Kurt Schwitters (German, Hannover 1887 - 1948 Kendal, England)
Grey and Yellow, 1947
Signed, dated, and titled on mount: Kurt Schwitters 1947 Grey and Yellow
Paper, newspaper, and canvas collage with grey-blue tissue paper, paint, and red crayon or chalk on brown cardboard
8 1/4 x 6 5/8 in. (21 x 16.8 cm)
Friends of Art Fund, 1955
Schwitters created the quiet, somewhat melancholy collage Grey and Yellow in England the year before he died. The medium of collage, along with the Merz project, had long been Schwitters's "real" art form, more important to him than the portraits and landscapes he painted to maintain contact with nature, and to support himself, during his final years.
Unlike his Merz-pictures, mixed-media works composed of a wide variety of materials, Schwitters's collages consist of found pieces of paper, which he cut up, arranged, and pasted onto paper supports. According to his friend Charlotte Weidler, "He spread flour and water over the paper, then moved and shuffled and manipulated his scraps of paper around in the paste, while the paper was wet. With his fingertips he worked little pieces of crumpled paper into the wet surface. In this way he used flour both as paste and as paint."1
Schwitters's method differed markedly from the Cubist practice of integrating the occasional small piece of printed text, image, or other found material into a painting to enrich its pictorial content.2 He began by assembling the cut papers and then used paint very sparingly to unify and balance the composition. Consciously playing with the images and texts on the found and cut papers, he explored their hidden magic and their formal, pictorial, and aesthetic relationships.3 Although Schwitters viewed the world as fragmented, alienated, and destructive, his Merz-pictures and collages counteract this dissolving reality by recombining its alienated (or "dematerialized," to use Schwitters's word)4 parts within the context of new compositions. While other Dada artists, such as Raoul Hausmann or Richard Huelsenbeck, underscored discrepancies and celebrated a nonsensical, fragmented reality, Schwitters worked for a sensitive balance and coherence among different kinds of materials within his collages.The monochromatic coloring and the imprecisely cut and torn edges of Grey and Yellow, as well as the accidental overlapping and multiple layers of the arrangement, are similar to Schwitters's other collages of 1946-47. While some of Schwitters's collages of this period bear longer titles,5 which aid in their interpretation, the abstract title Grey and Yellow here refers to the artist's particular experience of reality. Schwitters chose materials that were typical and readily available in postwar England, and avoided patterns or textures in favor of drab, flat, and nearly colorless shades of brown and grey. The useless fragment of the unused postal stub is alienated from its original function, which was to safeguard the arrival of a money order. In the same way, the tiny bit of newspaper refers to the dull banality of everyday life. Suffering from failing health, Schwitters felt uprooted and unhappy during his exile in England. Yet in 1946 and 1947, the last two years of his life, he produced an extraordinary number of collages. The hasty, imprecise, and accidental appearance of these last collages testifies to the strength of Schwitters's creative urge in the face of rapidly deteriorating health. Less playful and more reflective of his melancholy mood, these works abandon his earlier careful arrangements of form and rhythm in favor of a more spontaneous handwriting, and a more pronounced relief formed from the heavy build-up of layers of paper.
Work (C) 1998 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kust, Bonn
Born on 20 June 1887 into a bourgeois household in Hannover, Schwitters studied at the local Kunstgewerbeschule (School for Applied Arts) and at the academies in Dresden and Berlin between 1908 and 1914. In 1915 he married Helma Fischer; their son Ernst was born in 1918. In 1917 he served briefly in the army as a clerical officer. In 1918-19 he made his first collages; became involved with the avant-garde circle of artists at the Galerie Der Sturm; met Hans Arp, Raoul Hausmann, and other Dadaists; and published a volume of poetry, An Anna Blume. From 1919 on, Schwitters participated in several avant-garde magazines and published his own journal, Merz (1919-31). He exhibited the Merz-pictures at Galerie Der Sturm and began his first Merzbau in his Berlin apartment in 1923 (destroyed in an air raid in 1943). In addition to his associations with Dutch Dadaists and Constructivists, he also worked as a typographer and graphic designer, and participated in the Cercle et Carré and Abstraction-Création exhibitions in Paris during the 1930s.
