Measure is a collage made from two printed elements. One is a fragment cropped from an advertisement that shows part of a fine line illustration of a woman leaning on a rail on the deck of a ship. It is stuck on an off-print of an advertisement taken from a magazine. Cropped and placed on its side, the advertisement shows the skirts and feet of two elegant female models and some incomplete text. The text reveals part of an address and the word ‘Maas’ (‘measure’ in German) in dense black lettering.
Towards the end of 1918 Schwitters began to make the collages and assemblages using found images and objects that would characterise his output for the rest of his career. In 1919 he invented the term Merz to describe his art. ‘My ultimate aspiration is the union of art and non-art in the Merz total world view’, he wrote in 1920 (quoted in John Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, London 1985, p.31).
The printed paper
Schwitters used in Measure quite possibly came from the Molling commercial printing plant in Hanover, the city in which the artist was based for most of his career. The basement of the Molling works, where the proofs and misprints were discarded, provided the raw materials for numerous of his collages. According to Schwitters’s friend, the artist Kate Steinitz (1889–1975), it became ‘a treasure trove for Kurt ... [He] sorted out the unfinished pages that appealed to him as carefully as a connoisseur would have examined the precious prints in a museum collection.’ (Quoted in Dickerman, p.94.) In Measure, Schwitters may not have made any alterations to the images beyond selecting and combining them.
Measure belongs to a small but significant group of works that the artist made between 1920 and 1923 that are suggestive of themes of fashion, romance and feminine sexuality. In these works women tend to be shown in terms of their modern mass cultural representations – as mannequins or fashion plates, as in Measure. In some, images drawn from popular cultural forms are applied to reproductions of religious art, including, Mz. 151 Das Wenzelkind (Knave Child) 1921 (Sprengel Museum, Hanover), in which a fragment from a contemporary magazine showing a female head is superimposed on the head of the Virgin in a Renaissance painting (reproduced in Dietrich, p.155). The art historian Dorothea Dietrich has suggested that Schwitters’s collages showing women in this period ‘call attention to the cultural suppression of individuality in favour of the creation of types’ and comment on ‘the commodification of life – in particular of social relations – in Weimar Germany.’ (Dietrich, p.134.)
Dorothea Dietrich, The Collages of Kurt Schwitters: Tradition and Innovation, Cambridge 1993.
Karin Orchard and Isabel Schulz (eds.), Kurt Schwitters: Catalogue Raisonné, vol.1, Hanover 2000, reproduced no.1041 p.503.
Leah Dickerman, ‘Schwitters Fec.’, in Isabel Schulz (ed.), Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage, exhibition catalogue, The Menil Collection, Houston 2010, pp.87–97.