Aphorism is a small collage by the German artist Kurt Schwitters. It consists of multiple overlapping pieces of printed paper, the edges of which are rough and torn in some places and smooth and straight in others, creating a juxtaposition of types of line and texture. The dominant tone in the collage is brown, which appears in various subtly different shades. Several areas of colour – pale blue, dark blue, red, orange, white and black – are interspersed throughout the composition, with a long, dark blue piece of textured paper extending into the work just right of the centre. Fragments of text and prints positioned around the top of the collage add typographical and graphic elements to the work, and it is signed by the artist in the bottom-right corner.
Schwitters made Aphorism in Germany in 1923, either in his studio in Hanover or in one in Spichernstrasse, Berlin, that he shared with the Hungarian painter and photographer László Moholy-Nagy in 1922–3. Aphorism was made by layering pieces of painted and printed paper fragments over one another on a larger printed sheet of paper. The latter was then mounted on to hardboard, and Schwitters also applied washes and daubs of gouache to the surface, introducing colour to the work.
The word in the work’s title, ‘aphorism’, is a general term that refers to a concise or pithy phrase that contains a general truth. When Schwitters’s collages were first exhibited in an exhibition at Galerie Der Sturm, Berlin, in July 1919, the writer Walter Mehring described some of his works as ‘aphorisms, the smallest visual effects on large mounts’ (see Elderfield 1985, p.72), and it is likely that Schwitters made reference to Mehring’s comment in this work’s title.
Schwitters was known for his collages composed of discarded objects from everyday life, including bus tickets, wallpaper, newspapers, playing cards and fabrics, among many other items (see, for instance, Opened by Customs 1937–8, Tate T00214). Aphorism consists of brown paper and other printed papers, the sources and content of which are now difficult to identify. Curator Isabel Schulz has commented on Schwitters’s use of found objects, stating that ‘the “chunks of everyday use” that Schwitters applied to his collages surrender their original function to be sure, but not all semantic meaning. As used objects, discarded materials distinctly relate to the social reality of their time’ (Schulz 2011, p.52). In works such as Aphorism, there is a visual tension between the meaning and purpose of found objects and their abstract forms. Here, the printed and painted papers retain something of their original contexts, as does the brown paper of the ‘background’, yet they are also treated as abstract shapes in the overall composition.
Writing in 1985 the art historian John Elderfield noted another important aspect of Schwitters’s collages: ‘Schwitters underplays the “constructional” aspect of collage as he emphasises the “painterly” aspect. He often sought a balance between the two. The stress placed here on the painterly reminds us that the collages, like the assemblages, were made by an artist who had previously been mainly an oil-painter and who continued to make paintings along with collages’ (Elderfield 1985, p.74). This can be seen in Aphorism in the patches of colour and pattern, for instance the light blue washes of gouache that have been added to the paper surface, as well as the thick daubs of paint that appear to have been applied directly from the tube. Furthermore the light brown background is comprised of several pieces of paper arranged so that they blur into one another, resembling a canvas. Aphorism therefore represents an overlap in the artist’s practice between collage and painting.
Schwitters began making collages in 1918 and produced them in large numbers for the remainder of his career (see, for instance, Vierecke im Raum 1920, private collection). In 1919 he began using the term ‘Merz’ (which originated from the German word ‘Kommerz’, meaning ‘commerce’) to describe his principle of assembling found materials (see Elderfield 1985, p.12). At the time that he made Aphorism, Schwitters’s work was influenced by the playful collage elements of dada and surrealism and by the bold abstraction of constructivism, each movements with which he was heavily involved from 1918 onwards.
John Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, London 1985.
Jason Gaiger and Paul Wood (eds.), Art of the Twentieth Century. A Reader, New Haven and London 2003, reproduced p.92.
Isabel Schulz (ed.), Kurt Schwitters: Colour and Collage, exhibition catalogue, The Menil Collection, Houston 2011.
Supported by Christie’s.