Tag Archives: Berlin

Part 4: Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)

From Raoul Hausmann, the Dada artist often credited as the founder of photomontage, we link to his friend and sometime colleague, Kurt Schwitters.  According to the memoirs of Raoul Hausmann,  Schwitters asked to join Berlin Dada either in late 1918 or early 1919.

Kurt Schwitters

Schwitters (1887-1948) was a German artist who  worked in several genres and media, including Dadaism, Constructivism, Surrealism, poetry, sound, painting, sculpture, graphic design, typography, and what came to be known as installation art.

Das Undbild (1919), Staatsgalerie Stuttgart

He is most famous for his collages, called Merz Pictures. Merz has been called ‘Psychological Collage’. Most of the works attempt to make coherent aesthetic sense of the world around Schwitters, using fragments of found objects. Whilst these works were usually collages incorporating found objects, such as bus tickets, old wire and fragments of newsprint, Merz also included artists’ periodicals, sculptures and sound poems. These fragments often make witty allusions to current events.

Reconstruction of the Merzbau

Alongside his collages, Schwitters also dramatically altered the interiors of a number of spaces throughout his life. The most famous was the Merzbau, the transformation of six (or possibly more) rooms of the family house in Hanover, Waldhausenstrasse 5. The artist fled Nazi Germany to Norway in early 1937.

Opened by Customs (1937–8), Tate

Following the Nazi invasion of Norway, Schwitters was amongst a number of German citizens who were interned by the Norwegian authorities at Vågan Folk High School in Kabelvåg on the Lofoten Islands, Following his release, Schwitters fled to Leith, Scotland with his son and daughter-in-law. He was moved between various internment camps in Scotland and England before arriving on 17 July 1940 in the Isle of Man.

Picture of Spatial Growths – Picture with Two Small Dogs
(1920–39), Tate

At least in the early days of the camp’s existence, there was a shortage of art supplies which meant that the internees had to be resourceful to obtain the materials they needed: they would mix brick dust with sardine oil for paint, dig up clay when out on walks for sculpture, and rip up the lino floors to make cuttings which they then pressed through the clothes mangle to make linocut prints. Schwitters’ Merz extension of this included making sculptures in porridge. Schwitters was finally released on 21 November 1941.

Red Wire Sculpture
(1944), Tate

After obtaining his freedom Schwitters moved to London, hoping to make good on the contacts that he had built up over his period of internment.

The Proposal (1942), Tate

Schwitters eventually moved to the Lake District permanently in June 1945. During his time in Ambleside, the artist created a sequence of proto-pop pictures, after the encouragement from a friend in America who sent him letters describing life in the emerging consumer society, wrapped in the pages of comics.

‘En Morn’ (1947) Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne

From these works, we can clearly see Schwitters as the pioneer of Pop Art, his work prefiguring the early work of many artists, including the prolific Eduardo Paolozzi, who will the subject of the next installment of the Doctor’s Dozen. Here’s a taster:

‘I was a Rich Man’s Plaything’ (1947) by Eduardo Paolozzi, Tate

 

Part 3: Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971)

The third link in the Doctor’s Dozen is the Austrian artist and writer, Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971).

Raoul Hausmann (1929) photographed by August Sander

Hausmann’s main connection with the previous subject, George Grosz, is that he was also a leader of the Berlin Dada movement. Hausmann’s experimental photographic collages, sound poetry and institutional critiques would have a profound influence on the European Avant-Garde in the aftermath of the First World War.

ABCD (Self-portrait) (1923–24) by Raoul Hausmann

As a young man, Hausmann was interested in the goals of the emerging Expressionist movement in Germany. In 1917 he was introduced to Dadaist thinking and ideas by contemporary literature such as the magazine ‘Cabaret Voltaire’. From 1918 the first Dadaist soirées, in which Hausmann and Grosz participated, took place and Hausmann went on to develop his characteristic photomontage process and printed his first ‘poster poems’ and phonetic poems.

O F F E A H B D C (1918) by Raoul Hausmann [Collection Berlinische Galerie, Berlin]
Hausmann’s extramarital romance with the renowned Dada artist Hannah Höch resulted in an explosive artistic future. It was during their location to the Baltic Sea that the idea of photomontage inspired the artists which he used to vent out his Dadaist claims.

