Kurt Schwitters

Magic

c.1936–40

Medium
Printed papers on paper
Dimensions
Support: 131 x 106 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to Tate 2007
Reference
T12396

Summary

Magic is a small collage by the German artist Kurt Schwitters. It consists of multiple overlapping pieces of printed paper, the edges of which have been cut quite precisely. Fragments of text taken from a magazine are positioned around the composition, some of which are still legible in full, in particular the word ‘MAGIC’ in the centre-right of the work that forms the collage’s title. An image of a woman in a hat is visible along the left side of the work but is partly obscured by several paper segments, most likely taken from the same page of the magazine. The collage is pale in colour, its tones consisting mainly of light blues, yellows and greens, with some white and black lettering and graphic elements.

Owing to the increasingly unstable political situation in Germany by 1937, Schwitters fled to Norway on 2 January of that year, joining his son, Ernst, who had left two weeks earlier. This collage may have been made when the artist was in living in Norway or shortly after his arrival in Britain in 1940, with the inclusion of English text suggesting the latter as the more likely location. Magic is difficult to date precisely due to Schwitters’s movements around Europe during this time, but it is thought to have been produced between 1936 and 1940. The work is made up of printed sheets of paper cut from a magazine and layered onto a piece of white backing paper. Scwhitters has left a margin of backing paper visible around the edges of the collage and has signed the work in pencil in the bottom-left part of this margin.

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 also Opened by Customs 1937–8, Tate T00214). Magic contains text and images from a Heinz food advertisement in a British magazine, as is evinced by the word ‘Heinz’ that appears upside-down near the top of the image. Curator Isabel Schulz has commented on Schwitters’s use of found images and 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 Magic, there is a visual tension between the meaning and purpose of found objects and their abstract forms. Here, the printed papers retain something of their original contexts, yet they are also treated as abstract shapes in the overall composition.

Schulz has suggested further that Schwitters’s work during the late 1930s was influenced by the quality of the light that is particular to Norway: ‘muted colouring became more evident in the 1930s, under the impression of the Nordic light … Grey values and pastel colours predominated’ (Schulz 2011, p.57). Such a colour palette can be seen in Magic, in which the blue tones in the composition move gradually into grey and the greenish-grey background merges with the muted yellow of the woman’s shoulder.

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). 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. In 1937 Schwitters’s artworks were featured in the Nazis’ exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ in Munich and were also removed from institutions in Berlin, Hanover, Mannheim and Breslau (Schulz 2011, p.163). However, around this time Schwitters’s work was being promoted in Britain and America by key art establishment figures such as Peggy Guggenheim, who featured five of his works in a show in her London gallery in 1938.

Further reading
John Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, London 1985.
Isabel Schulz (ed.), Kurt Schwitters: Colour and Collage, exhibition catalogue, Menil Collection, Houston 2011.
Mel Gooding, Kurt Schwitters, exhibition catalogue, Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London 2013.

Louise Hughes
August 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

Display caption

The text in this collage is part of a Heinz advertisement from a British magazine, which suggests that it may have been made after Schwitters’ arrival in Britain in 1940. Though the words remain legible, the work is resolutely abstract. A photograph of a woman in a hat has been obliterated by carefully matched segments, probably taken from the same page of the magazine.

Gallery label, September 2004