Monthly Archives: September 2012

Merzbilder – A brief account of Kurt Schwitters’ life and work

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A quick update on myself – I’ve been quite busy lately. I graduated last Friday, and I’m now trying to sort out moving home, which if all goes to plan should be done by Monday…Let’s rephrase, this has to be done by Monday. Other than this, I have actually been working on my book (which was the original point of this blog). I am fast approaching the completion of the first draft of what I’m considering to be Part One (even though I wont be making these divides in the text). It means I’m about a third the way through, I’ll soon start seeing what people think of it. The second part needs a lot of research though, so that’ll be slow going for a while. It’s beginning to look like the book will be far shorter than I first envisioned. This is because, firstly, I’ve learnt more about what is appropriate length for a children’s novel, and secondly, because I don’t want to drag the story out at all. In October, I will be travelling to Moscow to perform our show Pages from the Book of… in the Moscow Arts Theatre, which I’m super excited about. I’m also trying to arrange a couple of other bits for the show. On top of this I’ve been writing the odd article on WhatCulture. So, if this post seems a bit rushed. It is! I really want to keep this blog up to date, and I’m trying to split up my time efficiently.

Well, without further ado – Kurt Schwitters and Merz.

A modern day Merz image and tribute to Schwitters – 2006

Kurt Schwitters (1887 – 1948) gave the name Merz to his particular style and genre of art. Schwitters is generally considered to be the master of collage, and his works, at the time of creation, would not fit into any pre-existing brackets such as expressionism, futurism, etc.

The term MERZbilder (later just Merz), came from a specific work of Schwitters in which he cut out the syllable ‘merz’ from a magazine called Kommerz- und Privatbank. Merz became the label under which he presented his works. He even started to go by the title himself after 1922.

So, what is Merz? As I said, Schwitters concentrated on, and excelled in collage. He was especially keen on found objects and would often simply collect things on his journeys, to include in his art. There were two reasons why he chose recycled materials for his work. One, was that he sought to create something from the wastes of a war ravished state – or as he says far more skilfully than I could:

 “…when this racket to which men give the name of war, ended…I felt free, and I felt the need to proclaim my joy throughout the world. For economic reasons I took what I found, because we were a people that had fallen into misery. One can also yell using garbage, and that is what I did gluing and nailing. That was called Merz. It was my prayer at having survived the war, once peace had triumphed. In any case, everything was ruined, and it was a matter of building new things from debris.”

The Holy Night by Antoni Allegri, known as Correggio… – 1947

Another reason, was purely aesthetic. Schwitters, in taking found objects (or Merz objects, we can call them), wanted to remove any previous use or connotations they may have had. He made a point that whatever a material meant before he found and incorporated it into his art, was not important. Obviously, this is easy to say, and perhaps, not difficult to do when you’re the author of a work. But, it’s not easy to convince a spectator of this. It’s very difficult for us not to make assumptions on a piece, if a political logo or an image with religious connotations makes its way into a work. To combat this, Schwitters put into effect a process of ‘dematerialization’. Firstly, we ‘distribute’ the materials onto the canvas, then, we ‘deform’ them by covering, transforming or otherwise changing the material. In this way, the materials become, simply that; materials. Colours, lines and other bits. I guess you have to judge for yourself if it works.

I don’t think it would be necessarily wrong to look at the works in this way though, as all the objects were collected from specific places, at a specific time. So, of course the works carry with them a sort of wider context. I think, it’s almost impossible to escape this when using found objects, and I’m sure Schwitters would have known, and accepted that.

Through his early life, Schwitters was a quiet, insecure person and suffered from Epilepsy. He was an only child, living with his parents Edward and Henriette. The family owned a small business selling ladies’ clothes, which they sold in 1898. With the money from this they bought five properties in Hanover which they rented out, allowing them to live comfortably.

Mountain Graveyard – 1919

Schwitters studied at the Royal Academy of Art in Dresden, between 1909 and 1914 and apparently, didn’t prove to be anything special. Moving back home he began his career as a painter, being increasingly influenced by the expressionism movement.

Schwitters married Helma Fischer, his cousin. Unfortuantly, their first son died after a week of being born. But their second son, Ernst, lived and he and Schwitters were very close. A year later, in 1917 he was drafted into the military, but was discharged later that year because his epilepsy rendered him unfit for duty. It was during this time, he became fascinated with machines and the image of the wheel. He says that he “recognized that machines are abstractions of the human spirit.”

