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Tag Archives: Kurt Schwitters

I am not Schwitters either.

“Up the stairs he went, and once more rang Grosz’s bell. Grosz, enraged by the continual jangling, opened the door, but before he could say a word, Schwitters said “I am not Schwitters either.” (Hans Richter, Dada, art and anti-art Abrams, 1964, New York, p.145)

I am not Schwitters either so I don’t know who is Schwitters. To understand a person from only one perspective is like looking at a silhouette, there are only two diamentions. The more views, the more contradictions and a three or four dimensional character starts to take shape

Hans Richter account of Kurt Schwitters “a first class businessman, a born shop keeper” (p.149) is markedly different from that of  E.L.T Mesens, of a man travelling third class with a very small suitcase that contained nothing but a spare celluloid collar for his thick flannel shirt and bunch of his Merz publications. Kurt Schwitters is best known for his Dada collages but he should also be remembered for his great modern poetry.

Schwitters cover trial

Three Stories: Kurt Schwitters by Kurt Schwitters, Jasia Reichardt (Editor) (Tate Publishing, 2011, London) is a small 32 page hardcover book with three stories and a poem by Schwitters. There is also an introduction by the editor Jasia Reichardt and an essay about Schwitters by Mesens.

The only images in the book are a couple of small marginal illustrations that accompany “The Flat and Round Painter”. This fairy tale is an absurd allegory about why all paintings are now flat. It was written around 1941 when Schwitter’s was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man.

“The Idiot” was originally written in Norwegian and was translated by Schwitters into English. The setting feels very Norwegian although there are no definite references to any particular location.

“The Landlady” 1945 is a short sketch of an “intelligent” landlady who would make Basil Fawlty appear reasonable.

For me the best part is his “The London Symphony” written in 1942. The realism and urbanism of this poem is truly radical as all the lines came readymade, composed from the hand painted advertising signs that Schwitters saw on the streets of London.

“Tribute to Schwitters” by E.L.T. Mesens was commissioned for ARTnews in 1958 and has been unavailable since then. There is also Ernst Schwitters reply to Mesens is a previously unpublished response by the artist’s son Ernst Schwitters and a response from Mesens. Mesens raises issue Mondrian’s attitude towards Dada and this is part of the dispute with Schwitters’s son.

Another point of difference of opinion is over the quality of Schwitter’s treatment in the English internment camp on the Isle of Man. Mesens claims that he enjoyed it but the artist’s son, Ernst Schwitters, who was in the interment camp with his father, disagrees. Although a Belgium citizen Mesens was involved and informed by the English especially Roland Penrose with whom he ran the London Gallery.

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Art & Advertising

Walking along Hosier Lane with the street artist, CDH who was half-heartedly tearing off the advertising posters. CDH was talking about making Hosier Lane an advertising free space (a worth while ambition). CDH wants to distinguish between art and advertising but I’m not sure that such a distinction can be made because the nexus between art and advertising means that there is no necessary feature to create a clear distinction. CDH and I have been discussing an article from The Atlantic Cities about Los Angels attempt to restrict mural adverting (“The Convoluted Path to Ending Los Angeles’s Mural Ban” by Nate Berg, March 22, 2012).

Advertising for the play "Optimism", 2009

Advertising for the play “Optimism”, 2009

I have written about the relationship between street art and advertising in an earlier post. Aside from the propaganda element of advertising that has always been important in art and thinking only about avant-garde visual art and mass-market advertising it is clear that there is an increasing relationship in the 20th Century.

The use of advertising material in the visual arts started with collages by the Dadaists and Kurt Schwitters. Was the word “Dada” taken from an advertisement for Dada brand shampoo rather than from the mythic random dictionary search? Almost anticipating Pop Art, Charles Sheeler’s “I Saw The Figure 5 in Gold” from 1928 used the bright colours and images of American cigarette packaging. American cigarette advertising was the start of modern advertising. In 1949 Raymond Hains and Jacques de la Mahé Villeglé used layers of torn advertising posters in a process they called “décollage”. In the 1960s many Pop artists used advertising material, Roy Lichtenstein used images from magazine advertising as the subject for his art although Andy Warhol concentrated on packaging design rather than advertising. In the 1980s many artists influenced by Pop Art used advertising material, most notably Jeff Koons and Barbara Kruger. Koons reproduced magazine advertising and made magazine advertising for himself that were printed in art magazines. Koons marketed himself as a brand. Kruger uses the same visual techniques as advertising in her art.

