Envisaging alternatives: representations of women in Kurt Schwitters’ collages
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In the existing literature on Kurt Schwitters, many excellent discoveries about process, materiality, and his life have been made. The careful reconstruction of these narratives by scholars such as Werner Schmalenbach, John Elderfield, Isabel Schulz, Gwendolen Webster, Marc Dachy, Roger Cardinal, Karin Orchard and Megan Luke, have given invaluable insights into the ways in which Schwitters’ work has influenced and been integral to the development of the various avant-garde movements of the twentieth century. However, while these studies have laid the foundations to examine the biographical and aesthetic qualities of Schwitters’ work, it has often denied readings that allow for an understanding of the political aspects which confront the viewer. Schwitters was the creator of Merz, a hybrid art form which borrowed from Expressionism, Dada, and Constructivism, but was never singularly committed to any of these movements/groups. Schwitters had had too much training to be a serious Expressionist, the movement denied academic and formal training, too bourgeois and not political enough for Dadaism, and not abstract or ‘clean’ enough to be considered a Constructivist. Merz was his and only his to be practiced and led him to be included in exhibitions of Dadaist, Constructivist and Surrealist artworks. His hybrid aesthetic, coupled with his own illusive remarks about his own practice, have produced readings of Schwitters’ work as only concerned with aesthetics; in some cases entirely ignoring the implications and connotations of the compositions themselves and the meanings behind the fragments used in his works. The idea often floated is that once the fragment has been detached from its original form, it no longer holds its original meaning. However, my thesis seeks to argue that this is entirely untrue and that contemporary audiences would have been unable to ignore these connections. As such, the collage takes on new meanings and we, the audience, must examine these connotations. My thesis argues for a political reading of the works which feature women. Images of women, taken from fashion magazines and clothing catalogs, are cut up and re-arranged in Schwitters’ abstract and hectic compositions. He then pairs these images with fragments of text, images of animals, or in odd compositions which causes a significant shift in perspective for the viewer. In most cases, these pairings are paradoxical or presented so that the two components juxtapose one another. My thesis argues that these works might be discussed in the context of the social and political goings on in the world in which Schwitters creates his artworks. This approach to his work has heretofore remained unexplored and as I show in my research by examining these images, new and revealing details about the artist’s work are uncovered.