the moment, and look at some Schwitters images with as much structural detail and depth as possible. I spend a considerable number of pages on individual works, trying to take them apart and look at them from the historical perspective of that moment.

Ebony The title of the book is very striking: Poisoned Abstraction. Early on you say that “Schwitters more often embraced than obscured the poison of his everyday materials.” Can you say more about that?

Bader It comes from a term that Schwitters repeatedly used: Eigengift, which means something like “own poison” or “self-poison,” and has often been translated as “particular poison,” which isn’t quite right. What he means by this word is the “poison” that he feels permeates the detritus of the world at large—that is to say, the original social purpose of the tickets, buttons, chicken wire, all kinds of things, that fill his images. These materials have their Eigengift, their own poison, which is the residue of their initial function in the world at large—a coat-check ticket to retrieve your coat, for instance, or a button to button a shirt. Schwitters said he wanted to remove this Eigengiftin order to transform these items into formal, completely abstract elements within his works. He would thereby elevate the material to an esthetic level, an artistic realm that’s removed from the everyday world—he repeatedly says that the materials have to be purified of their “poison.” At the same time, however, he stresses the social uses of his integrated objects in work after work. In Construction for Noble Ladies, from 1919, for example, which I discuss in the book, there’s a metal funnel prominently fixed to the surface in such a way as if to invite you to grab hold of it; or there’s a train ticket in that same composition that you might be tempted to peel off and use for the ride home from the gallery. To me, this paradox is essential to Schwitters’s art. That conflict—to purify the materials of their innate “poison,” but then to put the poison front and center in the work of art—is the dialectic that motivated me as I worked on the book.               

Ebony Also central to Schwitters is the concept of Merz. How would you define Merz for someone just discovering Schwitters’s work?          

Bader The book really is about Merz. It’s a term that Schwitters didn’t invent, but derived from the German word Commerz, meaning commerce, and he basically lopped off one syllable of that word. In a 1923 text, he discusses his Merz art, and Merz as a concept. He stresses that the term entails everything becoming potential material for art.     

Ebony Would you say that Merz is a form of collage, or a specific kind of language of collage that is unique to Schwitters?

Bader For Schwitters, Merz is an expanded notion of collage, more of a process, a way of thinking. That is one of the reasons why Schwitters has been so important for artists throughout the past century, especially in the post-war United States. His idea of collage is one that embraces everything. He was engaged with found poetry. He built the Merzbau, an elaborate installation. He had an idea of Merz theater. He talked about human beings as part of his notion of Merz. It wasn’t just about collage, about making images. It was about putting things together in all different ways and producing something new. For me, Merz is a way of thinking about the world at large. In the 1920s, he was writing about religion, nationalism, war, and many other things through the lens of this notion of Merz. To be clear, it’s not collage just in the sense of an art-making technique, but collage as a principle of worldmaking. He uses that phrase, and speaks about Merz in that kind of broad language.      

Kurt Schwitters, Körtingbild (The Körting Picture), 1932
Kurt Schwitters, Körtingbild (The Körting Picture), 1932. Oil, wood, bark, lead, and algae on canvas, 29 × 23 13/16 in. (73.6 × 60.5 cm). Private collection. Courtesy Kurt Schwitters Archive, Sprengel Museum Hannover.

Ebony How much of Schwitters’s endeavors were in direct response to World War I, the horrors of the first World War?    

Bader That was a moment, especially in Germany, where an old world was destroyed. The cities weren’t materially destroyed, as in World War II, but the Kaiser was gone, and old governmental and social structures were eradicated. There was an idea that what would come of it would be a fundamentally new society; a reorganization of culture was underway, and there was a political reorganization from the ground up.  

Ebony Your descriptions of the uprisings and insurrections of 1918 and 1919 in Germany are very vivid in the book.

