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Art about Art, Art about Life: Woolf, Schwitters, and the Blurred Line between the Arts and Life

About the Author: Rachel Tardiff
Rachel Tardiff is a senior studying Literature and Public Communication at American University in Washington, D.C. When she isn't getting lost in a Smithsonian museum or reading in the corner of a coffeeshop, Rachel enjoys modern poetry of the British & American persuasion, the complexities of the Faulknerian narrative style, and the consideration of pedagogical shifts in the contemporary university.
By Rachel Tardiff | General Essays

The first half of the twentieth century was shorn by war, ripping society in England and across the European continent into fragments that many individuals struggled to bring back together to form a new picture. The period proved to be a cultural collage, as people aimed to reconcile their pasts with their presents to create a future. In no arena was this effort more addressed than in the arts. The inception of the avant-garde, modernist period “was characterised by cross-disciplinary practices and the dissolution of boundaries between forms and sense” (Hall 16). Artists of various disciplines found that, to properly consider the quandaries of a modern existence, borders that had previously appeared unyielding had to be dissolved, including those between the individual arts and between art and its vital subject. Both Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse and Kurt Schwitters’ visual art illustrate the modernist interest in the blurring line between the artistic disciplines and the inadequacy of traditional codes of representation for their proscribed arenas of art through linked practices of exploring multiple mediums and a shared focus on the value of the artistic process and its inextricable connection to the life force. 

To the Lighthouse “is a work of art about art,” a novel on painterly creation, in which Woolf uses her words as masterfully as a savant with a brush (Cohn 63). Simply writing a novel did not suffice. Instead, Woolf chose to infuse her written words with a painterly energy, both in form and content. Her general approach to art also illustrated the concept of artistic crosspollination, such as when she stated in a letter to her painter sister, Vanessa Bell, “All your pictures are built up of flying phrases” (Woolf qtd in Goldman 166). Such a statement can be considered a positive critique, considering the general esteem in which Woolf held her sister’s work. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf embraces an interdisciplinary approach to art and creation through her general preoccupation with color, spatial composition as well as the general idea of composition of the written word, and form. 

Woolf’s personal writings also presented a more explicit indication of her connection of different artistic disciplines. In “Walter Sickert: A Conversation,” Woolf stated, “painting and writing have much to tell each other […] the novelist after all wants to make us see” (Woolf qtd in Miller 46). This may have been an expression of painterly envy of visual art’s ability to explicitly present a picture to the audience, whereas writing, as a medium, invokes an image. Woolf took painting as “an inspiration for writerly invention,” seeing the artistic unity between the two divisions of creation (Goldman 166). Throughout the novel, To the Lighthouse, Lily Briscoe struggles to compose a single painting, wrestling with the compositional shape of the picture, the arrangement of masses on canvas, ultimately becoming preoccupied with the spatial balance of her creation. Woolf mirrors this struggle in her writing, turning her characters into shapes and colors that she carefully composes to create a plot with the compositional tendencies of a painting. The most significant example of this comes in the attempts of several characters to classify and depict Mrs. Ramsey, either through words, thoughts, or artistic mediums. Mr. Bankes and Mr. Ramsey both notably endeavor to find words to describe Mrs. Ramsey. It is Lily, the painter, who recognizes that she is “nothing that could be written in any language known to men” (Woolf 83). In her own intimate moments, Mrs. Ramsey describes herself as “a wedge shaped core of darkness” (Woolf 62). In a very painterly fashion, Mrs. Ramsey determines that the quintessential aspect of her being is a physical form, a shape, which Lily eventually mimics in her painting, illustrating that her decade-long quest to truly know Mrs. Ramsey has in fact been successful, even if the painter does not fully realize the implications of her choice. Woolf “approximate[s] the painter’s economy in her writing by suggesting that characters are best described by certain shapes and colours intuited by a perceptive observer” (Miller 50).

