Dada Culture: Critical Texts on the Avant-Garde

By Dafydd Jones | Go to book overview
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Montage and Totality: Kurt Schwitters's relationship
to “tradition” and “avant-garde”

Curt Germundson

Abstract: Kurt Schwitters discussed his work in terms associated with traditional
concepts of art, while at the same time adhering to the non-traditional technique of
collage. Peter Bürger's influential Theory of the Avant-Garde is limited in that it does
not allow an artist like Schwitters to be considered avant-garde. A productive theory
of the avant-garde is one that accounts for artists such as Schwitters, who do not
simply oppose tradition, but transform it in their work. Within the critical literature
there is still a tendency to focus on Schwitters's supposed separation and isolation
from society at large. A discussion in this essay of works from drawings and paintings
to the collages demonstrates how Schwitters transformed nineteenth and twentieth
century ideas concerning the Gothic cathedral, leading to the merging of “private” and
“public” in the Merzbau.

1. Introduction

Peter Bürger in his 1974 Theory of the Avant-Garde (English translation published in 1984) discusses montage as being the “fundamental principle of avant-gardiste art”, as it “breaks through the appearance of totality”, by making it clear that the work is made up of reality fragments (Bürger 1984: 72). This essay will examine the way Kurt Schwitters searched for a non-conventional art while adhering to concepts that Bürger associates with the “organic” work of art. Schwitters and the evolution of his idea of the “autonomous” and “organic” work of art serve to expose the limitation of Bürger's theory


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