Kurt Schwitters

Untitled (With Vase Shape and Circle)


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In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Kurt Schwitters 1887–1948
Original title
Ohne Titel (Mit Vasenform und Kreis)
Graphite on card
Support: 410 × 308 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to Tate 2007


Created by the German artist Kurt Schwitters, Untitled (With Vase Shape and Circle) is a line drawing in pencil made using hatching and crosshatching methods. It depicts a series of forms, most prominently a centrally positioned vertical shape reminiscent of a vase or wooden reel and, to the right of this, a circle. Extending from the latter are a series of crosshatched lines and darker areas suggesting that the circle is the upper face of a cylinder. Schwitters has created a sense of depth by using shading to model both of the main forms. Much of the remainder of the white card is left blank in an open spatial composition that gives prominence to the abstract shapes.

Owing to the increasingly unstable political situation in Germany by 1937, Schwitters fled to Norway on 2 January of that year, joining his son, Ernst, who had left two weeks earlier. This drawing would therefore have been made when the artist was in Norway, as is suggested by the precise date – ‘16.7.38’ – that Schwitters has inscribed at the bottom of the vase-like shape along with his initials. Although the work is untitled, the addition of the bracketed description in the title draws the attention to the work’s dominant formal qualities.

Curator Isabel Schulz has noted that Schwitters completed a number of abstract drawings and studies in the 1930s (Schulz 2011, accessed 14 August 2015). Ohne Titel (Abstrakte Komposition 5) (Untitled (Abstract Composition 5)) 1938 (Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Hanover) is one example, created in the same year as Untitled (With Vase Shape and Circle). Schulz has observed that these drawings tend to ‘simulate spatial situations such as we know from the close-up photographs of his architectural construction in Hanover called the Merzbau. The studies were possibly made in conjunction with the construction of a new Merzbau that Schwitters set out to build in 1937 during his exile in Lysaker near Oslo’ (Schulz 2011, accessed 14 August 2015). It is therefore likely that Untitled (With Vase Shape and Circle) relates to certain architectural elements in the Lysaker Merzbau, although this connection has not been confirmed. However, its curved forms are in keeping with Schwitters’s move away from the visual language of constructivism at this time and his focus on non-geometric forms, as can also be seen another drawing from 1938, Ohne Titel (Skizze Abstrakte Komposition mit amorphen Formen) (Untitled (Sketch of an Abstract Composition with Amorphous Forms)) (Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Hanover).

While Schwitters is best known for his post-1918 collages, his drawings comprise approximately one fifth of his surviving works. Drawing contributed to the development of his ideas surrounding ‘Merz’ (originating from the German word ‘Kommerz’, meaning ‘commerce’), a term he began using in 1919 to describe his principle of assembling found materials (see Elderfield 1985, p.12). Art historian Michael White has described how in both Schwitters’s collages and his drawings ‘readings of shapes and colours as positive or negative interchange’ and that ‘lines are predominantly the meeting point between a heavily shaded and a white area’ (White 2010, accessed 12 August 2015), an effect that can be identified in Untitled (With Vase Shape and Circle).

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. However, around this time his work was being promoted in Britain and America by key art establishment figures such as Peggy Guggenheim, who featured five of Schwitters’s works in a show in her London gallery in 1938. However, in terms of the reception of his drawings specifically, their significance to his practice has only recently been explored (see Isabel Schulz (ed.), ‘Anna Blume and I’: Drawings by Kurt Schwitters, exhibition catalogue, Kunstmuseum Bern, Bern 2011). As Schulz has noted, this was because Schwitters rarely exhibited his drawings and ‘because they appeared, at least on the surface, to have nothing to do with his Merz art that helped secure Schwitters a key position in modernism’ (Schulz 2011, accessed 14 August 2015).

Further reading
John Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, London 1985.
Michael White, ‘Merzzeichnung: Typology and Typography’, Tate Papers, no.14, 1 October 2010, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/merzzeichnung-typology-and-typography, accessed 12 August 2015.
Isabel Schulz, ‘Anna Blume and I’: Drawings by Kurt Schwitters, exhibition leaflet, Kunstmuseum Bern 2011, http://www.kunstmuseumbern.ch, accessed 14 August 2015.

Louise Hughes
August 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

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Display caption

Schwitters was in Norway by the time that he made Pencil Drawing in 1938. It is rather unusual in its precision, combining energetically flicked strokes in the central vase form with very careful hatching. It was created in the moment of calm between his exile from Germany and his escape, on the Nazi invasion of Norway, to Britain in 1940.

Gallery label, August 2004

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