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Kurt Schwitters: Master of Collage

Kurt Schwitters - Merz 163, with Woman Sweating, 1920. Tempera, pencil, paper, and fabric collage mounted on paper, 6 1/8 x 4 7/8 inches. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New YorkKurt Schwitters (1887-1948) is generally acknowledged as the twentieth century's greatest master of collage. Just as collage is essentially the medium of irony, so Schwitters' life is characterized by paradox and enigma. Born in Hanover, the only child of affluent parents, he was a loner in his youth, plagued by epileptic attacks, introverted and insecure. As a student at the Dresden Academy of Art he proved as apt as he was unimaginative. But his contact with Expressionist artists in Hannover in 1916 gave him more confidence to develop his own style, He found something of a following as part of the Dada movement.

Schwitters invented his own unique aesthetic style, which he dubbed Merz in 1919. Premised on the practice of assemblage—the union of sundry quotidian items with formal artistic elements—Merz exemplified Schwitters’s quest for “freedom from all fetters,” cultural, political, or social. The artist’s collages, of which he produced more than 2,000, and his large-scale reliefs known as Merzbilder are kaleidoscopic, sometimes whimsical accretions of humble found material—tram tickets, ration coupons, postage stamps, beer labels, candy wrappers, newspaper clippings, fabric swatches, rusty nails, and the like—that bespeak the flux of contemporary society. In his early collages, Schwitters subjected his bits of wreckage to an organizing principle resembling the vertical scaffolding of Analytic Cubism, thus transforming the diverse components into formal elements. Embedded in each collage, however, are hints of narrative.

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