Kurt Schwitters

The Autumn Crocus

1926–8, reconstructed 1958

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Not on display

Kurt Schwitters 1887–1948
Original title
Die Herbstzeitlose
Painted concrete
Object: 806 × 298 × 305 mm
Transferred from the Victoria & Albert Museum 1983

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In the 1920s, when the first version of this sculpture was made, Schwitters was exploring ways of combining geometric forms with more fluid, organic shapes. The sculpture twists upwards, suggesting the 'half spiral' that he identified as 'the most important of my forms'. This replica was made to stand as Schwitters' gravestone in Ambleside, in the Lake District, but the local vicar refused to have it erected. The title is a piece of wordplay. It identifies a favourite flower, but also one who 'does not live to enjoy the autumn of his days.'

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry

Kurt Schwitters 1887-1948

T03766 The Autumn Crocus 1926-8, reconstructed 1958

Concrete with white oil-based paint 810 x 293 x 293 (32 x 11 1/2 x 11 1/2)
Incised inscription 'DIE HERBSTZEITLOSE' on one side of base
Purchased from Ernst Schwitters through Philip Granville by the Victoria and Albert Mueeum 1964 (Circ. 292-1964); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1983
Prov: The artist's son Ernst Schwitters; with Philip Granville of Lord's Gallery 1958
Exh: Kurt Schwitters, Lord's Gallery, Oct-Nov. 1958 (92, repr.); Kurt Schwitters, AC tour, Arts Council Gallery, Cambridge, Nov.-Dec. 1959, Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, Jan. 1960, Graves Art Gallery, Sheffield, Jan-Feb. 1960, Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester, Feb-March 1960, Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry, March-April 1960, University Print Room, Glasgow, April-May 1960 (57); travelling exhibitions of the Department of Circulation, Victoria and Albert Museum
Lit: Werner Schmalenbach, Kurt Schwitters, 1970, p.558, pls.151-2; John Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, 1985, p.191, col. pl.247. Also repr. Kurt Schwitters Supplement, Ark, 23, Autumn 1958, pl.J; Herbert Read, A Concise History of Modern Sculpture, 1964, pl.526

In a letter to the compiles dated 6 June 1988 Ernst Schwitters, the artist's son, through Gilbert Lloyd, of Marlborough Gallery, explains that the original version of this work was destroyed in Hanover in 1943 during a bombing raid. T03766 was made in about 1958 of 'Hartgips' (literally, 'hard plaster') by Wilhelm Reuter, the restores at the Landesmuseum in Hanover. Reuter worked from photographs of the original in the possession of Ernst Schwitters and his model was copied in marble by a Hanoverian tombstone maker. T03766 was sent to London with the intention that it should be used as the gravestone on Schwitter's grave in Ambleside. The vicar in Ambleside, supported by his local Bishop, refused to have the gravestone erected, whereupon it was sold to the Victoria and Albert Museum following a period when it was erected in Philip Granville's garden in London. In 1970 Schwitters's body was exhumed and moved to Hanover where the second, marble gravestone was erected and remains in position. In its place in the cemetry in Ambleside a memorial stone was placed with the inscription 'Kurt Schwitters 1887-1948 Creator of Merz'

Both T03766 and the marble copy bear the inscription 'Die Herbstzeitlose' (which is a flower, the meadow saffron or autumn crocus, as well as meaning 'Autumnless'). Ernst Schwitters suggests that Schwitters's choice of this inscription for his gravestone could relate to his relatively early death as the age of 59. Neither the original nor the subsequent edition bears this inscription. An edition of seven in 'Neusilber', or asgentan, was planned in 1980, but only two were cast. One of these reconstructions is on loan to the Sprengel Museum, Hanover and is reproduced in Sprengel Museum Hannover: Malerei und Plastik des 20.Jahrhunderts, Hanover 1985, pp.234,250 (col.).

Schmalenbach places 'The Autumn Crocus' in the context of Schwitters's sculptural development during the 1920s (although he dates it a year earlier than later historians). He writes:

