Opened by Customs 1937–8 is a collage made of paper, printed paper, oil paint and graphite by the German artist Kurt Schwitters. The pasted-together fragments have been cut and torn from a variety of sources, including parcel paper, Nazi administrative labels, a large section of printed Norwegian text from a book or a pamphlet, a blue label for Spanish oranges (stuck face down so that the logo is seen in reverse) and a printed list of travel-related words in German, including ‘airline boarding pass’, ‘baggage insurance’ and ‘sleeper car’. At the bottom right of the collage is a piece of white paper featuring an insignia that bears the words ‘Deutsche Arbeit’ (German Work) set within a laurel wreath.
Opened by Customs was created in Lysaker, Norway, after Schwitters emigrated from Nazi Germany in 1937. Here he attempted to continue his Merzbau, or Cathedral of Erotic Misery, which he had begun in c.1923 in his apartment in Hanover. While living in Norway his work was exhibited in his homeland in the Nazi Degenerate Art exhibition. He left Norway for Britain in 1940 when Germany invaded the country. Schwitters’s son Ernst chose the title of this work based on the customs labels at the top centre of the collage, which read ‘Zollamtlich geöffnet’ (‘Opened by customs’) and are stamped ‘Hannover 3.8.37’. As Ernst Schwitters explained in a letter dated 10 May 1973:
My father wanted certain parts of his Collages read and understood, intellectually, and he often made these the actual titles of his works. Usually, they were witty, ironical or even sarcastic.
(Quoted in Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London 1981, p.676.)
The complex mesh of language and layers that comprise the work suggests a correspondingly complex web of ideas and emotions. The turmoil of the period (experienced by Schwitters as well as other German émigrés) is conveyed through the conflicting languages, both printed and handwritten, and the fierce red marks added using stamps, cut-outs and daubings. The titular German customs label, which takes a prominent position at the top left of the work, points to a lack of personal autonomy and compounds the sense that Schwitters is escaping ideological oppression. The lack of cohesion – the texts run in several different directions – may be indicative of the upheaval that both the artist and the continent were undergoing at this time.
During his career, Schwitters produced paintings, collages, sculptures and poems. He utilised elements of several styles, including cubist collage, dada and constructivism, and contributed to a number of publications, most notably Merz (1923–32). In 1919 Schwitters defined his practice of Merz as ‘essentially the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes’ (quoted in Tate Britain 2013, p.6). Shortly before his death in 1948 he confirmed: ‘a MERZ picture starts with the material, every possible material for painting and uses it as paint’ (quoted in Tate Britain 2013, p.60). The consistency of ideas behind this inherently disruptive genre is typical of the contradictory nature of Schwitters’s Merz works, in which, according to the curator Isabel Schulz, the collaged materials ‘surrender their original function … but not all semantic meaning’ (Schulz 2011, p.52).
Another work in Tate’s collection, Picture of Spatial Growths – Picture with Two Small Dogs 1920–39 (Tate T03863), which spans a long creative period in Schwitters’s career, also consists of an assemblage of discarded ephemera from both Germany and Norway, constituting new meaning from their juxtapositions.
Kurt Schwitters, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1985, reproduced no.162.
Isabel Schulz (ed.), Kurt Schwitters: Colour and Collage, exhibition catalogue, Menil Collection, Houston 2011.
Emma Chambers and Karin Orchard (eds.), Schwitters in Britain, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2013, reproduced p.88.