Bader As the book got closer to publication, I added more text and images related to that historical moment because I wanted to ensure such vividness. It was a revolution—a stunted revolution, but a revolution nonetheless. There was certainly an idea of revolution, and artists were at the center of that thinking. As I mention in the first chapter, Schwitters’s first Merz show [at Der Sturm gallery] was in the center of the city, just blocks from where people had been shot en masse in the midst of these uprisings just months before. Schwitters talks about the invention of Merz in that way. He says something to the effect that as the world was in shambles, we had to construct new things from the rubble. There was an esthetic revolution underway, and this was the moment of Berlin Dada. Art becomes about politics, about demonstrations in the street; it’s not just about painting. It’s a moment of tumult and reinvention both culturally, politically, and socially. And none of that can be separated from Schwitters’s invention of Merz. I tried to make that clear early in the book because the traditional line on Schwitters, beginning already with his contemporaries, has been to view him as primarily an esthete.           

Studio photograph of Kurt Schwitters with Die Heilige Bekümmernis (The Holy Affliction), 1920, as published in the Berliner Börsen-Courier, October 31, 1924
Studio photograph of Kurt Schwitters with Die Heilige Bekümmernis (The Holy Affliction), 1920, as published in the Berliner Börsen-Courier, October 31, 1924. © Sprengel Museum Hannover.

Ebony Another aspect you clarified in the book for me is the Berlin Dadaists’ opposition to Schwitters and his association with Der Sturm in those years. Was that mainly because of the commercial emphasis of the gallery and its initiatives?  

Bader Being in the circle, or the fold of Der Sturm, he was viewed by some as working against the Berlin Dadaists’ calls for direct political action. But I also wanted to draw out that while Schwitters was in conflict with Berlin Dada, at the same time, he was very much interested in their works. Sometimes he seemed to be working directly after it. As an example, there’s a spread in the book comparing a 1919 Schwitters assemblage [Merz Picture 9b, The Great I Picture / Merz Picture K7] with an earlier George Grosz painting, also with collage elements [Germany: A Winter’s Fairy Tale, 1918], that Schwitters would have seen in Berlin, and likely borrowed from.  

Ebony The Berlin Dadaists were also opposed to some degree to Schwitters’s famous poem, To Anna Blume. Could you say more about that?

Bader Shortly after he debuted his Merz work at Der Sturm in the summer of 1919, he published To Anna Blume in the gallery’s journal. There was also a volume of his poetry published that highlighted the poem. While it wasn’t exactly a best-seller, it caused something of a sensation, and Schwitters suddenly became perhaps the best-known figure connected to Dada because of it. Richard Huelsenbeck, who was the central impresario of Berlin Dada, directly attacked Schwitters. Huelsenbeck claimed that To Anna Blume was too estheticized and romantic, but we can speculate that part of his opposition resulted from professional competition, and the possessiveness that he felt toward Dada. That Schwitters would be the one to attract so much attention was irksome. It was a conflicted relationship, but eventually Huelsenbeck reached out to Schwitters for help with connections he was trying to make in Hanover.            

Ebony Another major focus in the book is Schwitters’s use of text. I was unaware of some of his design commissions that you detail; and you also discuss the pervasive use of the typewriter at that time, which I suppose was the high-tech communications device of the day.

Bader I always found it fascinating that Schwitters’s collages are riddled with text, but it’s always cut, spliced, upside-down, faded or covered over. They are textual fragments not to be read, not to function as text, but to function as visual matter. Beginning in the early 1920s and culminating in the mid-’20s, he is doing design work using typography, he’s getting commissions, and doing independent projects like the proposed advertisements for the Pelikan ink company. In the design work—in apparent contrast to the collage—he’s committed to a pure transparency of message. He talks about it this way: when you do design, it’s about the speed, the ease and the transparency of the textual messaging. This may seem opposed to the use of text in his collage works, which emphasize texture and material form rather than any semantic content. That brought me to a discussion in the book of the relationship of typewritten and handwritten texts, and advertising in general in the Weimar Republic. Those different elements wove together to create a certain narrative  about Schwitters work of the 1920s, and also about the changing dynamics of writing—handwriting and typewritten texts—in Germany specifically, but more broadly at that moment in European history.

Kurt Schwitters, interior page of Merz 11 (Typoreklame/Pelikan-Nummer), November 1924
Kurt Schwitters, interior page of Merz 11 (Typoreklame/Pelikan-Nummer), November 1924. Letterpress, 11 7/16 × 8 9/16 in. (29.1 × 22 cm). Sprengel Museum Hannover, on loan from private collection. © Michael Herling/Aline Gwose, Sprengel Museum Hannover.

