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Mz 170. Leere im Raum

Mz 170. Leere im Raum
signed, dated and inscribed 'K. Schwitters. 1920. Leere im Raum.' (lower right); numbered 'Mz 170.' (lower left); numbered again 'Mz 170.' (on the reverse)
fabric, netting, gouache and paper collage attached to the artist's window-mount
image: 7 1/8 x 5 ¾ in. (18 x 14.5 cm.)
artist's mount: 14 x 12 ½ in. (35.5 x 31.8 cm.)
Executed in 1920
Galerie Brockstedt, Hamburg.
Private collection, North Germany, by whom probably acquired from the above.
W. Schmalenbach, Kurt Schwitters, Cologne, 1967, p. 38 (illustrated).
A. Nill, 'Weimar Politics and the Theme of Love in Kurt Schwitters' Das Bäumerbild', in Dada/Surrealism, no. 13, Iowa, 1984, no. 5, p. 36 (illustrated p. 24; titled 'Merzzeichnung 170. Leere im Raum').
J. Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1985, no. 81, pp. 74-75 & 414 (illustrated n.p.).
J. Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, Dusseldorf, 1987, no. 78, pp. 79 & 456 (illustrated n.p.).
D. Dietrich, The Collages of Kurt Schwitters: Tradition and Innovation, New York, 1993, no. 57, pp. xii & 116 (illustrated p. 117).
I. Ewig, Kurt Schwitters, Oxymore ou l'art de la contradiction, Paris, 2000, p. 683 (illustrated).
K. Orchard & I. Schulz, eds., Kurt Schwitters, Catalogue raisonné, vol. I, 1905-1922, Hanover, 2000, no. 705, p. 347 (illustrated; illustrated again p. 331).
Berlin, Galerie Nierendorf, Die zwanziger Jahre (I), Deutsche Kunst von 1914 bis 1923, April - June 1970, p. 281 (illustrated).
Bremen, Kunsthandel Wolfgang Werner, Kurt Schwitters, Der Künstler von MERZ, October - December 1989, no. 6, n.p. (illustrated n.p.).
Berlin, Kunsthandel Wolfgang Werner, Kurt Schwitters, January - March 1992, no. 3, n.p. (illustrated n.p.).
Hanover, Sprengel Museum, Aller Anfang ist Merz: Von Kurt Schwitters bis heute, August - November 2000, no. 51, p. 321 (illustrated p. 51); this exhibition later travelled to Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, November 2000 - February 2001.
Basel, Museum Tinguely, Kurt Schwitters, MERZ, ein Gesamtweltbild, May - August 2004, no. 36 (illustrated p. 160).

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Lot Essay

'I felt myself freed and had to shout my jubilation out to the world. Out of parsimony I took whatever I found to do this, because we were now a poor country. One can even shout out through refuse, and this is what I did, nailing and gluing it together. I called it ''Merz,'' it was a prayer about the victorious end of the war, victorious as once again peace had won in the end; everything had broken down in any case and new things had to be made out of fragments: and this is Merz. I painted, nailed, glued, composed poems and experienced the world in Berlin' (Kurt Schwitters, quoted in W. Schmalenbach, Kurt Schwitters, New York, 1967, p. 96).

Executed in 1920, the early collage Mz 170. Leere im Raum belongs to a series of creations which would consume the artist throughout his life and result in him becoming regarded as the leading exponent of the genre. Building on the work of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, who first began assembling pieces of found paper material in 1912, Schwitters abandons their figurative approach and embraces the abstract. In many ways, Schwitters' work becomes the epitome of collage as Donald Kuspit defines it: 'Collage destroys the effectiveness of the idea … that art's highest achievement is not simply to create an illusion of life, but to function as a kind of representation of it. Life can be directly referenced – directly incorporated into art … Collage destroys the idea that life is a stable whole' (D. Kuspit, quoted by E. Hodermarsky, in The Synthetic Century: Collage from Cubism to Postmodernism, exh. cat., Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 2002, p. 5).

The collage was made at a time of hyper-inflation, revolution and counter-revolution in Germany, following the end of the First World War. In this era of complete moral, political and financial bankruptcy, when paper currency had lost its value and only food, work or lodging remained commodities of real value (other than gold or foreign currency), Schwitters, alone in Hanover, established his own one-man avant-garde and 'cure' for the current age which he declared to be the 'Merz' revolution. 'Merz' (Mz) takes its name from a fragment of the words 'Kommerz und Privatbank' and was an artistic revolution for Schwitters in which art and life were to be merged through the business of assembling fragments and detritus of modern life into new glorified forms and expressions of the triumph of the human spirit. As Kate Steinitz, Schwitters' friend and neighbour in Hanover, recalled, during this period Schwitters was frequently seen on the streets, 'a crazy, original genius-character, carelessly dressed, absorbed in his own thoughts, picking up all sorts of curious stuff in the streets … always getting down from his bike to pick up some colourful piece of paper that somebody had thrown away' (K.T. Steinitz, Kurt Schwitters: A Portrait from Life, Berkeley, 1968, p. 68). From these fragments, Schwitters constructed poetic and miraculous constellations that expressed a new formal language and seemed to hint at a hidden order among the apparent chaos of the times.

As noted by numerous art historians, the present work demonstrates Schwitters at perhaps his most political: 'Among Schwitters's politically informed collages, one work in particular stands out. It is much simpler than any of the other collages and assemblages, and, above all, its political reference is unambiguous; its political meaning, however, is tenuous. Mz. 170, Leere im Raum […] is [a] stark composition, it is organized around a dark, geometric mass that, with the help of two paper fragments which create a diagonal line, suggests an architectural space. A text fragment stands out prominently as a block of light in this dark mass, spelling out the word ''Versaille[s]'' in bold, gothic type and set in perfectly horizontal alignment like a newspaper headline. Whereas Schwitters's other collages made only oblique allusions to different political events, this work highlights one of the most important political events of the twentieth century: the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty declared Germany's war guilt, redefined its borders, and transferred some of Germany's most important industrial areas to the Allies' (D. Dietrich, The Collages of Kurt Schwitters: Tradition and Innovation, New York, 1993, p. 116).

John Elderfield similarly celebrates Mz. 170, Leere im Raum, focusing in particular on the formal qualities of the masterfully constructed composition. Noting the 'gravity-based effect' and the 'tau[t] geometry' of the exceptional work, he observes: 'Its structure is based on the juxtaposition of flat planes to an extent not realized in any of the 1919-20 Merzbilder; but it contains similar topical references – in this case, to the Berlin Majority Socialists and to the Treaty of Versailles they supported – and alludes, in its title, to similar ''cosmic,'' Expressionist themes. Its mood is Expressionist and gloomy. Its order, however, is far more Cubist, and stable' (J. Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1985, pp. 74-75). Schwitters both destroys and reconfigures the real world, by laying down fragments of textured paper, fabric and netting into a geometric arrangement of flat colour and form.

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