Schwitters big break came in 1918, when he was invited to exhibit some of his work in the Sturm gallery in Berlin. The Sturm, was run by Herwarth Walden, who was a very famous German expressionist artist. Primarily a pianist, Waldon expressed his love for the arts through his writing and the galleries he owned. The Sturm gallery was considered ground-breaking, because it displayed work from some of the most cutting-edge European artists. It was in this time that Schwitters started on his collages, and of course the beginning of the Merz brand. Whilst exhibiting his art in Sturm, opinions were divided. Some, thought his work was great, others deemed him insane. Although, as we’ve said his work didn’t necessarily have any political references, he was often viewed as being a threat to ‘traditional German values’.

Revolving – 1919

In 1919, he approached Tristan Tzara, who was the spokeman for the Zurich Dadaists. The group was very interested in Schwitters’ work, even though it differed from their own. Schwitters rejected some of the ideas put forth by the Dadaists, choosing to continue referring to himself as a painter, albeit one who nailed his painting together. I’m not exactly sure why, but Schwitters and Richard Huelsenbeck, the leader of the Dadaists, fell out in 1920. Between 1919 and 1923 he created some of his most well known works. He was also working on much larger pieces called Merzbau. These were big constructions made from Merz materials, which were then incorporated into a sculptural interior. It was probably about 6 rooms large, but we’re not sure. Unfortunately the Merzbau was destroyed in a raid on Hanover in 1943, and all other attempts to build new Merbau were also unsuccessful.

In time, Schwitters found himself at the forefront of the avent-garde. He began holding his own Merz exhibitions, and allied himself with the Bauhaus group. From here on, Schwitters experimented with various mediums, including theatre, literature, music, photography and more. He tended to be pretty good at everything he attempted. He published his own arts journal, unsurprisingly called Merz, between 1923 and 1932 and at some point created Ursonate, his sound poem masterpiece.

The Star Picture – 1920

Unfortunately, with the rise of National Socialism in Germany, things became rather difficult. The avant-garde community fell apart and the Nazis strongly opposed his work, publicly ridiculing it. In 1937, Schwitters moved to Norway, after the Gestapo ‘requested his presence for a interview’…I’d probably run as far as I could too.

Following this, Schwitters’ life becomes a bit sporadic, and he doesn’t settle for a while. In 1940, he fled to Scotland with his son. He moved between internment camps in Scotland and England. He came to rest for a year and a half, in a internment camp on the Isle of Man where he staged a fair number of Merz recitals. In 1941, he was released and stayed in London until 1945 before moving to the Lake District, where he began work on his final Merzbau, the Merzbarn. Apparently, you can still see the shell of the Merzbarn now, although it’s completely dilapidated.

His wife died in 1944 and Schwitters started seeing a woman called Edith Thomas. Together they moved to the Lake District in 1945, where Schwitters would walk for hours collecting objects from the beach, to use in his new art projects.

In 1948 Schwitters himself died, poor, but confident that has work would one day be acknowledged in the way he knew it deserved to be.

Some years after his death, a stone was put near his grave in England (though his remains were transported to Hanover) with the inscription ‘Kurt Schwitters – Creator of Merz’.

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Vincent van Gogh

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In the last post I was looking for an artist who’s life story wasn’t morbid or even mildly upsetting. I found it in ‘Cash’ Coolidge, or Kash Koolidge as he sometimes spelt it (apparently that’s a 19th century literary joke. I was showing off by quoting it…but I don’t really get it. It’s probably the 19th century equivalent of him calling himself Cash COOLidge. I once toyed with the idea of changing my name Jack Gyll to Jack Thryll. I decided it wasn’t a good idea).

Anyway, this post, I thought I’d swing the other way and look at a horribly depressing story.

Right, who’s heard of Vincent van Gogh? Yeah, I thought you might have.

Thoroughly depressed, mentally damaged and utterly brilliant, Van Gogh has had a long lasting influence over artists and indeed the entire art world. Still today, people are taking inspiration, mimicking and trying to emulate his work. For some artists, just to recapture whatever it was that made his art great, is a worthy life goal.

Born in 1853 in Groot-Zundert in Holland, Van Gogh was the son of Anna Cornelia Carbentus and the protestant Reverend Theodorus van Gogh. (Great names these Dutch).

I think Van Gogh lived a reasonably quiet life during his early years. It was when he was 16,  that his interest in art started proper and he began to work for the Hague gallery. After about 3 years working for them, he was transferred to London, and then to Paris 2 years later. All this moving caused stress to Van Gogh, who had become disillusioned with art dealing. He quit deciding instead, to spend his time preaching the gospel to the poor. After a very short spell of education, Van Gogh left to work as a minister with the miners of Borinage.

He felt a draw to the miners and their families and was able to identify with them. During this time Van Gogh developed the feeling that he had to also make his mark on the world, as the miner were. That he had to contribute something meaningful to the world. It was his brother, Theo, who saw his potential and convinced him to become an artist. He also supported him financially so that he could do so. Van Gogh of course, didn’t believe he could become a good artist due to his lack of natural talent or training. His parents didn’t really help either, doubting his ability as they did. Regardless, he moved back in with them and started practising. He had a deep interest in figure drawing and a fascination with peasant life (possibly because of his stay with the miners). Soon, he decided to work to become a figure artist of critical acclaim.

