Unreal Nature

September 14, 2015

Second Identity

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:42 am

… Schwitters’s art tears, fold by fold and scrap by scrap, the words of a private, intimate dialogue from the mundane registers of the public word.

This is from High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik (1990). I’m skipping past his recital of early Picasso-Braque, Futurists, and Russian Constructivists:

Schwitters’s frugal, twine-saver’s art trafficked not in words for cognacs, cafés and concerts, but in tiny tram tickets, wrappers from much-loved chocolates, and labels from small, torn packages. It had less to do with sociability than with solitary wanderings, real and imagined, and diaristic fantasies; instead of savoring hot headlines and crude humor, it aimed to wrest more uncertain meanings from thoroughly perfunctory public notices (DOGS MUST BE KEPT ON LEASH), the most weary clichés, and snippets of refuse, by displacing them from their original contexts into new, illogical relationships. His intimately scaled collages, like his poetry, cherished the genteel disorientation of these used, wholly banal things, or words, or phrases. The tender form of art that results is at once sentimental and ironic, tidy and trashy, commonplace and intensely personal.

Schwitters_Blanche1923
Kurt Schwitters, Miss Blanche, 1923

If this is remote from Parisian sociability, it seems further still from Futurist clamor, and Russian propaganda. Schwitters’s art tears, fold by fold and scrap by scrap, the words of a private, intimate dialogue from the mundane registers of the public word. Yet, surprisingly, he also had a “second identity,” which belongs firmly within the story of modernization and reform encountered in Soviet propaganda and advertising. One of Schwitters’s close associates and occasional collaborators was El Lissitzky; and Schwitters’s writings on typography show he understood Lissitzky’s lessons well: simple, clear typefaces, composed in a way that suggested machine-like impersonality, with nothing ornamental, and detached letters used as independent abstract symbols.

[line break added to make this easier to read online] With these precepts in mind, Schwitters opened his own graphic design business in Hannover in 1924. He enjoyed notable success in devising sleekly modern ads and packaging for the manufacturer of Pelikan inks, and eventually won — in a poignant irony that put the ragman in charge of the cloth mill — the contract for production of the city of Hannover’s official printed matter.

Schwitters_santaClaus1922
Kurt Schwitters, Santa Claus, 1922

My previous post from this book is here.

-Julie

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