The artist made this drawing
in chalk and crayon on white paper just at the end of the First World War. In this work clearly defined straight, jagged and curved lines overlay one another to form a pattern of angled planes and arcs that seems to suggest an urban setting. Several arches evoke the portals indicated in the title and the contrast between light and dark, produced by areas of dense shading against the white paper, are reminiscent of the effects of street lighting. Schwitters numbered many of his works sequentially and identified them according to type, as this one. The ‘Z’ prefix of Z 105 Portals of Houses stands for Zeichnung (meaning ‘drawing’ in German).
Schwitters was born in Hanover and spent most of his life there. Between 1909 and 1915 he studied art at the Königlich Sächsische Akademie der Künst in Dresden and painted in a naturalistic manner. By 1917 he had become interested in Expressionism. During 1917–8, he was enrolled in the architecture department of the Königliche Technische Hochschule in Hanover and worked as a mechanical draughtsman, while painting and writing poetry in his spare time. In the revolutionary atmosphere of Germany in the immediate aftermath of the war – the context in which Z 105 Portals of Houses was produced – Schwitters was forming strong artistic links with Berlin. He exhibited for the first time at the influential Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin, owned by artist and critic Herwarth Walden (1879–1941), in June 1918.
Z 105 Portals of Houses is from a large body of drawings Schwitters made during 1918 that have titles suggesting both urban and landscape subjects. The artist’s motifs in both are similar – pronounced lines, arches and curves are used to evoke both manmade and natural settings alike. These works pre-date only slightly the Merz collages and assemblages for which Schwitters is best known, which he began to produce towards the end of 1918. In Z 105 Portals of Houses the artist’s early experimentation with avant-garde styles is apparent. Its formal rhythms created by pronounced lines and curves suggest his familiarity with Parisian Cubism while its stark urban iconography and the shallow, facetted space that produces an atmosphere of claustrophobia demonstrate the impact of Expressionism. The work of Expressionist artists was promoted at this time at Der Sturm, and it is perhaps also significant that in 1918, at the Kestner-Gesellschaft, Hanover, Schwitters saw an exhibition of works by Ludwig Meidner (1884–1966), an Expressionist known for apocalyptic images of the modern city (Elderfield, 1985, p.24). Schwitters use of the urban environment as a source for his art would take on a new aspect with the assemblages of the 1920s, which were formed in part from refuse he gathered in the streets of Hanover.
John Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, London 1985.
Karin Orchard and Isabel Schulz (eds), Kurt Schwitters: Catalogue Raisonné, vol.1, Hanover 2000, reproduced no.345 p.157.
The Stage of Drawing: Gesture and Act, exhibition catalogue, The Drawing Center, New York 2003, reproduced no.70 [p.38].