Advertising has had a close relationship with the visual arts; not surprising since both the artists working in the advertising art department and artists not working in adverting have the same art education. In 1888 Pears Soap first used John Everett Millais painting “Bubbles” 1886 as advertising; Pears was another early innovator in mass market adverting. Also created in the 1880s Toulouse Lautrec’s posters advertising cabaret acts have now entered the art cannon (currently on exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia). Since then advertising has used notable artists to create images for advertising, like Absolut Vodka (see their art collection) or to endorse products, Dali and Lavin chocolate in 1968 (see the video).

Given the increasingly close relationship between avant-garde arts and advertising it is likely that advanced art in the future will have more references to advertising. For more on this subject read Joan Gibbons Art and Advertising (I.B. Tauris, 2005).


DADA on CD

It is hard to understand the totality of Dada, or most other art movements, simply by looking at a few paintings and other objects that survive as relics in museums or repeatedly illustrated in art history books. Maybe, if we had video of some of Leonardo da Vinci’s performances on his double-necked lute we might think of art, or Jimmie Page, differently. Dada was a total art movement, poetry, visual arts, performance, because as they wanted to totally transform Europe’s war crazed culture. Of the Dada performances on a few photographs and some audio recording survive. Kurt Schwitters would occasionally release 78-rpm records with his Merz magazine (a pioneering feature that has continued with magazines releasing CDs). These audio recording and others have now been compiled and re-released on various CDs and these recordings add a new depth to our understanding of Dada as well as few laughs and truly beautiful moments.

Dada > Antidada > Merz (Sub Rosa, edited by Marc Dachy) has recordings by Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters and Raoul Hausmann. Hausmann’s imaginary interview with the Lettristes is like an extreme part of The Goon Show and is very funny even to people who know nothing of the Dadaists. However, this is mostly a CD of hardcore Dada poetry for the fans.

Futurism & Dada Reviewed (Sub Rosa, 1988, edited and produced by James Neiss) is more of a sampler. It includes recordings by Richard Huelsenbeck and Schwitters. There is also a beautiful performance of Marcel Duchamp’s “Erratum Musicale” (curiously listed as “La Mariee Mise a Nu…Meme”) by Mats Persson and Kristine Scholz. Trio Exvoco recreates Tzara, Janco and Huelsenbeck’s simultaneous poem “L’Amiral cherche une maison a louer”.

Schwitters’s sound poem “Die Sonata in Urlauten”, recorded on the 5th of May in 1932, is featured on both CDs (it is listed as ‘ursonate’ on ‘Dada > Antidada > Merz’) and is an outstanding piece of nonsense. It was composed around the sounds of letters that Schwitters recited with precision and a beautiful voice.

Futurism & Dada Reviewed also has a sample of recordings from the period, as well as the Dadaists, there are recordings of the Futurists using Luigi Russolo’s noise machines. Russolo’s mechanical proto-synthesizers were able to produce a great variety of rumbles, howls and other noises. And, there is more, Guillaume Apollinaire reciting poetry, Wyndham Lewis, the British Vorticist almost rapping and Jean Cocteau playing in his jazz band for two tracks. This amusing CD ends with the sound of a record needle on an old 78.

Lipstick Traces (Rough Trade, 1993, edited by Greil Marcus) is the soundtrack to Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989) by Greil Marcus. The CD was released separately to the book and contains a very wide variety of tracks from Dadaists, punks, Guy Debord and other Situationalists. It also includes the remarkable recording of Marie Osmond (yes, the one from The Osmonds) reciting Schwitters’s sound poem ‘Karawane’ that has to be heard to be believed. It is essential listening for the book and aurally demonstrates Greil Marcus argument that there are trace influences between the Dadaists and the punks, particularly in the use of glosslalia-like speech and other non-lexical vocables.

There is no evidence that the sounds of Schwitters and Hausmann directly influence the nonsense sounds of Spike Milligan but it sounds like it. More directly, Brian Eno samples Schwitters in a track on Before and after Science (EG Records, 1977), appropriately titled ‘Kurt’s Rejoinder’. Indirectly Dada has influenced so much of contemporary music from Merzbau to Cabaret Voltaire.


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