It was in June 1919 at the Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin, that Schwitters first used the title Merz to designate a collage in the broadest sense: "I called Merz this new process whose principle was the use of any material. It was the second syllable of Kommerz. It first appeared in Merzbild, a painting in which, apart from its abstract forms, one could read Merz, cut and pasted from an advertisement for Kommerz- und Privatbank. For my first exhibition of these assemblages in the Galerie Der Sturm in Berlin, I was looking for a term to designate this new genre, for I could not classify my paintings under old labels such as expressionism, cubism, futurism and so on. I called Merzbilder all my pictures which related to this present one... Merz is a philosophy. Its essence is absolute uninhibitedness and impartiality… Merz means forging relationships, preferably between all things in the world" (Kurt Schwitters, quoted in Friedhelm Lach, Kurt Schwitters. Das literarische Werk, vol. V, Cologne, 1973-81, pp. 187 & 252).
The present work is emblematic of the guiding philosophy of Merz, namely the complete re-evaluation of all material values. Far beyond the flat Cubist collages of Picasso and Braque, Merz 458 Wriedt exemplifies Schwitters' embrace of all techniques: incorporating painting, collage, sculpture, architecture, poetry and even typography. Born out of trying to come to terms with the destruction of the old world order and the debris of a modern, industrial, war-torn Europe, Merz was also no doubt spurred on by the wild inflation rates in Germany that had left paper currency all but worthless. Schwitters’ practice in the early twenties could be interpreted as an attempt to discover a hidden order amongst the chaos, literally gathering the scraps, found objects and discarded materials and created something new, holistic and full of life.
Merz 458 Wriedt was originally in the collection of Fritz Glaser, to whom it is dedicated. Dr. Glaser likely acquired it directly from the artist. A Jewish lawyer in Dresden, a bon vivant and an accomplished accordion and violin player, Glaser and his wife Erna regularly entertained their bohemian friends in the cosmopolitan city during the buoyant 1920s. Artists like Otto Dix, George Grosz and Kurt Schwitters who studied at the Dresden Academy of Fine Art were members of his circle. He financially supported many of his artist friends directly or through purchases. Dix painted a powerful portrait of Glaser against the war-shattered Dresden cityscape (see fig. 1). Glaser’s collection focused on works on paper and most of it was deemed “degenerate” when the Nazis came to power in the 1930s. Whilst he was forced to sell many works in his collection to survive after he was forbidden to practice law in 1933, this important Schwitters collage remained in the family and passed down to his son who sold it after the war. It was later owned by renowned French film director and producer Claude Berri.
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