Front / Recto

  • Title Kurt Schwitters
  • Negative Date 1924
  • Print Date 1924
  • Medium Gelatin silver print
  • Dimensions Image 4 1/4 × 3 7/8" (10.8 × 9.8 cm)
    Sheet 4 1/2 × 4 1/16" (11.5 × 10.3 cm)
  • Place Taken Moscow
  • Credit Line Thomas Walther Collection. Gift of Shirley C. Burden, by exchange
  • MoMA Accession Number 1763.2001
  • Copyright © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
  • Description

    Whether a photographic portrait is a casual snapshot or a deep dive into the sitter’s psychology, its making usually results in a simple optical record of a moment. In the early twentieth century, some artists interested in greater complexity extended the portrait through multiple images (such as Alfred Stieglitz) or through long exposures (Anton Giulio Bragaglia and Arturo Bragaglia). Russian and German artists of the 1920s were particularly keen to render the sitter’s activity or more than one aspect of his or her personality, and for this many of them used multiple exposures. El Lissitzky’s complex, densely symbolic portrait of his close friend and collaborator, the Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, is a work of this type. It is as cerebral, layered, and deliberately calibrated as a sequence of moves in three-dimensional chess, and as with any such chess moves, it is not a concrete thing so much as a stationary point in a development, the result of an organic evolution. This idea, which the collaborating artists christened nasci (from the Latin word for birth), was the subject of an issue of Schwitters’s avant-garde magazine Merz that the two artists composed via letter—sent between Schwitters in Hannover and Lissitzky in the Swiss sanatorium where he was convalescing from tuberculosis.

    Lissitzky was a leader of the Constructivist movement, which promoted a style that crossed the reductive, geometric abstraction of Kazimir Malevich with architecturally based, three-dimensional art, aiming to produce a socially progressive state in post-revolutionary Russia. In 1921 he joined the faculty of VKhUTEMAS, the state art and technical school in Moscow, and then traveled abroad as a cultural ambassador. In Berlin he met Schwitters, László Moholy-Nagy and Lucia Moholy, Hannah Hoch, Raoul Hausmann, and Hans Richter, to whom he imparted Constructivist principles of dematerialization, spatial dimensionality, geometric design, and experimental zeal, especially to Moholy-Nagy and Schwitters. In turn they acquainted him with their photographs, photograms, photomontages, Dada collages, and abstract and experimental films and poems. He became an important carrier of new ideas, lecturing at congresses in Weimar and Düsseldorf and accompanying and helping to hang the Erste russische Kunstausstellung (First Russian art exhibition), the first of its kind to be held outside the USSR, as it traveled from Berlin to Amsterdam in the spring of 1923. From there he went on to The Hague, where he began to experiment with photography with Vilmos Huszár, one of the founders of de Stijl, and, moving on to Hannover, where he stayed with Schwitters, he continued to photograph. The following year, in Switzerland, Lissitzky had the time to create his most accomplished photographs.

    For this composite portrait of Schwitters, Lissitzky began with two 9 by 13 inch (22.9 by 33 centimeter) glass-plate negatives that he had taken of his friend speaking in front of a [1] Merz poster. He contact printed these, one overlapping the other, on gelatin silver printing-out paper, dodging some areas and placing paper masks to cover others. The doubling of the face implies the temporal duration usually associated with film, but here it also illustrates nasci. Because Schwitters was a poet and a brilliant conversationalist, who at the time of the photographs was performing his astonishing Ursonata (1922–32)—a composition of sounds without words—Lissitzky placed text around him, using the artist’s words and pages from a photography manual as paper negatives, perhaps by waxing the pages to make them more translucent. He also printed the image of a parrot over Schwitters’s mouth, creating a link to the natural world (nasci) that counterbalances the graphic symbols. Thus Lissitzky made Schwitters’s remarkable virtuosity with words as visible as the typographical, artistic, and collaged innovations that he published in Merz.

    —Maria Morris Hambourg

    [1] For a step-by-step deconstruction of the making of this image, see Klaus Pollmeier, “El Lissitzky’s Multilayer Photographs: A Technical Analysis,” on this website.

Back / Verso

  • Mount Type No mount - evidence previous mounting
  • Marks and Inscriptions

    Inscribed in pencil on sheet verso, top: fotomalerei/L. Лиси́цкого/портрет Куртa/швиттерса/Н. Х. Inscribed in pencil on sheet verso, bottom left: Lissitzky 7. Inscribed in pencil on sheet verso, bottom right: TW 871001.

    [1] "Portrait of Kurt Schwitters by El Lissitzky."
  • Provenance The artist, Moscow/Hannover; by inheritance to the artist’s wife, Sophie Lissitzky-Küppers (1891–1978), Moscow/Hannover, 1941 [1]; to Nicolas Khardhziev, Moscow, possibly 1978 [2]; to Andréi Nakov, New York/Montreal/Paris [3]; to Prakapas Gallery, Bronxville, N.Y., June 1987 [4]; purchased by Thomas Walther, October 1987 [5]; purchased by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2001.
    [1] MacGill/Walther 2001(3), p. 13.
    [2] Ibid.; and initials inscribed in Russian on sheet verso.
    [3] Ibid. Andréi Nakov was a historian of Russian and European avant-garde art.
    [4] Ibid.; and William F. Cuozzi (on behalf of Dorothy Augusta Prakapas), letter to Maria Morris Hambourg, October 2013.
    [5] MacGill/Walther 2001(3), p. 13; Thomas Walther archival no. TW 871001 on sheet verso; and Prakapas Gallery invoice, October 21, 1987.


  • Surface Sheen Semireflective
  • Techniques Contact print
    Double exposure
  • PTM
    View of the recto of the artwork made using reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) software, which exaggerates subtle surface details and renders the features of the artwork plainly visible. Department of Conservation, MoMA
  • Micro-raking
    Raking-light close-up image, as shot. Area of detail is 6.7 x 6.7 mm. Department of Conservation, MoMA
    Raking-light close-up image, processed. Processing included removal of color, equalization of the histogram, and sharpening, all designed to enhance visual comparison. Department of Conservation, MoMA

Paper Material

  • Format Unknown
  • Weight Light weight
  • Thickness (mm) 0.14
  • UV Fluorescence Recto negative
    Verso negative
  • Fiber Analysis Rag 78%
    Bast 21%
    Softwood bleached kraft/soda 1%
  • XRF

    This work was determined to be a gelatin silver print via X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry.

    The following elements have been positively identified in the work, through XRF readings taken from its recto and verso (or from the mount, where the verso was not accessible):

    • Recto: Si, S, Rb, Sr, Ag, Ba, Pb
    • Verso: Al, Si, K, Ca, Fe, Rb, Sr, Ba, Pb

    The graphs below show XRF spectra for three areas on the print: two of the recto—from areas of maximum and minimum image density (Dmax and Dmin)—and one of the verso or mount. The background spectrum represents the contribution of the XRF instrument itself. The first graph shows elements identified through the presence of their characteristic peaks in the lower energy range (0 to 8 keV). The second graph shows elements identified through the presence of their characteristic peaks in the higher energy range (8 to 40 keV).

    Areas examined: Recto (Dmax: black; Dmin: green), Verso or Mount (blue), Background (red)
    Elements identified: Al, Si, S, K, Ca, Ag, Ba
    Areas examined: Recto (Dmax: black; Dmin: green), Verso or Mount (blue), Background (red)
    Elements identified: Fe, Rb, Sr, Ag, Pb

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