‘Mechanical Head’ [The Spirit of Our Age] (c.1920) by Raoul Hausmann
The most well known work by Hausmann, ‘Mechanical Head’ [above] is the only extant assemblage. The notion of head is driven by the fact that everything rests within the mind and every outcome is a result of what lies within. However, the artist discards this notion and tries to pull out the reverse aspect by simply pointing out that whatever sticks to the head defines the thought process and he explains this literally by sticking the materials onto the head. It is the materiality or objectivity of the world that defines the thoughts rather than the thoughts residing within the head.

The photomontage became the technique most associated with Berlin Dada, used extensively by Hausmann and Grosz and others,  and would prove a crucial influence on the German artist Kurt Schwitters.

Das Undbild (1919) by Kurt Schwitters [Staatsgalerie Stuttgart]
Schwitters became a close friend of Hausmann and so he is the next subject for the Doctor’s Dozen.  Stay tuned!

 

Part 2: George Grosz (1893-1959)

In the second installment of the Doctor’s Dozen on the Serendipitous Compendium I discuss with John the work of the German Expressionist artist, George Grosz (1893-1959).

Apart from sharing the same Christian name with Bellows who featured in the previous broadcast, Grosz was also an artist who highlighted horrors of war in his art. For Grosz, the teeming city was an apocalyptic place where human problems were concentrated into a confined space governed by individual and collective lunacy.

‘The Metropolis’ (1916-17), Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

George Grosz achieved early recognition for his biting portrayals of Weimar-era Berlin, satirising the culture’s hypocrisy, military platitudes and wealthy businessmen, as in ‘Berlin Street’ (1931) from the Metropolitan’s collection [see below]. As the Met’s caption states: ‘Grosz depicts several menacing denizens of Berlin against the backdrop of the modern metropolis, a hellish place animated by greed, cruelty, and ghoulish lust. A beggar, one of the two million crippled World War I veterans who roamed the streets of Berlin, sits on the lower left and holds up his hat to a woman, whose garish attire and crude make-up suggest that she is most likely a prostitute’.

‘Berlin Street’ (1931), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC

As the artist stated, “The devil knows why it should be so, but once you look more closely, people and things begin to look threadbare, ugly and often pointlessly ambiguous”. Grosz loathed what he described as “the masses” – and trusted to his own “observation, which always confirmed that the human masses are a pitiful mob, an easily influenced herd of cattle that like nothing better than to choose their own butchers”. He targeted not only “the pillars of society” – politicians, lawyers, military and ecclesiastical leaders – but the bourgeoisie in general. He saw the entire class as a decadent mire which nurtured the power of the ambitious.

The Pillars of Society (1926), Neue Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museum, Berlin

In 1917 Grosz founded the Berlin wing of the Dada movement. Dada was the artistic expression of the critique of the political and social state of affairs – the Dadaists instinctive mission was to smash the Germans’ cultural identity. Responses to the new art form, such as the Dada Show in 1920 in which Grosz participated, ranged from shock to ‘sheer nonsense’. From the ceiling of the gallery, a stuffed soldier dressed in field grey hung suspended, wearing officer’s epaulettes and with a pig mask under his cap.

Grand opening of the first Dada exhibition: International Dada Fair, Berlin, 5 June 1920

Grosz’s drawings were tartly critical of society and in 1921 he was prosecuted for defamation of the army; in 1924 for offences against public morality; and in 1928 for blasphemy. Hated by the Nazis, 285 of Grosz’s works were removed from German collections – one place he was very well represented was in the 1937 show of Degenerative Art.

Detail from ‘Swamp Flowers of Capitalism’ (1919), Richard Nagy Gallery

George Grosz left Berlin in 1932 to settle in New York, and in 1938 he was stripped of his German citizenship and became an American citizen. In the American years, the artist retreated somewhat from his former positions and his analyses took on a generalised apocalyptic tone. Becoming resigned to it, he eventually turned to landscape painting. He returned to the rubble of Berlin to live in 1959, but just 5 weeks later he was found dead after a night out drinking.

‘Down with Liebknecht’ (1918), Richard Nagy gallery

One of the best known styles associated with the Dada movement is the technique of collage or montage, which originated in Cubism and was used by a number of German artists, including the Austrian Raoul Hausmann. Connected to Grosz in this series by being, like Grosz, one of the key figures in Berlin Dada, Hausmann’s experimental photographic collages, sound poetry and institutional critiques would have a profound influence on the European Avant- Garde in the aftermath of the First World War.

His art remains fresh and astonishingly powerful today, and it is to the work of this extraordinary artist and writer that I will be discussing the third installment of the Doctor’s Dozen.

The Art Critic (1919-20) Raoul Hausmann, Tate