Ebony At one point you suggest a connection between Schwitters’s work and Concrete Poetry.

Bader I don’t focus so much on Schwitters’s poetry in the book, as that would open a whole other can of worms, but he was engaged at the time with a wide range of textual experimentation through poetry—from Raoul Hausmann to Marinetti, and he also looked to Russian avant-garde precedents in oral or performative and written poetry.

Ebony I thought your approach to Schwitterss most famous work, the Merzbau, through photography, rather than primarily as sculpture or architecture, was unusual and fascinating.

Bader It might be the most idiosyncratic reading of Schwitters in the book. It was something that was brewing in my mind for a long time when looking at the Merzbau in these very specific and detailed photographs that he made, or had made of it. In the images there’s a consistent emphasis on the flow of light, and of projected light, lighting effects, and a preoccupation with photographic effects in general. There was a great concern with light striking the varied surfaces of the construction. As I discuss in the book, a dynamics of memory is at play in the Merzbau that’s expressed specifically through photography, obliquely understood. In his writings of the period, in the early and mid-1930s, Schwitters talks about photography, specifically in relation to the Merzbau, and he’s suddenly making photograms. In Germany, meanwhile, there was a shift in the status of the photograph and a new understanding of the medium. There’s a rich discourse about photography as a surface informational technology—as presenting simple, straightforward images of the world—and then, by contrast, a discussion of the medium, by Walter Benjamin and other theorists, as permeated by a kind of auratic quality, as being an almost reliquary imprint of the world that it captures. The tension between those two elements—photography as an indexical quasi-reliquary versus as a recorder of mere surface information—was central to critical discourse when Schwitters began to develop the Merzbau.  These ideas, I argue, entered into his conception of the project—he was thinking about the Merzbau as a kind of space of memory, and about photography, at the same time, as a very specific mnemonic technology.

Ebony I was struck by the way you connect the Merzbau with historical reliquaries, like the Holy Stairs Sanctuary [Chapel of the Sancta Sanctorum, Lateran Palace, 1277-80 A.D.] in Rome, and also the Shroud of Turin, which was shown to the public in 1931.

Bader The Shroud of Turin was unveiled for the first time in the 20th century in the early 1930s—on two occasions, actually, in ’31 and ’33—exactly when Schwitters was beginning to work on the Merzbau. The scale of the unfolded shroud itself suggests an installation, or an environment into which, one can imagine, Christ entered as he was wrapped in the cloth. We can’t be certain at this point, but Schwitters most likely took note of the published photographs of the Holy Shroud’s unveilings. But the point is that there was a whole new understanding of photography occurring at that moment. Schwitters talks about the Merzbau in terms of relics and its reliquary quality. As I mention in the book about the function of relics, what’s interesting is that they operate projectively, through an imaginative animation by their viewers. You don’t actually see Christ’s trace, or that of this Saint or that, on the bits of wood and cloth that become cherished relics. It is basically a conceptual construct; and similarly, the Merzbau can be regarded as an elaborate construction, an intricate memory construction. It’s about traces, about items or markings that have been left behind. This connects with the way we look at a photograph, or enter into a photograph, projecting into it our own connections and investments. This is how we connect to the historical moment we see in a photograph and bring it forward into our own present.

Ebony I wanted to ask you about Schwitters’s late work that he produced in exile, in the late 1930s, after he left Germany and settled in Norway and then Britain. You mention that the late works are neither Dada nor Constructivism, as he introduces biomorphic abstraction into the work.

Bader That chapter began with a simple question that resulted from the Schwitters exhibition at the Menil Collection in 2010. It was the first U.S. retrospective in 25 years, and it contained quite a lot of late work. You can see, when you look at this work in concentration, that it’s fundamentally different. I was trying to grapple with the question: what, exactly, is different about these works? They are recognizable as being by Schwitters, definitely, with scraps and all sorts of found materials from the world, transformed into collage or assemblage artworks. But there is a clear shift here. This shift actually doesn’t begin in exile, but starts earlier, before he leaves Germany in 1937. When I look at his work of the final decade and a half, it seems to have a kind of “presentational esthetic,” an almost figurative quality.

Ebony “A figurative impulse,” as I wrote in my notes from that chapter.

