Dada, then Schwitters and Typography

Dada was a movement flourishing around 1915 – 1925, originally in Europe, then America. Dada ridiculed traditional notions of form and beauty, abandoning traditional media such as painting and sculpture in favour of techniques like collage, photomontage and readymades. Chance was credited with a valid role in the act of creating. Dada was influential, inspiring many anti-art movements throughout the 20th century. Dada was not united by a common style, rather a rejection of conventions in art and thought, seeking through unorthodox techniques, performances and provocations to shock society into self-awareness. The name Dada demonstrates the movement’s anti-rationalism.

Reference: Ades, D. and Gale, M. (retrieved 2013). Dada Oxford Art Online

Dada Image  1

Dada Image  2

Dada Image  3

Dada Image  4

Dada Image  5

Dada Image  6

Image 1  M Janco Mouvement Dada, 1918
Image 2  F Picabia Mouvement Dada, 1919
Image 3  I Zdanevich, Le-Dantyu as a Beacon, 1923
Image 4  Cover of Zenit, 1922
Image 5  T Tzara, Cover of Dada 6, 1920
Image 6  FT Marinetti, Zang Tumb Tuum, 1914

Images From: Dada & Surrealism, by Matthew Gale, published by Phaidon Press Limited, London, 1997.

Schwitters and Typography

Researching Dada typography, Kurt Schwitters appeared prominent. I looked for more information. Following is an interpretation of an article written by D. A. Steel, appearing in the journal Word & Image.

Schwitters played two roles by experimenting with and developing typography. He was a pioneer in practice and theory with advertising design, and as an artist, reflected upon and rejected modern life by incorporating textual advertising material into his works. He created commercial advertisements, wrote experimental poetry and composed collaged posters.

Schwitters’ used discarded textual material including adverts, commercial slogans, familiar public notices, snippets of overheard speech, popular song lines and newspaper headlines in his art works. He reassembled readymade text scraps and broken, scattered fragments of street litter, junk and debris into collages, sculptures, posters, poems. He borrowed and de-functioned found, utilitarian material, and assembled textual bric-a-bracs resulting in urban pieces challenging the reader and/or viewer to reconstitute original meanings.

Schwitters believed individual objects expressed an essential quality of their own, and through juxtaposition and blending, this essence is transmuted and changed. Objects are divorced from original meaning, however a tension resides between the awareness of their origin and as an element in a new environment (collage, sculpture, poster). A pull exists between the visual surface of Schwitters’ art works and the semantics of the text’s original meanings.

Can a commercial slogan or brand name used as an element in these collages be defused from it’s original publicity function? The original material is exploited to serve ironic purposes in Schwitters’ collages.

Through his interest in typographic composition Schwitters became involved in advertising and graphic design during the mid 1920’s. His experimental type layout was stimulated by futurist and dadaist theories. He worked with constructivist El Lissitzky, with Theo van Doesburg on ‘De Stijl’ and Jan Tschichold from the Bauhaus group, further developing his typography ideas.

In 1925 Schwitters published a pioneering brochure titled ‘Modern Typographical Design’ outlining his ideas through principles informed by commercial purposes.

His typographical principles included:

  • good advertising is obtained through originality of composition
  • typography is not the simple reproduction of text, rather the expression of tension and stresses of the textual meaning
  • blank spaces in the page are positive typographical values, and the interrelationship of typographical values is more important then the quality of the type
  • concerning type design, quality rests on simplicity (clear, plain, effective forms) and beauty (a satisfactory balance of related elements)
  • typography should promote textual meaning by reinforcing the purpose for which the text is printed

He explored advertising concepts of information and persuasion, proposing an effective advert combines both in a unified, well designed whole, where text and image are mutually enhancing. He was convinced an advert is first assimilated by the senses, and subsequently by reason. He argues good design is cheaper and more effective then mass repetition (of adverts) by having visual impact in the plethora of visual images comprising a modern cityscape.

Typography played a large role in both Schwitters’ personal, creative works and his commercial designs. By tearing words to bits then sticking them together again, he created conceptual, spontaneous pieces.

Reference: D.A. Steel (1990) DADA-ADAD Kurt Schwitters, poetry, collage, typography and the advert, Word & Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry, 6:2, p. 198-209.

Victory (oil & collage on newspaper)
Credit: Victory (oil & collage on newspaper), Schwitters, Kurt (1887-1948) / Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Germany / Giraudon / The Bridgeman Art Library

Covers of the Dada magazine 'Merz', edited by Kurt Schwitters, 1923 (litho)
Credit: Covers of the Dada magazine ‘Merz’, edited by Kurt Schwitters, 1923 (litho), German School, (20th century) / Private Collection / The Stapleton Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library

Cover of 'Die Kathedrale' by Kurt Schwitters, published c.1920 (litho)
Credit: Cover of ‘Die Kathedrale’ by Kurt Schwitters, published c.1920 (litho), Schwitters, Kurt (1887-1948) / Private Collection / The Stapleton Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library

The Red Rose, c.1933-34 (collage)
Credit: The Red Rose, c.1933-34 (collage), Schwitters, Kurt (1887-1948) / Private Collection / The Bridgeman Art Library

Anna Blume, 1922 (rubber stamps & collage)
Credit: Anna Blume, 1922 (rubber stamps & collage), Schwitters, Kurt (1887-1948) / Private Collection / Mayor Gallery, London / The Bridgeman Art Library


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Shirley Burley

Artwork Craft Writing Graphic Design Photography