The Art in Poetry & the Poetry in Art, Part 2: Kurt Schwitters

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:48 AM
Getty Museum Panel April 25, 2002

Somewhere along the way Kurt Schwitters wrote the following, with which I’d like to start my presentation of his work:

My aim is the total work of art, which combines all branches of art into an artistic unit. . . . First, I combined individual categories of art. I have pasted together poems from words and sentences so as to produce a rhythmic design. I have on the other hand pasted up pictures and drawings so that sentences could be read in them. I have driven nails into pictures so as to produce a plastic relief apart from the pictorial quality of the paintings. I did this so as to efface the boundaries between the arts.

Although Kurt Schwitters is recognized as one of the seminal visual artists of the earlier twentieth century, his achievement as one of the major poets and theorists of Modernism has so far not received the same degree of attention, at least not in the English-speaking world. Art critics and museum curators, perhaps because of their professional leanings, tend with few exceptions to consider his language-oriented work as a curious by-product of his art or as a minor phase of his early, Dada-associated career. While such an appraisal may ring true for others (we used to think it was the case, say, with Picasso), it is a distortion of Schwitters' accomplishment, especially because he himself never saw his art and literary activities according to some such hierarchical model. On the contrary, Schwitters' push was toward an ever greater integration and equivalence of the various facets of his artistic oeuvre. In this sense -- in that extension of Dada experimentation that he personalized with the coined word "Merz" -- his attempt "to efface the boundaries between the arts" resembles and predicts the work of such later artists as Cage, Oldenburg and Kaprow, indeed of a significant portion of the ”postmodern" generation. (It is also in clear opposition to Stein’s contention that “the egotism of a painter is an entirely different egotism than the egotism of a writer” – that their thought and practice come, so to speak, from irreconcilably different sources.)

Schwitters wrote prolifically throughout his life. His earliest poems date from his student days in pre-World War One Germany, his last writings from 1947, the year of his death in England. It is in his poetry, he tells us, that he made his initial breakthrough as an artist, and it is in the fusion of the poetry and painting that he made his entry into Merz. Besides the poetry, the boundaries of which he stretched as much if not more than any of his contemporaries, he wrote essays and manifestos, plays and fictions. Although most of his writing was in his native German, he also wrote in English and Norwegian (he renounced the German language during his exile in World War Two). The true extent of his written opus has only recently become apparent, thanks to the five volumes of his collected writings (Das Literarische Werk), published by DuMont Verlag in Cologne.

Kurt Schwitters' continual inventiveness is revealed by even a cursory glance at his collected writings. He ranks squarely among the protean writers of the first part of the twentieth century, along with poets such as Apollinaire, Stein, Tzara, Marinetti, Pound, and so on. The professed sweep and aim of his poems (no contemporary poet worked with or developed more new forms and genres) are truly Poundian or even Wagnerian, though without Pound's or Wagner's mytho-historical ambitions or ideological strictures. Schwitters worked all his life towards a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, as an amalgamation of elements from all artistic genres assembled through the common synthesizing principle of radical collage. His famous Merzbau (Merz Tower) was "an extraordinary architectural-sculptural column, or assemblage" as Lucy Lippard describes it, or Schwitters himself: "I am building an abstract sculpture into which people can go."

Schwitters also conceived but never brought into full play the idea of a Robert Wilson-like total theater, as what he called "the ultimate, total Merz work ... distinguished by the fusion of all factors ['even people may be included'] into a total work of art." But even in his smaller visual collages, words invaded the world of paint and form, not only as detritus from the commercial/banal world around him, but speaking to the issues of his time -- signs of a democratizing politics and of a poetics of everyday life: "the search for an artistic complex in an artless world ... and from that complex the creation of a work of art through acts of framing." This highly conscious quest to use everyday objects and language-shards -- "banalities" he calls them -- is foregrounded by Schwitters in a number of theoretical texts.

