‘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, 1930, quoted in W. Schmalenbach, Kurt Schwitters, New York, 1967, p. 96).
The large ‘Merzbild’ relief-paintings that Kurt Schwitters made between 1919 and 1921 are widely recognized as being the works that established him as one of the most radical and important artistic pioneers of the Twentieth Century. This great series of constructed-relief-paintings, built, literally, from the detritus, scraps and found objects of a modern industrial culture then entering a state of collapse was the series out of which Schwitters’ unique, revolutionary and life-long, one-man art movement ‘Merz’ was born. Breaking down the boundaries between art and daily life and instigating an entire culture of materials which continues to inform much contemporary art today, Schwitters’ Merzbilder were immediately recognized at the time they were made as something absolutely new - as creations expressive of a radical new concept of both what a work of art could be and how it could be made. ‘I am painter and I nail my pictures together’, was the way in which Schwitters introduced himself at this time. Transforming the entire nature of art-making and of modern artists’ approach to their work, these extraordinary, surprising and ultimately joyous constructions immediately established a legacy that was to influence directly a whole range of artists, particularly in the post Second World War era. A major influence on artists such as Alberto Burri, Cy Twombly, Robert Rauschenberg, Joseph Beuys and Sigmar Polke for example, much of these artists’ work is almost unthinkable without the precedent set by the Merzbilder that Schwitters made in the years immediately following the First World War.
Measuring nearly a metre high, Schwitters’s Ja-was?-Bild (‘Yes-What?-Picture’) is one of only three such reliefs from this first revolutionary series of large, early Merzbilder to remain in private hands. A large framed Merzbild relief, created in 1920, it is one of the most mature and thoroughly integrated examples from this seminal series. Composed from a thick, almost papier-maché-like assemblage of street posters, newspapers and other feuillton amassed, painted in oil and adorned with tin lids, cardboard cuttings and an assortment of other ephemera, its component parts, along with its frame, combine to form an integral part of a coherent whole in which each varied and highly individual element now appears to have become interdependent upon the other. This complex, intricate balance of interrelated forms and different materials, elegantly mastered in this work, was a key element of these first Merzbilder, as Schwitters, in the same year that this work was made, explained. ‘At the end of 1918 I realized that all values only exist in relationship to each other and that restriction to a single material is one-sided and small-minded. From this insight I formed Merz, above all as the sum of individual art forms, Merz painting, Merz poetry’ (Kurt Schwitters, ‘Sturmbilderbuch’, 1920, cited in J. Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, New York, 1985, p. 49). Elsewhere Schwitters was to write, ‘Merz is a philosophy. Its essence is absolute uninhibitedness and impartiality...Merz means forging relationships, preferably between all things in the world’ (Kurt Schwitters, quoted in F. Lach, Kurt Schwitters, Das literarische Werk, vol. 5, Cologne, 1973-81, p. 187).
Created during a period of revolutionary change, mass inflation and societal collapse in Germany following the First World War, Schwitters’ large Merzbilder of 1919-21 are clearly both a product of this fragmented age and a transformation of its apparent chaos and destruction into something positive, constructive, holistic and burgeoning. The almost alchemical transformation that takes place in these works – their translation of scraps, detritus and other artifacts of waste and decline into something unified, whole and ideal - ran directly counter to the similarly fragmentary anti-art aesthetic of much Dadaist art from the same period. Dada was a movement with which Schwitters in 1919 and 1920 had close but complex associations. ‘Whereas Dadaism merely poses antitheses’, Schwitters wrote, ‘Merz reconciles these antitheses by assigning relative values to every element in a work of art. Pure Merz is art, pure Dadaism is non-art; in both cases deliberately so’ (Kurt Schwitters, ‘Banalitäten’, 1923, quoted in J. Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, London, 1985, p. 67). ‘In this way’, he later added, ‘I rode out the revolution enjoying myself thoroughly, and pass as a Dadaist without being one’ (Kurt Schwitters, quoted in W. Schmalenbach, Kurt Schwitters, New York, 1967, p. 96).
In this way too, and throughout an era when paper currency had lost its value and only food, work or lodging remained commodities of real value (other than gold and U.S. dollars of course), Schwitters, alone in Hannover, had begun to establish a new and unique avant-garde. His was a one-man art movement that, following the failures of the political revolutions in Germany in November 1918 and January to March 1919 he half-ironically, half-seriously declared to be the 'Merz revolution’.