Bader “Figurative impulse” is to say that, for instance, his biomorphic abstractions are quasi-figurative in the way that they convey certain aspects of the real world; they suggest the ocean, the cold of the Baltic Sea, for instance, or the Norwegian landscape. He still attaches found objects to the compositions, like bits of cardboard, but now they suggest clouds in the sky, for example. The space appears to be a neutral representational space that is about imaging, about showing something. Sometimes it’s direct, as when he pins something like algae onto the surface, in Untitled (Merz Picture with Algae) from 1938, like a specimen. The structure of the “poisoned abstraction” of his earlier works, from the 1920s, has become modified. That earlier work, I argue, is analogous to the situation of the exile—being bound by two sides of the border at once. The experience of your life on one side of the border is always infected by or determined by a connection to the place you were forced to leave. This is like the dynamic we discussed earlier: Schwitters’s bits are both trash and rarefied esthetic matter, the stuff of art and life at once. 

Kurt Schwitters, Ohne Titel (Merzbild mit Algen) (Untitled [Merz Picture with Algae]), 1938
Kurt Schwitters, Ohne Titel (Merzbild mit Algen) (Untitled [Merz Picture with Algae]), 1938. Oil, wood, metal, parchment paper, algae, bark, tree branch, and wax on board, 19 ½ × 10 11/16 in. (49.6 × 27.2 cm). Sprengel Museum Hannover, on loan from the Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Foundation. © Michael Herling/Aline Gwose, Sprengel Museum Hannover.

Ebony Along those lines, you discuss his “passport woes” in depth.

Bader That idea of being tied to both sides of a border and being defined by your dual existence basically parallels the concept of Merz. The poisoned abstraction of it, where items from the world at large cross that border to enter into the work of art, becomes defined by the tension between their new esthetic existence within the image, and their Eigengift, which is to say their past significance on the other side of the border. That tension, I feel, dissipates in the later work. It’s probably a reaction to the condition of exile in which he found himself. That’s how I arrived at the idea of the passport as a space of representation. It’s a little booklet that you have to present and that in a sense becomes who you are—it defines you. His work of the period thus opens up a discussion of the passport—what is a passport, and how does it function? For Schwitters in 1937, and into the ’40s, that was very important!

Ebony It’s important to think about that today, with all the migration, immigration issues, and the plight of so many immigrants around the world.

Bader Schwitters’s art invites us to think about contemporary esthetics and also about the present-day political, social and ethical challenges that his work engages. How does his confrontation with his times correspond to those issues and challenges today?  

Thomas Hirschhorn, Kurt Schwitters Platform, 2011
Thomas Hirschhorn, Kurt Schwitters Platform, 2011. Mixed media installation (now destroyed), back garden of Waldhausenstraße 5, Hanover. Courtesy Thomas Hirschhorn and the Sprengel Museum Hannover.

Ebony That brings me to my last question, Graham. What do you think is the significance and importance of Schwitters’s work today? You talk about the work’s direct relationship to and influence on Rauschenberg and Johns, and, from a younger generation, the Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, who has done a number of installations in homage to Schwitters. What is Schwitters’s legacy, and why should young people pay attention to his art?

Bader Beside all of the things we have been discussing about his work, I think that Schwitters is also important because his works are materializations of a process of thinking, and a process of engagement with political, cultural and ethical circumstances that are still fully present for us today. He grapples with questions of representation, about valuation—what is valuable, and what is not? He deals with questions of where people belong and why, questions of difference that seem particularly relevant to American culture today. And, as we’ve been discussing, there are issues of international migration and the flow of refugees that the art communicates in a material way. It’s not a direct reflection or a message about these issues, but an esthetic procedure that arises from these conditions. Schwitters also offers a renewed pivotal direction for what art can be, and what art can do. Because his artworks were primarily made from everyday detritus taken from the world in which he lived and worked, the social and political implications are as clear and present today as when they were created. If you look closely at Schwitters’s work, you’ll find that it is alive. ●

Graham Bader is associate professor and chair of art history at Rice University, Houston, Texas.

David Ebony is a contributing editor of Art in America, formerly its managing editor, and the author of numerous artists monographs. He lives and works in New York City.     

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