Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) Für Herbert Read. 21 x 17cm (8 1/4 x 6 11/16in) (image size); 24.3 x 20.3cm (9 9/16 x 8in) (sheet size) (Executed in England  in 1944)

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Lot 14AR
Kurt Schwitters
Für Herbert Read. 21 x 17cm (8 1/4 x 6 11/16in) (image size); 24.3 x 20.3cm (9 9/16 x 8in) (sheet size)

Sold for £ 106,250 (US$ 131,858) inc. premium
Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)
Für Herbert Read.
signed and dated 'Kurt Schwitters 44' (lower right) and inscribed 'For Herbert Read.' (lower left)
collage on card laid down on the artist's mount
21 x 17cm (8 1/4 x 6 11/16in) (image size); 24.3 x 20.3cm (9 9/16 x 8in) (sheet size)
Executed in England in 1944


  • Provenance
    Sir Herbert Read Collection, London, 1944 - 1968 (a gift from the artist).
    Benedict Read Collection, Leeds (by descent from the above).

    Leeds, Leeds City Art Galleries, Herbert Read, A British Vision of World Art, 25 November 1993 - 5 February 1994, no. 191 (titled 'Merzbild').
    Vienna, Kunstforum Wien, Schwitters, 15 March - 16 June 2002, no. 124.
    London, Tate Britain, Schwitters in Britain, 30 January - 12 May 2013 (later travelled to Hannover).

    K. Orchard & I. Schulz, Kurt Schwitters, catalogue raisonné 1937 - 1948, Hannover, 2006, no. 3081 (illustrated p. 435).

    'Schwitters is a complete artist' (Herbert Read)

    The present work was gifted to Sir Herbert Read (1893-1968) by Kurt Schwitters in 1944 and has remained in the family ever since. One of two collages that the artist dedicated to him, the work was seemingly a gift of gratitude for the support that Read, as one of Britain's most pre-eminent art critics, had shown him upon his arrival in wartime London.

    Herbert Read grew up as the son of a farmer in the Yorkshire Dales but would go on to become the voice of an artistic generation, championing the work of Yorkshire artists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, as well as Ben Nicholson and Paul Nash in his 1933 book Art Now, later co-founding the Institute of Contemporary Arts after the war. He was one of the earliest proponents of modern German art in Britain, and curated the Surrealist exhibition at the Burlington Galleries in London in 1936 which included works by Paul Klee, Max Ernst, René Magritte and Joan Miró amongst others. In 1944 he contributed an essay to the catalogue of Schwitters' first solo exhibition in London at the Modern Art Gallery, praising in particular the artist's ground-breaking use of collage: 'Schwitters has shown that it is possible to make art out of anything – so long as one is an artist. Used tram tickets, pieces of cardboard, or corrugated paper, corks, matches, rags – all is grist to the creative imagination, and Schwitters has pursued this line of development far beyond the point reached by Juan Gris and Picasso. Schwitters is the supreme master of the collage' (H. Read, quoted in Schwitters in Britain, exh. cat., London, 2013, p. 13).

    Für Herbert Read is a superb example of the technique – layers of fabric, paper and cardboard are comprised of snippets of food labels, London bus routes and newspapers, literal pieces of the new city that the exiled artist found himself in after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1937. His artwork had been included in the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) touring exhibition organised by the Nazi party from 1933, and after being invited for an interview with the Gestapo in early 1937 he left to join his son Ernst in Norway. The Nazis invaded the country in 1940, prompting Schwitters to board an ice-breaker bound for Leith in Scotland with his son and daughter-in-law. He was interred as an enemy alien in various camps before arriving in July 1940 in Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man, which became known as 'the artist's camp'. Released in November 1941, he moved to London where he relied upon friends and contacts of fellow artists he had met in the camp, forming links with British artists and critics such as Ben Nicholson and Herbert Read. The latter had already championed Schwitters prior to his arrival in the UK, first in Art Now, 1933, in which he illustrated Bild grau-rosa, and then by including two of the artist's works in a 1938 exhibition showcasing modern German artists, introducing him as 'one of the leaders of German Dadaism' (Ibid., p. 8). Schwitters' solo exhibition in 1944, the year of this work's execution, was his most significant show to date, offering eleven collages, eighteen oil paintings and ten sculptures. Read's essay in the catalogue showed his continued support for an artist whose work found some critical acclaim but little commercial success in the capital, prompting a move to the Lake District in June 1945.