The name ‘Merz’ derived from a fragment of the words ‘Kommerz und Privatbank’ that Schwitters had cut up and glued onto one of the first of his large relief-constructions made in 1919. Its ‘revolution’ was one in which art and life were to be merged through the ‘business’ of re-assembling the broken fragments of modern urban life into new glorified forms and expressions of the triumph of the human spirit. As the artist’s friend and neighbour in Hannover, Kate Steinitz recalled, throughout this period, Schwitters was often to be seen on the streets of Hannover, ‘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).
Out of these collected fragments of a world in decline, Schwitters glued, pasted and nailed poetic and miraculous constellations that not only expressed a new formal language but spoke too of the power of transformation and perhaps also of a universal hidden order underpinning the disparate appearance and apparent chaos of contemporary existence. It was in the large relief Merzbilder of 1919-21 - as opposed to the far smaller, more prolific but flat, paper collages which he made alongside these works and to which he referred at this time as ‘Merzeichnungen’ or Merz-drawings’ - that this vision of an order forming out of chaos, was first and most persuasively realized.
Formally proceeding from the Cubo-Futuristic style of fragmented structuring that characterized much German Expressionist painting at this time (including Schwitters’ own oil paintings up until 1918), the large Merzbilder reliefs drew also on the utopian, visionary and strongly cosmic style of Expressionist painting then current in the work of artists such as Johannes Molzahn and Dresden Expressionists like Constantin von Mitschke-Collande, Otto Lange and Otto Dix. Between 1909 and 1914 Schwitters had been a student at the Dresden Akademie and in the summers of 1919 and 1920, his work was exhibited alongside such Dresden-based artists at the Galerie Emil Richter in Dresden. What Schwitters seems to have taken from such work was its invoking of the circle, the disc and the wheel as cosmic metaphors of revolution and a new dawn. Indeed in 1920 Schwitters was even to dedicate a poem to Johannes Molzahn, with whom he had exhibited in 1919, on the theme of a revolving world, writing such sentiments in his poem as ‘worlds turn the new machine age to thee... thine the new machine space... axles break eternity.’
In numerous evocatively entitled Merzbilder reliefs of 1919 and 1920, such as Das Kreisen (Revolving) in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Das Sternen Bild (The Star Picture) in the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf and Strahlen Welt (Radiating World) in the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., circles and discs are also repeatedly used to generate a vortex-like feeling of rotational movement unifying their elements into a composite and perhaps also cosmic whole. In addition to this, several other Merzbilder reliefs from this period make use of simulated radiating light effects with seemingly transparent planes of angular colour generating an atmosphere of an inner light appearing to emanate from within the work itself. It looks, in these works, as if the quotidian elements of Schwitters’ reliefs are being held in a unified balance by a cosmic or even perhaps divine ordering force at work within the picture. Merzbilder such as Bild mit heller Mitte (Picture with a Light Centre) in the Museum of Modern Art, New York and Das grosse Ichbild in the Museum Ludwig, Cologne are two cases in point.
Executed in 1920, Schwitters’ Ja –Was? Bild is one of the most mature and sophisticated examples from this series in which both such light effects and a sense of revolving have been fused together into one united material expression held together within a thick and pronounced black wooden frame. ‘Only in a limited space’ Schwitters was later to say, ‘is it possible to assign compositional values to each part in relation to other parts’ (Kurt Schwitters, ‘Das Ziel meiner Merzkunst’, 1938, quoted in F. Lach, op. cit., vol. 5, p. 362). Here, in this self-enclosed Merzbild, with its discs seeming to float like planets above a chaotic central vortex of cubo-futurist form and layered with scraps of newspaper, cardboard and wooden slats, Schwitters appears to have constructed an entirely new, self-contained abstract universe of coherent aesthetic possibility.
It is an abstract universe in which each element has its own autonomy and identity and plays an equal part in the establishment of a dynamic and cohesive whole. ‘Merzbilder are abstract works of art,’ Schwitters wrote in 1919. ‘The word Merz denotes essentially the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes, and technically the principle of equal evaluation of the individual materials’ (Kurt Schwitters, ‘Merzmalerei’, 1919, cited in J. Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, New York, 1985, p. 51).
