Poisoned Abstraction: Kurt Schwitters between Revolution and Exile 
by Graham Bader.
Yale, 240 pp., £45, November 2021, 978 0 300 25708 3
Show More
Myself and My Aims: Writings on Art and Criticism 
by Kurt Schwitters, edited by Megan R. Luke, translated by Timothy Grundy.
Chicago, 656 pp., £30, October 2020, 978 0 226 12939 6
Show More
Show More

Nosooner had the First World War ended than the German painter Kurt Schwitters began to make collages out of ‘old train tickets, pieces of driftwood, cloakroom numbers, wire or wheel parts, buttons and other old junk from the attic or trash heap’. When this work was first shown in 1919, reactionary critics couldn’t see past the rubbish, condemning it as an anarchistic attack on fine art. Yet all Schwitters had done, he insisted, was to treat these degraded materials as abstract elements, meticulously composing them into proper pictures. This emphasis on form prompted his radical contemporaries, including most of the Berlin Dadaists, to dismiss Schwitters in turn as too artful – that is, too conservative. Based in Hanover, away from the political turmoil of the capital, he was an outlier in relation to these leftists, even coining his own term, ‘Merz’, to distinguish his practice from theirs. In this volatile moment, then, Schwitters was attacked from both sides, and his reputation has remained more or less stuck in that limbo ever since: too blatant for some, too bourgeois for others.

In Poisoned Abstraction, Graham Bader presents the conflict between actual refuse and abstract composition not as an obstacle to the work but as our way into it. In doing so he seizes on a particular word used by Schwitters. Through his careful arrangement, Schwitters argued, the trashy materials ‘lose their individual character, their specific poison, they become dematerialised and hence material for the picture’. ‘Specific poison’ translates Eigengift, which Bader understands in the double sense of the pharmakon, as parsed by Derrida in ‘Plato’s Pharmacy’: a toxin that can be turned into its own antidote, perhaps even into an elixir. On the one hand, the rubbish deployed by Schwitters affronted traditional ideas of artmaking; on the other, its use pointed to a new aesthetic responsive to the ruinous aftermath of the war. To lose this tension – to reject the work as mere trash, as the reactionaries did, or as autonomous art, as the radicals did – is to miss the dialectical force that drives it. Yet to regard Merz as the perfect sublimation of low culture into high, as Schwitters often did, is to sell the work short in another way.

Merzbau, Hanover, 1933.

Although Schwitters is known primarily as a collagist, he experimented with many forms: painting, sculpture, poetry (An Anna Blume is an avant-garde classic), sound (the 35-minute Ursonate comes complete with overture, four movements, cadenza and finale), theatre design, commercial design (his typography was especially innovative), magazines, reviews, essays, stories (including fairy tales) and plays. Schwitters was a one-person Gesamtkunstwerk, who both concentrated and dispersed the old Wagnerian ideal. On the one hand, his practice was private, even domestic: his chief laboratory was his home in Hanover, which was gradually consumed by the first obsessive construction to be called ‘Merzbau’, a 3-D assemblage that eventually took up eight rooms. On the other hand, his activity involved multiple, often manic collaborations, the range of which is evident in the edition of his writings, expertly selected by Megan Luke and translated by Timothy Grundy. Schwitters published in journals across the avant-garde spectrum, from the Expressionist Der Sturm to the Constructivist G; launched his own magazine, Merz, in 1923; and worked closely with figures as diverse as Theo van Doesburg, the leader of the Dutch De Stijl movement; Raoul Hausmann, a principal animator of Berlin Dada; and El Lissitzky, the Russian Constructivist who served as Soviet envoy to various European movements. As these partnerships suggest, Dada and Constructivism were opposites that belonged together in interwar modernism, the first dedicated to the destruction of traditional forms, the second to the construction of new ones. ‘Dada draws out all the great tensions of our age to their greatest common denominator,’ Schwitters wrote in 1923; only out of this ‘nonsense’ can a new sense be born. He lived this historical dialectic as his own contradiction, or, as Schwitters put it in a Hegelian third-person voice, ‘he unites in himself the contrasts: Dada and Construction. Consistent strictness is the only means to free ourselves from the chaos. Thus the Dadaist artist overcomes himself through Dada.’

