Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 15, 2016
Megan R. Luke Kurt Schwitters: Space, Image, Exile Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 352 pp.; 22 color ills.; 98 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (9780226085180)

Doing justice to the importance of Megan R. Luke’s compelling study of the German artist Kurt Schwitters’s late work of the 1930s and 1940s requires taking stock of how Schwitters’s richly contradictory art has previously been understood. The story as usually told—following John Elderfield’s foundational monograph (Kurt Schwitters, New York: Thames and Hudson, 1985)—goes something like this: soon after the end of the First World War, Schwitters began making what he called Merzbilder, works joining the recent innovations of abstraction and collage to one another in an unprecedented manner. In 1919, in his first statement about these Merzbilder, he insisted that they were an extension, not a negation, of painting. He described them as “abstract works of art” within which the heterogeneous bits of detritus of which they were in part composed were transformed into the formal and technical elements of painting: “the box top, playing card and newspaper clipping become surfaces; string, brushstroke and pencil stroke become line; wire-netting becomes overpainting or pasted-on greaseproof paper becomes varnish” (Kurt Schwitters, “Die Merzmalerei,” Der Sturm 10, no. 4 [July 1919]: 61; translated in Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, 50–51).

Schwitters’s early Merzbilder have long been seen as not only his greatest surviving works, but also as setting the terms through which his art in general can be understood, from his poetry to the Merzbau, the famous sculpture-cum-interior he first built in his Hanover home. The literature on Schwitters, following the lead of his own writings on the Merzbilder, usually describes his debased materials as transmuted, sublimated, redeemed, or liberated by the way he works with them, giving his fragments new tasks in the context of relationality established by his composition, ultimately defined by its framing boundaries. Yet the very aesthetic power of the Merzbilder depends upon the incompleteness of this sublimation; they “demand . . . the beholder’s residual recognition of the history of materiality in the very drama of its repression in the service of image-making,” as Luke puts it (32). Thus much of the literature on Schwitters gravitates toward one moment or the other of this “drama,” emphasizing the transubstantiation of rubbish into art, or relishing the resistance of his materials to such transubstantiation.

Luke’s important study leaves behind these familiar alternatives, for she refuses to allow the operations of collage to set the terms through which Schwitters’s later work is understood. Rather than concentrating on the artist’s breakthrough works and seeing those as establishing a pattern that was modified, extended to other mediums, but not radically reoriented over the next decades, Luke instead views Merz from the other end: from the perspective not of the Schwitters who made his home in the provincial city of Hanover into an unlikely node of the international avant-garde during the years of the Weimar Republic, but that of the aging, rather isolated exile in Norway and England after the rise of the Nazis, at once continuing and criticizing his own earlier work. Largely neglected works of the 1930s and 1940s thus come to the fore, including the kitschy oil landscapes, the tiny painted plaster sculptures Schwitters made to be handled as much as beheld, the late collages with their faux-“pointillist” facture, and the sculptural interiors he created in Norway and England, of which little remains, echoing in this respect too the Hanover Merzbau, destroyed by an Allied bomb in 1943.

Luke’s book does not merely yield a more complete understanding of the artist’s oeuvre by attending to what others have scanted, though that would already have been an important contribution to the Schwitters literature. Rather, drawing on unpublished archival material—the lecture notes and glass slides that Schwitters used to give talks on “Formation [Gestaltung] in Art, Architecture, and Typography” in 1929–30—Luke demonstrates in her first chapter that Schwitters arrived around 1930 at a new sculptural theory of space that pivots on the interchange between work and beholder and implicitly criticizes his own earlier focus on internal relationships within a bounded pictorial composition (36–37). Schwitters’s reconception of space gives Luke a way of revaluing his late work, of showing that it coheres around a set of concerns distinct from those of the early Merzbilder.

In Luke’s second chapter, she analyzes Schwitters’s Merzbau as working out this reconception of space on a grand scale. It is difficult to exaggerate either the importance or the elusiveness of the Merzbau—“a sculpture in space into which you enter and can go for a walk,” as Schwitters described it. Initially the sculptural transformation of his Hanover studio, it annexed adjoining spaces in his house before its multiplication in the iterations of the project that Schwitters built in exile, in an Oslo suburb and then in the English Lake District. Precious little of any of these ambitious works remains; the main evidence that exists are photographs, Schwitters’s writings, and visitors’ recollections. Luke’s reappraisal of the Merzbau is one of the most striking results of her new approach: rather than the extension of his Merzbilder into space, an amplification of their procedures such that Schwitters’s home became a semi-private, grottoed, and grody total work of collage in three dimensions, Luke sees it as a turning point with which Schwitters leaves behind the pictorial problematics of collage (93).