Held in a cohesive unity by its use of strong diagonals and the apparent incorporation of the frame into the material logic of the work, the colour and cubistic sense of logic displayed in Schwitters’ Ja-Was? Bild is, in some ways, also reflective of the similar cubistic assemblage of forms that distinguished Giorgio de Chirico’s metaphysical paintings of 1916 and 1917; works such as The Melancholy of Departure of 1916 (Tate Modern) and Metaphysical Interior (with Sanatorium) of 1917 (Museum of Modern Art, New York) which Schwitters knew from the January 1920 issue of Valori Plastici.
These works had a dramatic influence on the German avant-garde at this time, particularly upon the Berlin Dadaists with whom Schwitters was in close contact. Opening the mysterious logic of de Chirico’s constructions up to the real world in a way that went beyond the precedents of Braque and Picasso’s collages or the deconstructive attack of Dadaist collage or montage, Schwitters declared that he ‘saw no reason that old tickets, pieces of driftwood, cloakroom numbers, pieces of wire and wheels, buttons, old rubbish from attics and scrap heaps could not be used as material for paintings on an equal footing with pigments manufactured in factories’ to become the material substance of art itself (Kurt Schwitters, quoted in W. Schmalenbach, op. cit., p. 96). Moving in the opposite direction to the Berlin Dadaists and their attempt to sublimate art and aesthetics to the grim realities of a fragmented world, Schwitters was attempting to sublimate the grim realities of such a world to the ‘higher’ aesthetics of art. It is in this sense that his work was utopian and more in tune with Russian Constructivist ideals, than with those of the Berlin Dadaists who, in 1920, were in fact, mistakenly claiming that they were following a constructivist ideal. ‘Art is Dead, Long Live the Machine Art of Tatlin!’, were the words of one of their proclamations, though in 1920, these Dadaists had little to no idea what Tatlin’s art looked like.
Schwitters’ Merzbilder were revolutionary and utopian works in the sense that their aim was the complete transformation of the entire world into a creative resource and through that transformation, the turning of life itself into an aesthetic act. Merz, in this way, effectively foreshadowed Joseph Beuys’ concept of ‘everyone an artist’ and this egalitarian and open aesthetic was also reflected in the manner in which each work was made. The Merzbilder, Schwitters maintained, were ‘self-contained’ and referred ‘to nothing outside of’ themselves. A ‘consistent work of art’, he argued, can never refer to anything outside of itself without loosening its ties to art’ (Kurt Schwitters, quoted in W. Schmalenbach, op. cit., p. 97). They were a new visual form of poetry, and as in poetry, ‘words and sentences are nothing but parts. Their relation to one another is not the customary one of everyday speech, which after all has a different purpose: to express something. In poetry, words are torn from their former context, dissociated and brought into a new artistic context, they become formal parts of the poem, nothing more’ (Kurt Schwitters, quoted in J. Elderfield, op. cit., p. 43).
Ultimately, therefore, in a Merzbild, Schwitters explained, the ‘material matters as little as I do myself. What matters is forming it. Since the material does not matter, I take whatever material I like, if the picture requires it. Because I balance different kinds of material against one another, I have an advantage over oil painting, for in addition to evaluating colour against colour, line against line, form against form, and so on, I also evaluate material against material – wood as opposed to burlap, for example…[and]... call the Weltanschauung from which this mode of artistic creation arose, ‘Merz’’ (Kurt Schwitters, ‘Merz’, Der Ararat, 1921, reproduced in R. Motherwell, The Dada Painters and Poets, London, 1989, pp. 55-65). ‘Merz’, in this way, comes to stand ultimately for ‘freedom from all fetters, for the sake of artistic creation. Freedom is not lack of restraint, but the product of strict artistic discipline. Merz also means tolerance towards any artistically motivated limitation’ (Kurt Schwitters, quoted in W. Schmalenbach, op. cit., p. 78).
‘During the war’ Schwitters recalled, ‘everything was in a state of ferment, the abilities and skills which I had brought with me from the academy were of no use whatsoever, and all around me people were fighting about stupid things which I myself couldn’t have cared less about...and then all of a sudden, the glorious revolution began. I don’t think much of such revolutions, for people must be ready for them. It’s like apples being shaken to the ground by the wind before they’ve time to ripen, such a shame. But it put an end to that enormous swindle which people call war. I quitted my job without notice and then things really got moving. The turmoil had only just begun. At last I felt free and I gave vent to my jubilation in a loud outburst. Not being wasteful, I took everything with me that I could find, for we were now an impoverished country. One can also shout with junk - and this I did, nailing and glueing it together’ (Kurt Schwitters, quoted in F. Lach, op. cit., vol. 5, p. 335).