Schwitters gathered all his activities under the banner of Merz, a term he first used in 1919 and went on redefining for the rest of his life, which after 1937 was spent first in Norway and then in England, in impoverished exile from the Nazi authorities. He stumbled on the neologism in a collage from 1919 ‘in which the word MERZ, cut and pasted from an advertisement for KOMMERZ UND PRIVATBANK, remained legible underneath the abstract forms’. Thereafter Merz became a prefix that Schwitters added to his poems, pictures, assemblages and constructions, a ‘special brand’. ‘Pure Merz is art, pure Dadaism is non-art, and both are intentionally so,’ Schwitters announced in Merz 1. ‘Whereas Dadaism merely asserts oppositions, Merz balances out oppositions by evaluating them within the artwork.’ Note that he positions Merz as a double overcoming: a sublation not only of found capitalist rubbish in the interest of a final balanced artwork, but also of Dada, which is at once cancelled, preserved and transcended (‘merz’ is contained in ausmerzen, to negate). Or that is how Schwitters wished Merz to be received, which is not quite how it is experienced: again, as viewers we oscillate between the trash and the form, between Merz as crap (we hear merde in the word) and Merz as composition (Freud and his colleagues speculated on the relationship of shit to art not long before Schwitters explored it in his own way). And this struggle between sublimation and desublimation gives Merz its intensity to this day (perhaps we hear Schmerz – pain – as well). One section, now lost, in his Hanover Merzbau was called ‘The Cathedral of Erotic Misery’, a rickety monument that contained, secreted in its various ‘grottos’, little mementos solicited or stolen from friends such as Hannah Höch, as well as ‘a small round bottle with my urine’ and pictures of public figures including Hindenburg and Mussolini. Implicit in the integration of a Merz piece is its disintegration, which often became actual: the Merzbau in Hanover was bombed during the war; the one in Norway burned to the ground in 1951; the Merzbau in England, constructed in the Lake District, survives only partially, and maintaining the extant collages is a constant chore for museum conservators. It is this tension between gestalt and entropy that later assemblagists indebted to Schwitters, from postwar artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jean Tinguely to contemporary practitioners – Isa Genzken, Thomas Hirschhorn, Sarah Sze and Rachel Harrison – have exploited in their own ways.

Although Merz is an activity of excessive addition, Schwitters also presented ‘a special form’ that he simply called ‘i’ (after ‘the middle vowel of the alphabet’, rather than Ich), and its operation is radically subtractive. Take an old tram ticket, he suggests by way of example, ‘cut a square from its right-hand corner and you have an i-drawing.’ ‘This describes the discovery of an artistic structure in the non-artistic world and the creation of an artwork from this structure through delimitation alone.’ An ‘i’ composition is collage at its purest, a simple cut (‘delimitation’) that connects like a copula, a montage that offers a ‘distinct expression as a composition’. Writing of ‘the path’ of the artistic idea in 1922, Schwitters claims that ‘“i” sets this path to = zero. Idea, material and artwork are identical.’ In 1915 Kazimir Malevich had called his Suprematist abstractions, such as Black Square, a zero degree of art; here Schwitters proposes his own version, which, contra Malevich, opens out to the world. Produced ‘through the act of seizing alone’, ‘i’ is also an early instance of the artistic appropriation of media images, a strategy with an important afterlife – in the détournement of found pictures and texts by Situationists, say, or the piracy of the same by postmodernists. Unlike these practitioners, however, Schwitters had only a limited interest in critique: art remained his primary aim.