One sculpture in the round [repr. Schmalenbach 1970, pl.550], probably executed in the Netherlands in 1923, is entirely in keeping with the principles of De Stijl. A rhythmic variation of Cubist themes, it might have been produced by a sculptor like Vantongerloo - were it not for the almost palpable organic life of the wood under the whitewash. Schwitters soon went beyond this orthodox geometricism. Later in the 1920s Schwitters's sculptural style changes, giving rise to considerably freer and more organic forms, though they still bear the hallmarks of Purism. The shapes remain elementary even when there is a departure from the basic stereometric ones, and in every case the abstract white - here and there contrasted with colored surfaces - endows them with the character of absoluteness. The forms tend, whether imperceptibly or with some definiteness, to curve, swelling or receding in their course to advance into space more strongly and present themselves more variously to the light. Around 1925 the artist produced a sculpture about 3 inches high titled The Autumn Crocus, of which he was particularly fond. In it the purity and rigor of geometric treatment is combined with a hint of flowerlike sprightliness (Schmalenbach 1970, p.158).
Schwitters first made free-standing three-dimensional work around 1919. Six are known through photographs and include 'The Pleasure Gallows' (Der Lustgalgen, repr. Elderfield 1985, pl.135) and 'The Cult Pump' (Die Kultpumpe, repr. ibid., pl.133). Schwitters, however, linked them conceptually to his Merz pictures of the same period. In 'Merz' a text published in 1920 in the journal 'Ararat', Schwitters writes:
So long as I paint, I also make sculpture. Now I am making Merzsculptures: Pleasure Gallows and Cultpump. The Merzsculptures are like the Merzpictures - assembled from different materials. They are conceived as works in the round with multiple viewpoints (Kurt Schwitters, Das Literarische Werk, vol.5, Cologne 1981, p.79).
Schwitters, however, differentiated these early Dada pieces from his other sculpture. Indeed the sculptures made after 1923 are mainly painted works. This gives them greater formal unity, whereas in the earlier Dada pieces and related reliefs, equal emphasis was placed on the individual material collected and combined to make the finished work. Elderfield writes:
Schwitters has written that a memorial he made to his father was his first piece of sculpture ... He is therefore distinguishing fabricated works like this from his early Dada constructions [which date from 1919]. Another 1923 sculpture, which seems indebted to Vantongerloo, is close in style to the most geometric parts of the Merzbau. As the same time ... the Merzbau also contained Dada constructions; indeed the contrast of Dadaist consent and Constructivist form, within an Expressionist whole, was characteristic of the Merzbau during its first five or six years. By the later 1920s, however, this had changed: forms began to swell away from the geometric, and twist as they developed linearly to produce a feeling of internal growth (Elderfield 1985, p.595).
The Merzbau mentioned in this quotation refers to the gradual transformations of two rooms and the balcony of the artist's house in Hanover, which occured throughout the 1920s and early 1930s (the expansion into the second room and balcony occurred around 1925-6). The project was begun in 1919, grew throughout the following years and was finally destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943. Schwitters regarded it as his most important work. Within this expanding Gesamtkunstwerk ('total work of art'), Schwitters always intended to integrate sculpture although is is not clear whether 'The Autumn Crocus' was ever included. The sculpture that was included was generally large-scale and made out of materials, mainly wood and plaster, similar to the rest of the Merzbau (it was photographed mainly during the early 1930s and these documentary photographs are reproduced in Schmalenbach 1970, pls.160-65 and Elderfield 1985, many plates between pls.165 and 189).

In a text written in 1933 (in French), Schwitters describes the Merzbau:

The Merzbau is the construction of an interior from sculptural forms and colors. In the glazed grottos are Merz compositions arranged in cubic volumes and which blend with the white cubic forms in creating the interior. Each part of the interior serves as an intermediary element to its neighbouring part. There is no detail which makes a unified and circumscribed composition. There are a large number of different forms which serve to mediate between the cube and indefinite form, sometimes, I have taken a form from nature, but more often I have constructed the form as the function of different lines parallel or crossing. In this way I have discovered the most important of my forms: the half spiral (Schwitters 1981, vol.5, p.354 in a translation from Elderfield 1985, p.191).
Elderfield discusses the sculptural work of the late 1920s in the context of this transition between the geometric inspiration behind work of the early 1920s (reliefs, sculptures and Merzbau elements) and the spiral forms which emerge most strongly in the 'New Merz Picture' 1931 (Insel Hombroich, reps. Elderfield 1985, col.pl.XXI). Elderfield continues:
Needing new elements for the Merzbau that would link the earlier Cubic forms to free interior space, Schwitters therefore either simply used elements found in nature or, more often, constructed them around directional lines that he traced out across the open areas of the rooms. The fixed cubic geometry was gradually dissolved as he became attracted to curvilinear, spiraling and organic forms. The few sculptures that still exist from this period (most were destroyed with the Merzbau) give us only a limited idea of what he was striving at. Die Herbstzeitlose ('The Autumn Crocus') of c.1926-28 does show that he would actually abstract from specific natural forms. More often, however, he seems to have either chosen elements that seemed expressive of growth and painted them to generalize their reference, or carved such elements himself and then painted them, or built up such elements out of plaster (Elderfield 1985, p.191).
'The Autumn Crocus' embraces both the constructivist principles evident in 'Untitled' 1923 (private collection, repr. Elderfield 1985, pl.246; this work is related to the volumetric constructions made by George Vantongerloo around this time) and the more organic forms, which emerged during the later 1920s. The curvilinear, twisting qualities are achieved within inorganic, cubic volumes, Schwitters combines differing aspects through his aspiration to representation, as suggested by the title, and through the formal experimentation evident in his sculptures of the period. The visual effectiveness of T03766 derives from the contrast between the two cubic masses, joined at the stem and opening out as the blossom, and the flowing, twisting edges which define the sculpture's shape. These edges develop a sense of dynamism when seen from the multiple viewpoints. The base is two-tiered and while the bottom tier is square, the second tier is trapezoidal in outline, thus establishing the development of cubic volume explored in this work.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1984-86: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions Including Supplement to Catalogue of Acquisitions 1982-84, Tate Gallery, London 1988, pp.561-3

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