Skull with Burning Cigarette – One of my personal favourites.

At the end of 1881 he moved out again, and began taking lessons from the realist painter, Anton Mauve. Mauve was a member of the Hague School, and was Van Gogh’s cousin through marriage. Unfortunately, this partnership didn’t last long.

Van Gogh continued to study figures and often used a prostitute called Sien Hoomik as a model. Soon, Van Gogh and Hoomik started a relationship. Hoomik was pregnant (not with Van Gogh’s baby) and already had one child. Mauve disapproved of the relationship and broke off all friendship with Van Gogh.

At the time (about 1883), a lot of reputable artist like Mauve were moving to Drenthe, a province in the North-East of the Netherlands. Van Gogh decided to follow them, as he was becoming discontent with his work. So he broke up with Hoomik and moved away. This was about as close to love as he ever got unfortunately, and he spent many hours longing for it. In fact, this caused him to suffer from bad depression.

He didn’t stay in Drenthe for long – about 2 months only. He suffered from a lack of inspiration and missed his model. So he moved back home again.

He continued to practice. Now modelling his style on Jean-Franqois Millet, a French artist. Millet also depicted peasant life in his paintings, and was becoming quite famous at the time.

When he was 29, Van Gogh moved into a little studio room that he rented from the church. He really started to study anatomy and details such as hands. His plan was to make a big painting with multiple figures that would make his name. This is what he came up with.

The Potato Easters

Van Gogh had planned out this painting meticulously. As he did, his confidence that it would be a success grew and he began advertising it before it was even finished. Unfortunately, the painting that is now considered to be his first major masterpiece, flopped.

Well, thought Van Gogh, I’d better actually go to art school…

He enrolled in an academy in Antwerp. Here, he discovered a number of influential artists and was greatly affected by a number of Japanese artists. After this, in 1886, he went to Paris and moved in with his brother. Here, he came into contact with the Impressionists. He was greatly taken with this movement, and quickly adopted the new, brightly colourful pallet and started to practice the techniques the Impressionists were using. He combined these with some of the ideas he’d seen in Japanese art and developed a new style of his own.
In Paris he made a new group of like-minded friends and became very inspired. In 1888 he moved to Arles where he planned to open an art school/community. One of his friends, Paul Gauguin, went with him. Van Gogh decorated Gauguin’s room with his own paintings. Paintings like this:

This series of sunflower paintings, is now sort of a signature of Van Gogh. For many people, you mention Van Gogh, and they think of these paintings. The sunflower paintings have become incredibly important in the art world, with their mix of vibrant colour and simple design. The subtle nuances of life and death. Interestingly, Van Gogh drank a lot of Absinthe. Absinthe contains a toxin called Thujone, which apparently, if taken in large doses can cause you to see objects in yellow. This might have had something to do with why Van Gogh had such a passion for the colour. It’s also possible that the Thujone aggravated his already present epilepsy and manic depression. Either way, late 1888 is where it all goes to shit.

His epileptic attacks started to become more frequent and he became delusional. This got worse and worse, eventually causing Gauguin to leave. Van Gogh had chased Gauguin around with a knife, before slicing off part of his own ear and giving it to a prostitute. As a present.

At the end of the year, Van Gogh committed himself to an asylum. Here he drew The Starry Night, one of his most famous paintings. Apparently, one of the effects of lead poisoning is the dilation of the retinas, which causes you to see lights with with their own halos. It’s possible, seeing that Van Gogh used lead based tools, and tried to kill himself at least once by drinking paint, that this picture is a portrayal of the effects of lead poisoning.

He came out of the asylum in 1890, clearly not healed. He drew manically for a while, churning out a painting a day. He then shot himself in the chest. Unfortunately, he didn’t die for a whole 2 days.

Starry Night over the Rhone – My other favourite.

It might be hard to believe now, considering he was one of the most important artists of the 19th century (and still now even), but Van Gogh died thinking that his life had been wasted. He only ever sold one painting. He had cut away his dream of an art school along with his ear lobe. He had failed as an artist.

Now, he is widely considered to be THE definition of a tortured artist. His paintings sell for hundreds of pounds. No, thousands. No wait, millions. Hundreds of millions even. Apparently, just 5 years ago one of his sunflower paintings sold for $39.7 million. Between 1987 and 1998, 7 of his paintings racked up over seven hundred million dollars, collectivity.