    Für Herbert Read hails from the artist's later works, albeit executed whilst Schwitters was still in his fifties: 'I am still extremely young and have merely become stronger in my art' (Schwitters writing in 1945, quoted in Ibid., p. 56). Stylistically it marks a continuation of his renowned Merz concept, which first appeared around 1918-1919. Schwitters is said to have derived the name from a scrap of paper which was printed with 'Commerz' from the Commerz Bank, but on which only 'merz' was visible. This seemingly random and nonsensical title pleased him in its sound, reflecting the influence of the Dada movement at the time. For Schwitters 'this new process whose principle was the use of any material...could not [be classified] under old labels such as expressionism, cubism, futurism and so on... Merz means forging relationships, preferably between all things in the world' (K. Schwitters, quoted in F. Lach, Kurt Schwitters. Das literarische Werk, vol. V, Cologne, 1973-81, pp. 187 & 252).

    Schwitters met fellow members of Berlin's avant-garde after exhibiting at Galerie Der Sturm in 1918 and 1919, and whilst not an official member of the Dada movement ('I rode out the revolution enjoying myself thoroughly, and pass as a Dadaist without being one' (K. Schwitters, quoted in W. Schmalenbach, Kurt Schwitters, New York, 1967, p. 96)) he embarked on a touring 'Dada campaign' with Theo van Doesburg in 1923. Merz embraced the irony of Dadaism in its elevation and transformation of everyday, discarded objects, as well as showing the influence of Russian constructivism and Cubist collages.

    The Merz concept encompassed painting, drawing, sculpture, fantastical poetry and performance in a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk, illustrating Schwitters' passion for all art forms. This 'forging of relationships' is surely encapsulated in the collage technique, whereby disparate fragments are juxtaposed to create a new, larger whole. The medium was temporarily abandoned following Schwitters' flight from Germany however: whilst in Norway the artist was inspired by the light and landscape to return to oil paints, while the British internment camps did not offer sufficient materials to build with. 'This changed as soon as he was released from internment and arrived in London in late 1941. The British metropolis – 'Big city. Very big. Like a Hannover that has shot up' – prompted yet another turnaround in his artistic interests, which now particularly included collages and small sculptures' (Schwitters in Britain, op. cit., p. 57).

    Schwitters himself held that there was no difference between these later works and his earliest Merz collages, and whilst some later compositions did show a leaner clarity, Für Herbert Read looks back to the gloriously multi-layered works of the twenties, with overlapping rough, torn edges. The present work maintains the dynamism of earlier Merzbilds such as Mz 318 ch, created through the angular sheet edges, overlapping diagonals and sharp curlicue slivers of card, drawing the eye into the centre and up through the composition. This strong sense of geometry is juxtaposed with softly torn fabric and deckled paper edges. Comprised of fragments from his London life, Für Herbert Read is intrinsically of its time and place, as well being inherently personal, filled with detritus from the artist's own life. This revolutionary method directly influenced artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, who, after seeing an exhibition of Schwitters' work in 1959, exclaimed 'I felt like he made it all just for me' (R. Rauschenberg, quoted in M. L. Kotz, Rauschenberg, Art and Life, New York, 2004, p. 91).

    A further work from The Estate of Benedict Read by Yayoi Kusama will be included in the Post-War & Contemporary Art auction on 7 March 2018.
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