Journal Article

Schwitters Redesigned: A Post-war <i>Ursonate</i> from the Getty Archives

Nancy Perloff

in Journal of Design History

Published on behalf of Design History Society

Volume 23, issue 2, pages 195-203
Published in print June 2010 | ISSN: 0952-4649
Published online June 2010 | e-ISSN: 1741-7279 | DOI:
Schwitters Redesigned: A Post-war Ursonate from the Getty Archives

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This essay centers on a rare and unknown version of the revolutionary sound poem, the Ursonate, which the German avant-garde artist Kurt Schwitters composed between 1922 and 1932. Schwitters took the poem's first line from the opening of a poster poem by the Dadaist Raoul Hausmann and, over a ten-year period, expanded it and developed different notations. He published his complete phonetic score, with typography by the German graphic designer Jan Tschichold, in the 1932 issue of his innovative magazine, Merz. The essay considers the intriguing implications of the unknown version of Schwitters’ sound poem—recently discovered in the Getty Research Institute's collections and referred to here as the ‘Getty booklet’—for the evolving form, design, and performance concept of the Ursonate. The only existing bibliographic citation of the booklet (Hans Bolliger in Werner Schmalenbach, 1967) attributes it to a W. Jöhl and a group of students working in Zurich in 1953. Since Schwitters’ visual and poetic work fell into a state of neglect during his exile years and following his death in 1948, the 1953 publication date marks a very early recognition of Schwitters as the inventor of a new form of verbo-vocal poetry. A comparison between the sewn, handmade, coloured-paper design of the booklet and the pure black-on-white, sans-serif of the original Merz publication suggests that Jöhl and students recognized central aspects underlying Schwitters’ conception of the Ursonate, such as his interest in variable formats and in a host of performed interpretations.

Keywords: Dada; design; modernist typography; Schwitters, Kurt; sound poetry; Ursonate

Journal Article.  3810 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History of Art ; Art Forms ; Industrial and Commercial Art ; Art Styles

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