Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more ABSTRACTION BEYOND BORDERS: WORKS FROM A DISTINGUISHED PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTIONFrom Paris to Munich, Berlin, Milan and Hanover, in the opening decades of the Twentieth Century, a number of artists created art that radically differed from those of their predecessors. Working across Europe, these pioneering provocateurs, radicals and trailblazers – Georges Braque, Francis Picabia, František Kupka, to name just a few – shunned the last vestiges of illusionism to instead create unprecedented works with no visible, recognisable or definable subject matter. Liberating colour, line and form from their centuries-old descriptive role, they overturned pictorial tradition, embarking on an abstract adventure that would come to define art of the Twentieth Century. Crossing geographical boundaries, encompassing a variety of media, and often blurring traditional distinctions of painting and sculpture, abstraction spread with an extraordinary speed, transforming artistic practice forever. From the initial steps towards a new artistic language, to the paradigmatic embodiment of this concept, this diverse group of works embodies this varied, experimental and groundbreaking path of abstraction, demonstrating the variety of ways that artists across the globe embraced this radical practice. Braque’s cubist composition, Cartes et cornet à dés presents the origin of this move towards a new, non-representational artistic language. Along with Picasso – the pair, ‘like mountain-climbers roped together’, as Braque recalled of this frenzied period of seismic innovation – the artist undermined conventional notions of perspective, opening the door to a whole new way of depicting the world. As rebellious as the cubists’ rejection of the centuries-old rules of representation, Picabia’s playful collage Sans titre (Pot de fleurs) uses the very materials of art making to parody the mimetic traditions of art, creating a semi-abstract play of colour and line. Far removed from any trace of the recognisable world, Kurt Schwitters’ rare Merz relief, Das Richard-Freitag-Bild dates from the height of his involvement with the International Constructivist movement. It was executed during a period when he was codifying Merz – the one-man art movement that he created in 1919 – into a utopian Constructivist language of form, taking the deconstruction of Dada and combining it with the aims of Constructivism. Following the same aesthetic, Georges Vantongerloo’s perfectly composed De Stijl composition embodies the tenets of geometric abstraction. In addition, Kupka, one of the leading pioneers of non-representational abstraction, is represented in this collection with a rare composition entitled Series C, III, Elevation, a work that marries his elegant abstract idiom with the deeper, spiritual dimension that was often the source of his abstractions. By contrast, Magritte, an artist whose unique form of Surrealism serves as the very antithesis to the development of non-representational abstraction, is represented in this group with an important early painting, Les signes du soir. A pictorial trompe l’oeil riddle, with this painting Magritte confuses, undermines and questions the entire nature of representational painting, paving the way for the conceptual art that dominated artistic production of the post-war era. From the purely formal – Schwitters and Vantongerloo – to the spiritual, mystic or surreal – Kupka, Jawlensky, Magritte and Picasso, this collection, assembled with the eye of an aesthete, encapsulates the multi-faceted nature and pioneering spirit of modernist abstraction throughout the Twentieth Century. Their curiosity, daring eclecticism and pioneering spirit of exploration nearly 100 years ago paved the way for artists and collectors today.
Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)

Richard Freytagbild (Das Richard-Freitag-Bild)

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)
Richard Freytagbild (Das Richard-Freitag-Bild)
signed with initials and dated ‘KS 27’ (lower left)
oil and wood relief on panel, in the artist's frame
33 3/4 x 27 1/4 in. (85.8 x 69.2 cm.)
Executed in 1927
Ernst Schwitters, Lysaker, by descent from the artist.
Galerie Gmurzynska, Cologne, by whom acquired from the above in 1978.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 1978.
J. Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, London, 1985, no. 218, pp. 186 & 417 (illustrated n.p.).
K. Orchard & I. Schulz, eds., Kurt Schwitters, Catalogue raisonné, vol. II, 1923-1936, Hannover, 2003, no. 1496, p. 228 (illustrated).
Grosse Merzausstellung, 1927, no. 151 (ex. cat.).
Hannover, Kunstverein, Herbstausstellung Hannoverscher Künstler, October - December 1927, no. 299.
Dusseldorf, Städtischer Kunstpalast, Deutsche Kunst, May - October 1928, no. 151 (ex. cat.)
Cologne, Galerie Gmurzynska, Kurt Schwitters, October - December 1978, no. 31, p. 160 (illustrated p. 93).
Zurich, Kunsthaus, Der Hang zum Gesamtkunstwerk, February - April 1983, p. 24; this exhibition later travelled to Dusseldorf, Städtische Kunsthalle und Kunstverein fur die Rheinlande und Westfalen, May - July 1983; and Vienna, Museum des 20. Jahrhunderts, September - November 1983.
Basel, Museum Tinguely, Kurt Schwitters: MERZ - a Total Vision of the World, May - August 2004, no. 91, pp. 50 & 239 (illustrated p. 51).
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Lot Essay

What is the real reason the newspapers wont admit that Merz is the Constructivism the age requires? Thats easy: because Ive said it first.’ (Kurt Schwitters, ‘Tran 35’, Der Sturm VI, 1924, p. 124)