Viewed in the narrower sense, Schwitters' poetry-as-such displays a similar sweep and inventiveness. It includes early expressionist lyrics (the most radical of which already move him towards his kind of asyntactic poetry) and their later, often hilarious reworkings ("An Anna Blume" is the primary example), Dada and proto-Surrealist poems, and vocovisual experiments, often taking the shape of what would later be called sound-texts and concrete poetry. While he is best known now for the latter [sound]works (his "Ur Sonata" foremost here), his language experiments also led him into other areas of what he called "abstract poetry," where syntax was dissolved or transformed, isolating words or placing them in untried combinations, as an exploration of the problematics of referentiality and non-referentiality in language

DESIRE

And
Without
Have
Sing
Earthworm
Strut
Lyric
Tradition
The beggar
Of
Hollow
Green
Of about
Of abutments
The grass

Of such work he writes: "In poetry, words are torn from their former context, dissociated, and brought into a new context where they become formal parts of the poem, nothing else." His central methods here, as with his best known paintings, are those of collage and assemblage or, as he describes it: "[The poetry] is analogous to Merz painting in making use of given elements such as sentences cut out of newspapers or taken down from catalogues, posters, etc., with or without alteration."

But for all of his radical language experiments, Schwitters, during his most active period on native ground, was the author of what was possibly the best known and most popular German poem of the 1920s, “An Anna Blume," and his almost equally popular "Ur Sonata," a wordless 35-minute performance poem, is to sound poetry what Joyce's Ulysses is to the twentieth-century novel. If the success of "Anna Blume" -- "both a Dadaist poem ... and a sentimentalized Expressionist one," as Elderfield describes it -- came easily, the success of "Ur Sonata" was more equivocal and depended in large measure on Schwitters' own personality and presence as a performer. This involved not only his performance tours with avant-garde colleagues like Theo van Doesburg and Raoul Hausmann, but appearances like the one described in almost mythic terms by the Dada artist and film-maker Hans Richter, which took place in Potsdam in 1924 or 1925 in a private house and before an audience made up largely of the local gentry, retired generals and other people of rank from the old Prussian nobility:

Schwitters stood on the podium, drew himself up to his full six feet plus, and began to perform the Ur Sonata, complete with hisses, roars and crowings, before an audience who had no experience whatever of anything modern. At first they were completely baffled, but after a couple of minutes the shock began to wear off. For another five minutes protest was held in check by the respect due Frau Kiepenhauer's house. But this restraint served only to increase the inner tension. I watched delightedly as two generals in front of me pursed their lips as hard as they could to stop themselves laughing. Their faces, above their upright collars, turned first red, then slightly bluish. And then they lost control. They burst laughing, and the whole audience, freed from the pressure that had been building up inside them, exploded in an orgy of laughter. The dignified old ladies, the stiff generals, shrieked with laughter, gasped for breath, slapped their thighs, choked themselves. Kurtchen was not in the least bit put out by this. He turned up the volume of his enormous voice to Force Ten and simply swamped the storm of laughter in the audience, so that the latter seemed almost to be an accompaniment to the Ur Sonata. ... The hurricane blew itself out as rapidly as it had arisen. Schwitters spoke the rest of his Ur Sonata without further interruption. The result was fantastic. The same generals, the same rich ladies, who had previously laughed until they cried, now came to Schwitters, again with tears in their eyes, almost stuttering with admiration and gratitude. Something had been opened up within them, something they had never expected to feel: a great joy.

There is no anonymous or absent author here, but a remarkable, self-defined, and often misunderstood artist. He is also, incontestibly, one of us.

[The Schwitters excerpts are taken from PPPPPP: Poems Performance Pieces Proses Plays Poetics by Kurt Schwitters, edited & translated by myself & Pierre Joris, published & still available from Damon Krukowski’s Exact Change. The opening section of this talk, including a discussion of the poetry of Pablo Picasso, appeared in an earlier posting.]

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