Kurt Schwitters, 'Merz. 19' (1920)

‘Merz 19.' (1920)

Schwitters advanced two other notions that are still resonant: ‘banalities’, which describes some of his source materials, and ‘evaluation’, which concerns the way he arranges all of them. Print media boomed in the two decades after the First World War, and many intellectuals grew anxious about the cultural effects of kitsch; Hermann Broch went so far as to declare it ‘the evil in the value-system of art’. Schwitters took a different approach – he exploited banalities. ‘The best way to battle the bad taste of formless and mindless literature is i-banality,’ he said. That is, to appropriate clichés from bad writing as well as advertisements, songs and anthems, and to interject these in his own texts like so many Dadaist outbursts. Schwitters also drew on literature that he deemed stale; in Merz 4 he published two lists of pronouncements by German, French and Dutch authors, ranging from Goethe and Schiller to his own contemporaries (for Schwitters, Expressionist literature had become little more than the ‘Spiritual Exchange of Goods’). He did the same with hostile art reviews, from which he extracted stupid lines and threw them back, mangled, as part of his response to critics. These ripostes developed into a genre of its own that Schwitters called ‘Tran’, a term, like Merz, found by cutting a word in half, in this case Lebertran, cod-liver oil (the message being ‘Here’s some of your own medicine’). In his Trans, Schwitters took a page from a little-known guide by Schopenhauer called The Art of Being Right: 38 Ways to Win an Argument (1831): one way to jiu jitsu an opponent is to ‘extend’ his language as a way of undercutting it. This kind of travesty is a verbal version of the general Dadaist strategy of taking a bad thing from the culture and making it worse – critique by way of mimetic exacerbation. But the exploitation of banalities was implied from the start in Merz collages that assimilated ‘intentionally kitschy and intentionally bad elements into the artwork’. Here again Schwitters anticipated a key Situationist move; in his great Modifications, from the late 1950s and early 1960s, Asger Jorn (who also wrote smartly on banalities) bought up flea-market paintings and détourned them to his own ends.

In his play​ with banalities Schwitters was motivated by more than just critical revenge or artistic redemption (as was Jorn). ‘All the Dadaists had a great love for banality, in every form,’ Schwitters writes in Merz 4, where he salutes in particular Paul Éluard, whose monthly leaflet Proverbe ‘cultivated banalities almost exclusively’. Schwitters claims (in a line borrowed from Tristan Tzara) that Éluard ‘wants to achieve a concentration of words, as if crystallised for the people, but whose meaning remains nil’. This suggests that a proverb is a commonplace that can call up a virtual public, since everyone knows a banal saying. Schwitters tries this thought again in connection with a quotation from another French poet, Pierre Reverdy: ‘Assis sur l’horizon, les autres vont chanter’ (‘Seated on the horizon, the others will sing’). Encoded here is the recognition that everyday people often create anonymous culture that we ‘experience as an artwork, as chanter,’ and that he, ‘Kurt Schwitters, is the artist of the work of autres’: ‘I am the artist, who, through an act of delimitation, turned the song of others (which might be very bad) into an artwork.’

Banalities may be degraded – they are made to be circulated and consumed – but in that process they are also rendered common. They indicate a buried kind of cultural commons (the ‘ban’ in ‘banal’ points to the common as that which is often denigrated), which can be surfaced as the ground for art that aspires to be collective. This is the tacit ambition of Merz, which, by definition, is a form of Kom/merz, a coming together through exchange or, rather, in its wake, after consumption (old train tickets and such). As an activity, too, the basis of Merz in collage points to an artistic commons; anyone can do collage and, at one point or another, everyone has (Thomas Hirschhorn underscores this point in our present). ‘Merz is open to everyone, idiots and geniuses alike,’ Schwitters insists. ‘I would remind you of my collection of banalities.’ In this way he attempts, impossibly, to leapfrog the great political struggle of his time: ‘An artist is neither a proletarian nor a bourgeois. And whatever he creates belongs neither to the proletariat nor to the bourgeoisie, but rather to everyone.’