In addition to form and shape, Woolf’s writing exhibits a general preoccupation with color. Colors are continually imbued with personalities and particular meanings. This becomes clear towards the end of the novel’s first section, “The Window,” as Mrs. Ramsey reads to her son. Caught up in the story, Mrs. Ramsey thinks, “words, like little shaded lights, one red, one blue, one yellow, lit up the dark of her mind, and seemed leaving their perches up there to fly across and across, or to cry out and to be echoed” (Woolf 119). Woolf could easily have chosen a separate set of descriptive qualities for the words, invoking another sense, such as touch or smell, to give the words the illusion of tangible form. However, she focuses instead on giving the words a visual quality. Here Woolf masterfully weaves painterly elements into her writerly description, linking the mediums even further because she is in fact describing words themselves. Schwitters explicitly elevates the importance of color in the visual arts, giving credence to a focus on color as a painterly technique in Woolf, by stating that “the only important thing in painting is the tone, the distinctive chromatic tonality. The only material for this purpose is color. Everything in the picture comes about through color” (Schwitters 254). By giving color to words, Woolf connects the properties of her medium with those of painting and visual art in general, showing the unity of the arts.

Some critics point to Woolf’s utilization of painterly technique and concerns in To the Lighthouse as retaliation for the dismissal of writing as an inferior art by her sister and, more specifically, by her friend, the critic Roger Fry. Woolf’s writing appears cognizant of the fact that , “Part of the superiority of the visual arts lay in the direct way they revealed their underlying structure to an analytical eye. The view that literature was inferior as a medium to the plastic arts […] posed a special threat […] She held Fry’s opinions in the greatest respect and wanted to integrate them into her own artistic practice” (Briggs 97). To compensate for the perceived discrepancy, Woolf integrated painterly technique into her writing, imbuing it with the qualities of visual art at the levels of content (including an artist as a primary character) and form (creating a compositional shape, focusing on color). 

As the founder of a publishing house, Woolf most likely came to appreciate the value of the written word as a visual art in itself, just as Schwitters, with his consideration of the arrangement of type to create poetry as reliant on visual arrangement as linguistic coding, came to appreciate the non-semantic construction of words as a plastic art. Schwitters’ use of the written word within his visual art presents an interesting counterbalance to the aforementioned superiority of “the plastic arts.” By incorporating text into his work, Schwitters created “the possibility for an art that could be thought, proposed, stated: art as an idea” (Hall 7). Here the visual artist has writerly envy, searching for the ability to stimulate thought rather than presenting a single image, which is a general goal of abstraction. Whereas Woolf sought to make the reader see, Schwitters strove to make the viewer cogitate. In effect, both artists sought to complicate the traditional codes of their mediums, adopting the principles and techniques of opposing art forms and developing them for their own means. 

By incorporating found text into his visual art, Schwitters sought “to reflect the quirks and anomalies of accepted constructs, to in turn satirise the faith we place in name, sign, and the linear logic of linguistic syntax. His poems and collages reflect a playful and complex response to the contradictions of language” (Hill 16). Many of Schwitters’ paintings were named by whatever caption was formed by found text; visual art was defined here in terms of the written aspects incorporated within it, elevating the power of text over the “plastic art” techniques that Fry considered superior. An example of this is Schwitters’ 1919 composition Und, titled The And Picture in English. The collage, like many of Schwitters’ pieces, is made of found materials, including bits of newspapers, a metal washer, painted paper, and a hook-like figure that is perhaps the head of a hanger. The most prominent fragment, however, is cut paper featuring the word “und” in simple black typeface, displayed prominently in the upper center of the collage. The “und” fragment is highlighted by the surrounding tones; the paper is a tainted tan, bordered by a deep blue triangle and a bright white, partially circular and partially triangular segment that frame the lower edge. The contrast of black type on the lighter paper segments throughout the picture, but particularly in the “und” fragment, draw the viewer’s eye to the words throughout the composition, even in the presence of much more innovative found elements. Just as Woolf explored the ability of words to portray a painterly sense, Schwitters complicated the role of words as semantic signifiers by instilling within them the qualities of visual art, breaking down the barriers between artistic mediums. The assumption of writerly technique into his visual art contributes to Schwitters’ vision of a universal piece of art. According to Schwitters, “Forms of art do not exist, they have been artificially separated from one another. There is only art. And Merz is the work of art in general terms, not a specialty” (Schwitters qtd in Schulz 246). Schwitters invests in art as a general, unified life force, one that arches over all of the different forms of art to infuse all types of creation with an intrinsic value. Words, paint, or objects alone do not suffice to represent modern life, with its ever-emerging complexities. Instead, all mediums must be unified, the pieces coming together to create a whole ultimately greater than the simple sum of its parts.