From 1931 Schwitters began spending much time in Norway, emigrating there in 1937 and painting landscapes, portraits, and still lifes to support himself. Several of his Merz pictures were included in Hitler's Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition held in Munich in 1937. When German troops entered Norway in 1939, Schwitters left for England, where in 1940-41 he was interned in displaced persons camps for seventeen months. After his release he settled in London, where he met the companion of his last years, Edith Thomas. In 1944 he suffered a stroke and subsequently moved to Ambleside in the Lake District, where he started the Merz-Barn in 1947. Despite his failing health due to a broken hip, asthma, and heart and lung problems, he continued to travel and to work, bartering his representational paintings for medical services and other necessities of life, and ekeing out a living by selling landscapes and still lifes to tourists. Still he clung to his "real" work, devoting his last energies to his collages and the organic sculpture of the Merz-Barn. On 8 January 1948 he died in Kendal and was buried in Ambleside.
Schwitters's work as a whole is characterized by rebelliousness, continuous experimentation, and a poetic and contemplative striving for order through the assemblage of the cast-off fragments of an alienated world. He did not receive major recognition until after his death.
Thomason, Stefan. Kurt Schwitters in England. London, 1958.
Janis, Harriet, and Rudi Blesh. Collage: Personalities, Concepts, Techniques. Philadelphia, 1962.
Schwitters, Ernst. Anna Blume und ich. Einrich, 1965.
Schmalenbach, Werner. Kurt Schwitters. Cologne, 1967. English ed., London, 1970.
Steinitz, Kate Traumann. Kurt Schwitters: A Portrait from Life. Berkeley, 1968.
Lach, Friedhelm, ed. Kurt Schwitters: Das literarische Werk. 5 vols. Cologne, 1973-81.
Elger, Dietmar. Der Merzbau. Cologne, 1984.
Elderfield, John. Kurt Schwitters. London, 1985.
Dietrich, Dorothea. The Collages of Kurt Schwitters: Tradition and Innovation. Cambridge, Mass., 1993.
Schaub, Gerhard, ed. Kurt Schwitters: "Bürger und Idiot." Berlin, 1993.
With Sidney Janis Gallery, from whom purchased in February 1955
Ann Arbor, The University of Michigan Museum of Art, 1956. Drawings and Watercolors from the Oberlin Collection. 11 March - 1 April. No cat.
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 1962-63. Kurt Schwitters (also shown at San Antonio, Tex., Marian Koogler McNay Art Museum; Pasadena Art Institute; Manchester, N.H., The Currier Gallery of Art; Washington, D.C, The Phillips Collection; Minneapolis, Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, University of Minnesota; Louisville, Ky., J. B. Speed Art Museum). No cat.
Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Painting and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1967, pp. 136-47, fig. 149.
This collage is assembled on two roughly rectangular pieces of paper support, each with a four-ply core with brown paper laminated to each side. The bottom sheet has a pebbled texture, is lighter in color and approximately .64 cm larger on all four sides. The collage, which has been mounted on a painted ground, consists of various cut and/or torn papers--tissue paper, printed postal label, decorative wall-paper, woven cloth, color-printed magazine paper (halftone)--and a yellowed transparent film and acrylic paint. There are tape fragments at the edges of the paper support. Considering all the unstable materials involved, which due to the layering do not always lie flat, the collage is in fairly good condition although the materials are somewhat darkened and embrittled.
1.Quoted in John Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters (London, 1985), p. 85.
2. On collage, see Chris Poggi, In Defiance of Painting: Cubism, Futurism, and the Invention of Collage (New Haven, 1992).
3. For example, Schwitters mixed a high-art image with wastepaper in his Die heilige Nacht van Antonio Allegri, gen. Corregio, worked through by Kurt Schwitters, 1947, collage, 52.9 x 38.8 cm, private collection; reproduced in Kurt Schwitters. Die späten Werke (exh. cat., Museum Ludwig, Cologne, 1985), p. 105, cat. no. 84.
4. Schwitters referred to alienation as "Entmaterialisierung"; see Ernst Nündel, Kurt Schwitters (Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1981), p. 25.
5. For example, Ein fertig gemachter Poet of 1946 carries the double meaning of "ready made" and "dealt with," making it a melancholy self-portrait of an accomplished artist who could not gain any recognition in England. See Ernst Nündel, Kurt Schwitters (Reinbek bei Hamburg, 1981), pp. 112ff. This collage incorporates a reproduction of a portrait of Shelley with his head cut off above the nose. Schwitters seems to have identified with Shelley, who--failed by British society--left England in 1814.