The tension between her own and earlier accounts is especially marked here, as it is not a matter of foregrounding the previously neglected but of reinterpreting a project whose centrality is not in question. Most commentators have dated the beginnings of the Merzbau to the column constructions that could be seen in Schwitters’s studio in the early 1920s, such as the notorious Cathedral of Erotic Misery. Although the Merzbau did come to incorporate the latter (93), Luke insists on distinguishing clearly between the columns, with their distinctive form of play with traditions of figural sculpture, and the Merzbau, which she dates to after 1930 (101). This solves longstanding problems of chronology—Elderfield had wondered why, if “such a self-publicist” as Schwitters began the Merzbau in the early 1920s, he did not mention it in print before 1931 (Elderfield, 148). More importantly, Luke demonstrates that Schwitters’s ambitions for the Merzbau as an intervention in the history of sculpture should be taken at least as seriously as the fascinatingly fetishistic objects that Schwitters had squirreled away in its niches, so prominent in the reminiscences of his contemporaries and much easier to analyze from such evidence. Luke shifts attention from the inventory of the grottoes of the Cathedral of Erotic Misery (the “Nibelungen Hoard,” “Goethe Grotto,” “Sex-Crime Cavern,” and so on) that Schwitters published in 1931 to his 1933 description of the Merzbau in the journal abstraction, création, art non-figuratif as “the construction of an interior from plastic forms and colors” in which “there are no details that form a delimited composition like a unity” (110–11).

Luke’s outstanding third chapter, on the artist’s neglected but pivotal pocket-size sculptures, mostly made in England in the 1940s, in which his conception of the sculptural is reoriented around the perception (fondling, even) of surface—crucial for the history of modernist small sculpture—and her fourth, on his return to collage in the same years, focusing especially on the extensive series of works in which Schwitters used as supports photographic reproductions of paintings by artists from Antonio Allegri da Correggio to Franz Defregger, demonstrate the power of her argument for grasping Schwitters’s work in exile. Luke’s analyses are marked by absorption in the material and formal particulars of each work she considers. From this immersion in Schwitters’s objects and writings, which proceeds by putting them in dialogue with others (from fellow members of the avant-garde such as László Moholy-Nagy and El Lissitzky to figures of the past—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe looms larger than some might suspect), Luke reveals how exile and lateness were not only biographical circumstances with which Schwitters had to contend, but also became structuring principles of his works of the thirties and forties. From Schwitters’s own semi-ironical application of the art-historical concept of “late style” or “old-age style” to his own oeuvre (2, 12), to his adaptation of the Merzbau to the itinerancy of exile by reconceiving it as reproducible (92), to the way in which his reworkings of some of his own early Merzbilder some twenty years later in Norway gave the now isolated artist the opportunity of “collaboration with an earlier self” (225), Luke makes these circumstances do critical work, showing how Schwitters reconceived his art once modernism had become for him something that happened in the past, and elsewhere.

There may be no way of speaking of Schwitters in exile without pathos—think of Schwitters as a refugee in a British internment camp in the early 1940s, gathering from his fellow inmates leftover porridge with which to sculpt (162–65). Luke’s study, always restrained, precise, and scholarly, demonstrates that pathos can, under certain circumstances, be put to analytical and critical use. Her study takes up the idea that sculptural issues of place and displacement might in part articulate social and political conditions of exile suggested by Rosalind Krauss’s characterization of modernist sculpture’s condition of “homelessness” (“Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” October 8 [Spring 1979]: 30–44) and elaborated in T. J. Demos’s The Exiles of Marcel Duchamp (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 2007). Luke’s book, by means of and not despite its tight focus on Schwitters, makes good on its wager that “our understanding of modernism (and its continued vitality for contemporary practice) may be renewed if we examine the late works of artists who might once have been enlisted to define its most cherished tenets” (15).

Annie Borneuf
Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago