I first visited the Armitt Museum in June 2015, on a pilgrimage to visit the Merz Barn site on the Cylinders Estate. I had known for some time about the small collection of Schwitters’ works the Armitt held but was surprised by how brilliantly diverse it was. The Armitt Museum has some 30 works by Schwitters, which it owns or has on loan, and its collection varies from collages and portraits to landscapes and his Merz assemblage Wood on Wood (c. 1945-47). Of its collection, my favourite is a tiny collage titled Cal (1947).
Cal measures at just 7.5 cm tall and 6 cm wide (2.95 by 2.32 in inches) and is, I think, a fascinating collage. Cal’s rough geometry is a sort of Merzing of the abstractionist/Constructivist aesthetic Schwitters had played with much earlier in his career: it is, however, not as clean or pure as those works, and its abstract qualities are betrayed by the inclusion of text. Cal most likely takes its title from one of the few visible words left behind in the fragmented sentence. “The words ‘Cal… are du…” is all that can be read, the rest has either been cut off by Schwitters or is blocked by a strip of card. They are further obscured by being placed upside down. The tiny scale of the collage is as much a marvel as those larger works he produced (like the Merzsäule on Hjertøya, Norway, or the Hannover Merzbau) and his seeming ability to turn any piece of trash or leftover fragment into art, into something beautiful, is shown in microcosm in Cal.
What is most striking, I think, about Cal though, is that in 45 cm2 Schwitters
can perfectly encapsulate his Merz aesthetic and show how it has evolved. In this tiny collage, we get almost the full range of Schwitters’ experimentations with collage and assemblage. He uses text and typography as well as graphic design elements as he had done before; including found fragments of text, balancing them delicately with their counterpart components so as not to give any more importance to any singular composite. He builds depth by layering pieces of paper, card and material, and in doing so, plays with our sense of perspective. He leaves parts of the collage ever so slightly loose and pins visible so that we remember that there was a process and that this art work was made by his hand. Behind the process is a rhythm, a dance, a walk, a careful laying of pieces of paper, the rhythm of scissors, of eyes across the canvas. In thinking about this process, we are reminded of his own words: ‘What art is, you know as well as I do: it is nothing more than rhythm…’
Cole Collins (@c_s_collins) is a fourth year PhD student at Edinburgh College of Art working on the representation of women in Kurt Schwitters’ collages. He is co-organiser of a three-day, international conference exploring the history of collage: Collage, Montage, Assemblage: Collected and Composite Forms, 1700-Present (Edinburgh). He is currently on a short-term fellowship at the Stiftung Arp e.V. Berlin and lives in Berlin.