This volume of collected essays by the literary scholar Gerhard Schaub concentrates on the modernist authors Hugo Ball and Kurt Schwitters. Both authors have in common [End Page 328] that they are central for our understanding of modern literature and avant-garde art, or more precisely of Dada, but these two figures are also outsiders within modernism. Ball, one of the founders of Dada Zurich, was also the first to distance himself from the movement, and Schwitters was rejected by Richard Huelsenbeck as a petit bourgeois and would not become part of Dada Berlin. However, he embarked on his own journey towards his specific version of Dada, namely Merz. Schaub takes this ambivalence that places Ball and Schwitters simultaneously at the center and periphery of modernism as a main focus. Accordingly, his essays do not highlight the activities of the authors at the pivotal moments of the Dada movement, but discuss them from the topographical and biographical sidelines. For example, Schaub zooms in on three weeks in 1916 when Ball stayed in the small Swiss town of Ermatingen, a period that is largely neglected in Dada scholarship. Similarly, the Schwitters part focuses on the author’s exile and pays particular attention to the fairly brief periods of time that Schwitters spent in Switzerland. Schaub discusses in detail how these relatively brief visits are of importance for an understanding of Schwitters’ artistic project and for grasping the gravity of his increasingly desperate situation after 1930. Schaub increases his attention to detail yet further by concentrating on a soiree in 1935 in Basel at the home of the art collectors Annie and Oskar Müller-Widmann, where Schwitters read his poetry.
It is in line with this peripheral optic that Schaub approaches the œuvre of both authors by discussing rather neglected texts. For example, the first analysis of the book focuses on Ball’s poem Totentanz 1916. Schaub demonstrates how this poem parodies war propaganda, echoes the tradition of the danse macabre, adapts the popular tune of the Dessauer marching song for a subversive effect, and outlines how this text was even used by the French as anti-war propaganda. Schaub acknowledges that this text received hardly any attention, that it was never canonized, and that it can rarely be found in anthologies. However, he points out that it was also an integral and popular element of the performances in the Cabaret Voltaire. The other essays also engage with the periphery of Ball’s œuvre and concentrate on Ball’s prefaces, the early play Der Henker von Brescia, and his correspondence.
The first essay on Schwitters focuses on the difficult task of exploring Schwitters as a performer, and Schaub excavates with great precision the traces of Merz performances, reconstructing a vivid picture of Schwitters as an orator. The main focus of the Schwitters part, however, lies on Schwitters’ time in exile. Schaub’s text “Wer will Flüchtlinge nehmen?” reconstructs impressively how Germany became an increasingly hostile environment for Schwitters to which he could not return. The following essays take up this discussion and highlight the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland as the most important countries of Schwitters’ exile. Schaub discusses in particular that while Schwitters had the strongest professional connections in the Netherlands, Norway became the place of greatest economic success for him. Schaub details how Schwitters turned to naturalistic landscaping painting in Norway and was able to make a living by selling these pictures to tourists. Although Schwitters loved the Norwegian landscape and had a decent income, he recognized that this was not the place for developing his abstract and modern approaches to art. As Schaub carefully lays out, Switzerland and in particular Basel was the place where Schwitters hoped to continue his Merz project. Schaub focuses especially on the Müller-Widmanns, [End Page 329] who, as close friends of Hans Arp, had a great interest in Schwitters’ work.
The Schwitters part concludes with the Merz reception after 1945. Schaub discusses the initial problems and lack of interest in avant-garde art in the immediate post-war...