Made at the height of Schwitters’ involvement with International Constructivism, Das Richard Freytagbild (The Richard Freytag Picture) is one of the artist’s great wooden relief paintings. Created in 1927 it belongs to a period in which a final upsurge in the Constructivist nature of Schwitters’ art that had taken place throughout the 1920s started to combine with an attempt to reintegrate the rhythms and forms of nature into his work. ‘Modern art following a completely intuitive and independent course, has reached the same results as modern science.’ Schwitters had written in collaboration with El Lissiztky in their short-lived but centrally important magazine Nasci in 1924. ‘Like science, it has reduced form to its basic elements in order to reconstruct it according to the universal laws of nature; and in doing this, both have arrived at the same formula: EVERY FORM IS THE FROZEN INSTANTANEOUS PICTURE OF A PROCESS. THUS A WORK OF ART IS A STOPPING PLACE IN THE ROAD OF BECOMING AND NOT THE FIXED GOAL’ (El Lissitzky & Kurt Schwitters, Nasci, 1924, in J. Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, exh. cat., New York, 1985, p. 137).

Around 1926 Schwitters’ Constructivist development of the ‘Merzbild’ - a picture assembled from the detritus of everyday life into a new, cohesive and aesthetically pleasing order - had reached a turning point. In the mid-1920s along with a wide range of former Dadaists and Constructivist artists such as El Lissitzky with whom he collaborated on a number of projects at this time, Schwitters had been drawn to the ideal of integrating the constructive principle that their art revealed, into the wider realms of life itself. Part of a search for a gesamtkunstwerk or total-work-of-art, it was towards this end that Schwitters had persisted in the laborious and time-consuming construction of an entire Merz environment: his Merzbau or Merz-House, constructed out of found fragments in his home in Hannover throughout the 1920s. By the late 1920s however, Schwitters had grown aware of the limitations that reducing his art of assemblage to the mere geometry of the Constructivist style produced and was now seeking to allow each ‘element’ of his art to function more naturally and autonomously as a unit of meaning in a more ‘universal’ way.

Fusing the chaotic, deconstructive aesthetics of Dada and his early Merz pictures with the ordering principles he had found first in Mondrian and Van Doesburg’s de Stijl and then in the Constructivism of artists like Moholy-Nagy and El Lisstitzky, Schwitters sought now to create a mature form of Merz that aimed to expose and articulate the inner rhythm of nature running through all his assembled forms. ‘Nature of Chance often carries together things which correspond to that which we call rhythm’, Schwitters wrote, ‘the only task of the artist is to recognise and limit, to limit and recognise’ (Kurt Schwitters, ‘Kunst und Zeiten’ 1926, in J. Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, London, 1985, p.189).

The period that the Richard Freytagbild epitomises is one in which Schwitters was moving towards what has been described as a ‘Vitalist’ approach. This was an approach, rooted in a sense of universal nature, that incorporated biomorphic and organic forms into his work and sought to infuse the chaotic, hand-made qualities of his early Merz pictures - made with urban detritus - with an underlying sense of constructivist logic but without resorting to the hard-edged geometry or cold industrialised purity characterized by movements such as de Stijl or the work of artists like Lázló Moholy-Nagy and Mies van der Rohe.

Working with deliberately hand-crafted geometric forms of flat colour that build together into a cohesive and lyrical whole, Schwitters’ Richard Freytagbild is one that hints at a universal and integrated rhythm or language of form that articulates and makes sense of all disparate and distinctly autonomous elements and forms. Merging the elements of painting, sculpture and relief into a three-dimensional play of illusory and tangible form, the Richard Freytagbild, follows, in this respect, the structural logic of Schwitters’ Merzbau. As John Elderfield has pointed out about this picture, ‘the 1927 picture Richard Freytagbild, ... grades the pictorial space through elements of varying relief and echoes their shapes in the shapes of the background. And just as earlier this had produced a combination of Schwitters’ two previously separate kinds of Merzbilder – the high relief ... and the flatter, large-collage…– so now this produced a combination (in Richard Freytagbild and similar works) of Schwitters’ Constructivist high-reliefs and flatter ‘jigsaw’ pictures. The result is a kind of bas-relief painting; in this case, a part geometric, part organic one, which relates to some of Arp’s earlier bas-reliefs’ (J. Elderfield, op cit, p. 186).

As if to reinforce this overriding sense of play and reconstruction at the heart of his work, the title of this picture is one that derives from a label that Schwitters has stuck onto the back of this painting bearing the name: ‘Richard Freitag, Möbeltransport’ (furniture movers). The entire relief construction has been built upon a background comprised of a series of floorboard-like planks that may themselves once have belonged to a packing crate or the structure of a piece of furniture. The title of the work, which Schwitters has humorously amended to the spelling of the name of a little-known 19th Century German painter - Richard Freytag (1820-1894) - therefore also deliberately emphasises the central role that chance, spontaneous impulse and the making use of all elements and objects found in daily life play in the creation of the new constructive, deconstructive and reconstructive language that Schwitters repeatedly defined and redefined as Merz.

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