More important than money though, Van Gogh has genuinely effected art and the way we think about it. He has inspired countless generations of artists and has fascinated audiences over the entire globe. Despite the mental hardships, the depression and his gruesome suicide, Van Gogh’s life was certainly not wasted and he was certainly no failure. It’s just very, very sad that he didn’t realise that.

Poker Playing Dogs

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Last time, I said I wanted to find an artist with a relatively happy life story. Well, I didn’t have to look too far to find one. Well, actually, I did have to go far – across the Atlantic to that far away land of the… [insert desired synonym here]. Luckily for me, the world is now a much smaller place and I was able to visit America without actually getting out of bed.

Meet Cassius Marcellus Coolidge, or ‘Cash’ to his friends… This guy was a proper jack of all trades, and I think gave a pretty successful crack at the whole land of opportunity thing.

Farm boy, Cash, was born in 1844, into an abolitionist family who lived between the towns Philadelphia and Antwerp in New York. Most of his youth was spend wandering between the two towns, and in time he’d make a nice (if not modest) mark on the towns. He studied in the Antwerp Liberal Literary Institute, although what he studied I’m not sure, and at some point after this he also took courses at Eastmans College. At Eastmans he learned a bit about banking and maths, whilst keeping books for the local bank. Along with some additional self tutoring, he gained the necessary skills to found the very first bank in Antwerp in 1871/2. The same sort of time he also founded a newspaper, called the Antwerp News. He also bought a drug store with his brother in New York. Most of these little ventures were ill fated though, as both the shop and the newspaper went out of business relatively quickly. It’s also interesting to know, that this wasn’t the first drug store that he owned – in 1865/6 he worked at one which he bought and again, quickly lost.

During this time, he also did a mass of other handyman jobs before going away to Europe in 1873. After his return, he moved to Rochester in New York and began writing columns based on his travel for the Watertown Times. It’s very likely that he illustrated these articles also.
It’s in the mid 1870’s that he began to work as an illustrator for local tobacco companies. And guess what he was drawing? Doggys! Hooray!! He was also commissioned by Harper’s Weekly to draw this:

Injured Innocence

Cash managed to make a good living drawing caricatures of people quickly, back when this was a new thing. He also created those pictures with holes for the heads in! You know the ones we’re all ashamed to admit we love. Anyway, that was Cash’s idea, and they’re actually called Comic Foregrounds. He was patented for these and Comic Foregrounds went into production.

In 1889 the bank that Cash had set up in Antwerp sold to a certain John D. Ellis (who also commissioned Cash to do a self portrait). The bank changed its name to the Jefferson Bank, but otherwise stayed put.

A few years later was when Cash’s artistic career really paid off. He was hired by the company Brown & Bigelow for his dog pictures. Apparently in the early 1900’s he was paid $10,000 for 2 paintings. Another 14 paintings followed this.

A friend in need

The paintings themselves depict (albeit in an abstracted manner) the social life of the middle classes in 1900’s America. Many people have commented on the lack of female dogs in his pictures (or the fact they’re mostly serving the males when they do appear), saying that Cash was depicting a male centric world. Perhaps by doing this and using dogs rather than people Cash was satirising society of the time? It’s possible, but perhaps not excessively likely, as most people seem to think that he was simply portraying the sort of activities (poker, drinking,smoking, swearing, talking about boobs, etc) that girls don’t like to get involved with. Even his daughter is quoted as having said; ‘girls don’t like things like that. It was for boys and men.’

So, I guess the 1900’s America were pretty different to 2012 Britain, but I think most of my girl friends would be rather put out if I didn’t invite them to play poker, drink beer and talk about boobs… Maybe I just hang out with the wrong type of girls…or the right kind!

Anyway, other fun things cash did was illustrating two books for his cousin. Writing, producing and designing an opera! (I know, right?) and writing a few comedies.

Comic foregrounds

At the tender age of 64 he married a 29 year old called Gertrude (who he’d previously employed as a letter painter on his Comic Foregrounds business), and had a daughter. He moved to Brooklyn where he tried to raise Chickens, but soon gave up. He also fell out of a window and injured his knee. The injury stayed with him for the rest of his life.

in about 1916, people realised that caricatures are a bit rubbish, so the demand for these fell. To keep the money coming in Gertrude went to work. Cash, then stayed at home and did chores (which was very rare, because most men at the time just played poker, drank beer and talked about… you get the idea). In 1928 they built a new house on Staten Island.

In 1934 at the age of about 90 Cash died and was buried in his old home town Antwerp. Later, in 1977 Gertrude was buried next to him.

There, isn’t that nice. A proper American tale of commercial success and the American dream come true. Sure, Cash’s art isn’t something I would describe as pivotal, intellectual or even particularly good. But it is something that everyone recognises and enjoys. It’s also something he did without any formal training, simply to earn his living.

Next time on Sketches, Scratches and Scattered Thoughts: Van Gogh