The Proposal is a collage by the German artist Kurt Schwitters. It takes the form of a nineteenth-century lithographic illustration over which the artist has pasted sections of a food advertisement from a magazine. Much of the lithograph is still visible, showing two gentlemen in the left of the image who have entered a room to initiate a marriage proposal, most likely by the younger of the two men to one of the five women visible on the right side of the composition. This scene is interrupted by seven pieces of a glossy magazine that are laid over it, all of which contain pictures of food, including pies, doughnuts, biscuits and roasted and fried chicken. The bold colour of the advertisement sections contrasts with the monochrome tones of the print behind them. The edges of the magazine pieces are rough and torn in some cases and smooth and straight in others, creating a juxtaposition of line and texture.
Schwitters made The Proposal in 1942 when he was living in London, having moved to the city in 1941 after his release from a series of camps in which he was interned in Scotland and England in 1940–1 after emigrating from Germany. To make the work, he cut the seven pieces of printed paper from a magazine and affixed them to the surface of the lithographic illustration to form a rectangular composition.
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). By interrupting an conventional marriage proposal scene with the colourful excess suggested by the food advertisements, The Proposal seems to present a conflict between nineteenth-century restraint and a brash contemporary consumer society. However, as is typical in Scwhitters’s collages, while the images featured are still legible they are also truncated or partially obscured, meaning that the work retains an abstract quality. 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 The Proposal, there is a visual tension between the meaning and purpose of found objects and their abstract forms.
The Proposal is one of a series of ten collages that Schwitters made by layering contemporary objects and advertisements over prints of scenes by the German artist Franz von Defregger (see also Merz 42 (Like an Old Master) 1942, Sprengel Museum, Hanover). The art historian Sarah Wilson has noted that these collages ‘were full of tenderness in the traditional scenes they revealed. Weddings, motherhood, childhood, days of yore, jostled, as in memory itself, contrasted with both the bus tickets of everyday life and the fantasy world of contemporary advertisements. While Dada had been obsessed with patriarchy and patricide, Schwitters here evokes a female world, and curiously anticipates the sentimentality of English Pop’ (Wilson 2013, accessed 8 August 2015).
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. His art also found wide appreciation in America at this time, particularly in the context of his membership of the Société Anonyme (which was retired in 1941), and three of Schwitters’s works were featured in an ongoing exhibition of Guggenheim’s collection in New York between 1942 and 1947.
John Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, London 1985.
Isabel Schulz (ed.), Kurt Schwitters: Colour and Collage, exhibition catalogue, Menil Collection, Houston 2011.
Sarah Wilson, ‘Kurt Schwitters in England ’, exhibition text, Schwitters in Britain, Tate Britain, London 2013, http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/schwitters-britain/essay-sarah-wilson-kurt-schwitters-england#footnote44_im5pno2, accessed 8 August 2015.
Supported by Christie’s.