Kurt Schwitters

Untitled (White Construction)


Kurt Schwitters 1887–1948
Oil paint on wood
Box frame measures: 827 × 709 × 105 mm; object: 568 × 457 × 50 mm
Purchased from Jane Bereford with funds provided by Tate Members and Art Fund 2017


Untitled (White Construction) 1942 is a rectangular wall-mounted relief composed of two curved, leaf-shaped forms and two linear painted forms mounted onto a wooden backboard that has been painted white. The larger curved form, on the left side of the support, is also painted white, although the centre has been cut out and the resulting recessed area painted red. The wood cut from the centre of this form has been painted black and affixed to the lower right of the composition. The work is further divided into areas of approximately two thirds and one third by two thin strips of wood. These have been painted yellow and set at right angles to each other so that the vertical piece runs from top to bottom between the curved forms, and the horizontal piece runs along the lower edge of the work below the form on the left.

Schwitters made Untitled (White Construction) in 1942 when he was newly settled in London, having been released from internment on the Isle of Man in November 1941. The work combines two aspects of his practice. On the one hand it looks back to his constructivist painted reliefs of the 1920s with its simple forms and De Stijl colour scheme combining flat areas of primary colours (red and yellow with white and black). Rather than being composed of the geometric forms which characterised these earlier painted reliefs, however, its curvilinear and biomorphic forms draw on Schwitters’s later interest in the natural world, which had increasingly dominated his work from the 1930s. In 1942 Schwitters was also making small hand-held sculptures in painted plaster and both the forms and colour scheme of Untitled (White Construction) are repeated in sculptures such as Mother and Egg c.1942 (Tate L01737), created around the same time. These elements persisted after Schwitters’s move to the Lake District with Chicken and Egg 1946 (Tate L01738) and the Merz Barn 1947–8 (now surviving as the Merz Barn Wall, Hatton Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne). The latter is a large plaster construction of biomorphic shapes painted and embedded with found natural objects originally installed in a barn.

Schwitters saw the use of painted surfaces in sculpture as a way of combining painting and sculpture to challenge the traditional boundaries that separated the two practices. A similar motivation is in play in his painted reliefs. In November 1945 he wrote to Alfred Barr, then director of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, describing this practice: ‘I modellized the colour and form of the surface with paint, so that modellizing and painting become only one art’ (quoted in Megan R. Luke, Kurt Schwitters: Space, Image, Exile, Chicago and London 2014, p.157). The juxtaposition of a white outer area with a red interior in the large leaf-shape form of Untitled (White Construction) is similar to the suggestion of organic life that Luke notes in sculptures such as Untitled (Opening Blossom) 1942/1945 (Sprengel Museum, Hannover). In this work, as Luke says, Schwitters ‘employed paint to suggest that the center of the sculpture was a coloured body encased within a white skin … as if their form had been sliced to reveal a bloodied center’ (Luke 2014, p. 172). ‘Whereas the structure of these works is manifestly closed,’ Luke adds, ‘their color suggests that the interior is open, even vulnerable to the outside world.’ (Luke 2014, p.172.)

Untitled (White Construction) embodies a continuing dialogue between the European and British abstract traditions in the 1930s and 1940s. Conversations among abstract artists in the 1930s, through international groups such as Abstraction-Création, were continued in Britain in the 1940s through exhibitions and through the presence of exiled artists like Schwitters. Schwitters’s exploration of biomorphic form in the 1940s has affinities with the work of British abstract artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Edward Wadsworth, with whom he had been a member of Abstraction-Création in the 1930s. In 1942, the year this work was made, Schwitters showed his work alongside these artists and other leading figures in British abstraction and surrealism in the exhibition New Movements in Art held at the London Museum in Lancaster House and which later toured to regional galleries. Untitled (White Construction) does not appear to have been exhibited during Schwitters’s lifetime and remained in his possession, appearing in a photograph of c.1948 with a group of works – including Chicken and Egg 1946 and Untitled (BLACK POWDER) 1945–7 (Tate T14301) – displayed on the exterior wall of the Merz Barn and on the grass outside (reproduced in Cardinal and Webster 2011, p.81). Schwitters had intended that some of his works should be displayed within the Merz Barn and this photograph seems to suggest that Untitled (White Construction) was to be one of them.

Untitled (White Construction) was included in the exhibition Schwitters in Britain held at Tate Britain, London, in 2013.

Further reading
Karin Orchard and Isabel Shulz (eds.), Kurt Schwitters. Catalogue Raisonné: Volume 3, Ostfildern 2006, no.2901, p.371.
Roger Cardinal and Gwendolen Webster, Kurt Schwitters, Ostfildern 2011, p.81.
Emma Chambers and Karin Orchard (eds.), Schwitters in Britain, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2013, pp.97, 156.

Emma Chambers
May 2015

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Display caption

Schwitters came to Britain in 1940 as a refugee from Germany. He was held in a prison camp on the Isle of Man when he first arrived. This work was made after his release, when he was newly settled in London. The leaf-like shapes reflect the interest in the natural world that dominated Schwitters’s work from the 1930s. Its simple forms, combining flat areas of primary colour with white and black resemble his abstract painted reliefs of the 1920s. In 1942 he exhibited with leading figures in British abstraction and surrealism in the touring exhibition New Movements in Art.

Gallery label, April 2019

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