This doesn’t mean that anything counts: the materials must undergo ‘evaluation’ (Wertung), a term that Schwitters repeats like a mantra. In his account, representational art proceeds by ‘verification’: a work is made to match the appearance of the world and is assessed above all according to its success or failure in achieving this. With abstraction that measure is lost and the work of art becomes its own model: evaluation, not verification, is the test, that is, ‘co-ordinating the individual parts of the image in relation to one another’. The viewer follows up on this evaluation; our looking checks the arrangement produced by the artist. Here lies the conservatism of the Merz idea: far from being attacked as in Dada, composition is affirmed. In fact it is raised to a higher level – another sublation. ‘The basis for judging the quality of an artwork is the degree of coherence achieved in the creative process,’ Schwitters stated in 1924. Merz strives for ‘absolute impartiality, complete disinterestedness’. His contemporary, the neo-Kantian art historian Erwin Panofsky, would concur with these criteria (at least in principle: Panofsky was no friend of the art of his time), which prompts the broader question, how much of modernist abstraction remains ‘Kantian’ or even ‘classical’ in this way?

Certainly the constructive dimension of Merz deepened as Schwitters collaborated with van Doesburg and Lissitzky in 1923 and after. Terms associated with De Stijl, such as ‘equilibrium’ and ‘balance’, pop up in his writings; his commitment to ‘maximum simplification and combination’ is a De Stijl credo, as is his notion that ‘the consistent work is the one that is most defined, the strictest.’ By the mid 1920s, Schwitters believed that he had the winds of the zeitgeist in his sails: ‘Our age demands objectivity [Sachlichkeit].’ This pronouncement conformed to the new call for standardisation in industry and design, which Schwitters was happy to oblige: ‘Our age holds to the ideal of simplification based on adherence to the type [Typisierung] and adherence to the norm [Normalisierung].’ Or again: ‘System in all things. This is the goal of our age, born of the new attitude to life, given to us by technology, on the one hand, and the will to a new style, the style of the age, on the other.’

Before Schwitters could evaluate his materials he had to extract them from the world, an act that he called ‘deformation’ (Entformung), another neologism. But that deformation was preceded by one that might be termed ‘devaluation’, for his materials are drained of both use value and exchange value; they come to Schwitters already consumed, and only as waste do they become the stuff of Merz. All this devaluing and revaluing occurred during a crisis in value – in economics (world-historical inflation), in culture (the double problem of avant-gardism and kitsch), in language and representation (the structural linguistics of Saussure and the Cubist semiotics of Picasso). Value was relative, a matter of position within a system with little or no connection to the world (this was true in physics too). ‘At the end of 1918 I realised that all values only exist in relation to one another,’ Schwitters wrote in retrospect. ‘From this insight I developed Merz.’ As with banality, so with exchangeability: Schwitters tried to make it work for him. ‘The happiest moment of my life was when I discovered that everything is really indifferent.’

‘Merz-paintings are abstract artworks,’ Schwitters claimed early on. ‘The wheel of a baby stroller, wire netting, a piece of string and cotton wool are all elements that are equal to paint.’ Again and again he insists on abstraction; he even calls Merz ‘pure painting’. At the height of the Merz project, another mode of abstraction was being theorised by Georg Lukács (and not much later by Alfred Sohn-Rethel): the equivalence of commodities in capitalist exchange. (Along with ‘merde’ we hear ‘merch’ in Merz; the Freudians were on to the connection between shit and money as well.) This is the condition that Schwitters attempts, again impossibly, to turn to advantage: ‘I evaluate sense against nonsense,’ convert formlessness into form, find value in the devalued. This is not capitulation to the commodity (as Adorno suggested of collage), but, on the contrary, an attempt to take the exchange deep into the heart of art; as with critique, the most effective art is often immanent in this way. So perhaps Schwitters is not as apolitical as many have thought and still think. Merz pointed to the eradication of difference in capitalist exchange, exploited the ‘indifference’ of the capitalist metropolis (as described by Georg Simmel a decade before Schwitters launched his project) and protested against capitalist devaluation. But the protest was futile, in large part because Schwitters, endearingly, put all his faith in art: ‘Every age must redeem itself, because it suffers only from itself. But there is nothing that can redeem the spirit of commerce, the spirit of practical construction, more than the most useless of all things in the world: “Art”.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences