NEW HAVEN — Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) was one of the most fascinating of modern artists, and this large work, at the Yale University Art Gallery, is his most commanding in the United States.
Dated 1920/39, it was begun in his hometown of Hanover, Germany, and revisited 20 years later in Norway. Schwitters had fled there after learning that the Gestapo, who had him down as a “degenerate” artist, wanted to “interview” him.
That didn’t work out so well: The Nazis invaded Norway in April 1940, and Schwitters, after fleeing with his son to Scotland, ended up spending 16 demoralizing months in an internment camp on the Isle of Man.
Schwitters was more than a collagist — although in that department, he was virtually peerless. He was also a poet, a sculptor, and a pioneering installation artist.
His painstaking transformations of a series of private residences, beginning with his family home in Hanover, into complex, grotto-like installations of wooden structures, trash, and found objects, have become legendary among contemporary artists, the more so because almost all of them ended up being destroyed. Schwitters called these installations “Merzbau,” after adopting the term “Merz” from a fragment of text (“Commerz Und Privatbank”) he had used in a 1918 collage.
Schwitters developed his aesthetic immediately after World War I, when, as he put it, “Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments.” Interestingly, with its combination of brushy, colored paint and carefully arranged three-dimensional fragments, “Merz Picture With Rainbow” anticipates the formation of a related aesthetic that emerged soon after World War II — Robert Rauschenberg’s celebrated “Combines.” (After seeing a Schwitters show in 1959, Rauschenberg said: “I felt like he made it all just for me.”)
Neither too tight nor too loose, too immaculate nor too fogged-up by nostalgia (a quality that kills so much collage), the construction fizzes with life, in part thanks to its dizzying interplay between real and false (painted) shadows.
And then there is that striking fragment of rainbow. What is its role? Pure natural phenomenon — just another “found object”? Or kitschy symbol of hope?
Schwitters doubtless relished the ambivalence. Lacking both the utopianism and the nihilism of his various avant-garde peers, his sensibility has always been difficult to pin down.
We know that, like Rauschenberg, he was hypersensitive to relations between shapes, colors, textures, and typography. But he charged these formal tensions with moods of melancholic yearning, humor, and private symbolism (One clue: He originally titled his “Merzbau” the “Cathedral of Erotic Misery.”)
In the end, of course, to look for clues, to try to “solve the mystery” of “Merz Picture With Rainbow” is a mistake. You’re not, after all, looking at a puzzle. You’re looking at a work of art — at the physical manifestation, in this case, of an extraordinary visual intelligence.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.