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Artistic Collaboration

Discover the role of collaboration and play in Dada.


El Lissitzky
(Russian, 1890–1941)

1923. Letterpress, 9 x 11" (22.9 x 27.9 cm)

The Cabaret Voltaire nightclub was launched in Zurich in February 1916 by an international group of poets and artists, including those mentioned on this program: Raoul Haussman, Kurt Schwitters, and El Lissitzky, who laid out its dynamic typography. Its programming, including the matinee advertised on this leaflet, included not only experimental poetry, lectures, improvisational dance, and music, but a variety of Dada pranks from which the audience was not immune.

The event advertised on this flyer included a reading of Schwitters’s poem “Anna Blume.” Originally published in August 1919, the poem incorporated fragments of found text and presented the perspectives of multiple narrators, bringing Schwitters both fame and criticism. Some appreciated its absurdity, while others found it to be pure nonsense. Still others considered its themes of love and longing sentimental and saccharine. Schwitters’s primary concern was with form rather than meaning. “Elements of poetry are letters, syllables, words, sentences,” he said. “Poetry arises from the interaction of those elements. Meaning is important only if it employed as one such factor. I play off sense against nonsense. I prefer nonsense, but that is a purely personal matter.”1

Duchamp as quoted in D. Dietrich, The Collages of Kurt Schwitters: Tradition and Innovation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 1993), 77

The act of improvising, that is, to make, compose, or perform on the spur of the moment and with little or no preparation.

The art and technique of designing and/or arranging type letters, numbers, and punctuation marks, and of printing from them.

A term invented by the artist Kurt Schwitters to describe his works made from scavenged fragments and objects.

The shape or structure of an object.

An artistic and literary movement formed in response to the disasters of World War I (1914–18) and to an emerging modern media and machine culture. Dada artists sought to expose accepted and often repressive conventions of order and logic, favoring strategies of chance, spontaneity, and irreverence. Dada artists experimented with a range of mediums, from collage and photomontage to everyday objects and performance, exploding typical concepts of how art should be made and viewed and what materials could be used. An international movement born in neutral Zurich and New York, Dada rapidly spread to Berlin, Cologne, Hannover, Paris, and beyond.

Not Dada, but Merz
The program’s title, Merz-Matinéen (Merz matinée), bears the unmistakable mark of Kurt Schwitters, who collaborated closely with Dada artists but did not consider himself part of the movement. To distinguish himself from Dada, Schwitters described his wide-ranging artistic and literary activities as Merz—a nonsensical word he made up by cutting a scrap of newspaper—the second syllable of the German word Kommerz (“commerce”).