The bridging of mediums in both Woolf and Schwitters through the apparent fragmentation of the process of collage in fact illustrates the unity of not only art, but of society and the people and things that compose it. Lily is connected to Mrs. Ramsey just as Schwitters is to the rubbish he collected to morph his masterpiece. In the modernist world, where everything seemed to be coming apart, the artists instead saw the unity of all of life’s elements. The individual was no longer atomized and indivisible, a singular being, but rather each person presented a collage. But such personal fragmentation was not wholly disquieting, instead presenting the opportunity for unity because “at this deep level of being, below the level of personality, the self renews its life by bringing its scattered pieces together to form a whole. So Mrs. Ramsey creates something whole out of her life as Lily does in her painting and Virginia Woolf does in her novel” (McNichol 102). The process of creating a collage, either on a canvas or through the composition of a novel in multiple distinct parts, emphasizes the relation of each piece to the others around it; a single found object that Schwitters incorporated into the Merzbau held significantly different meaning on its own, just as any of the sections of Woolf’s novel would if they were printed as three separate short stories, without the surrounding parts providing balance and context. 

Regardless of the plot, Woolf’s deliberate composition of the novel in parts further emphasizes its link to collage and general visual arts. There is compositional balance in staging the novel in three parts, the first and the last following the characters while the second introduces an interlude, creating a balanced, H-shaped novel. This break in the middle section, a painterly assessment of the house as it decays, brings together the more writerly portions of the lives of the characters, creating the seams of a written collage. It is a flash in time, spanning a decade in little over a handful of pages and accomplishing the simultaneity of a painting. Woolf herself described this in a journal entry in March 1925, saying she saw the novel as “two blocks joined by a corridor”; this concept mirrors what Woolf expressed in a letter to Roger Fry, where she stated, “one has to have a central line down the middle of the book to hold the design together” (Woolf qtd in Briggs 103). Woolf’s mission to create compositional form in her novel echoes in Lily’s fixation with connection in her painting. At first, she believes that shifting the tree to the center of the painting will balance it, but at the end of the novel, as she finally completes the painting, Lily’s final decisive stroke creates a line down the center of her canvas, ostensibly a structure similar to the central line mentioned by Woolf. 

The breakdown of the compartmentalization of the arts sets the stage for a view of art as more directly linked to existence so that rather than simply being the subject of art, life becomes its counterbalance. This is presented explicitly in the work of Woolf and Schwitters through the direct infusion of the artist into the substance of his or her creation. In Merzbau, Schwitters used his son’s death mask and incorporated articles and paintings of his own and from friends, while Woolf wrote a predominantly autobiographical novel on the struggle she herself had as an artist, in the personal terms of her own family history. However, the basic plot structure of Woolf’s novel serves as Woolf’s most basic connection between life and art. The lives, deaths, trials, and tribulations of the Ramsey clan are paralleled with Lily Briscoe’s attempts at artistic creation. While Mrs. Ramsey lives, Lily paints; the first section of the novel is composed of flashes of the day-to-day life of the Ramseys and their guests, interspersed with flashes of Lily’s attempts to paint the vitality around her, particularly embodied by Mrs. Ramsey. The two processes, life and artistic creation, are intertwined together throughout the novel’s third section as well, the final knot being tied in the last pages, as Lily’s completion of her painting coincides directly with Mr. Ramsey, James, and Cam reaching the rock of the lighthouse (Ronchetti 62). Art is imbued with a life force, implying therefore that it must endure, even when life itself ceases. 

Lily’s painting takes ten years to complete, stretching across a formative period in the painter’s life. As lives end around her, including the life most influential in her composition, Lily’s art lives on, persisting despite wars, distance, estrangement, and alteration. It grows and matures just as the artist does as a human being, becoming a breathing entity, something that Lily must give birth to, bringing it into existence like a mother does a child, resulting in her “extreme fatigue” at the end of the novel (Woolf 209). Lily’s recognition comes in this process rather than the completion of the painting. She realizes as she paints that the final product will most likely be disregarded, implying that the importance of the act comes in the journey of Lily’s quest for creation, the personal recognitions she makes along the way, and the peace she finds at the end.

Similarly, Schwitters himself classified Merz, his personal name for his artistic approach, as a process rather than a school or style. He called Merzbau “in principle unfinished,” implying, just as with Lily’s painting, that the act of creation, rather than thea resulting product, is what holds value (Brockelman 51). Merz, as a concept, is primarily indefinable because Schwitters’ own writings on it were not consistent, and the practice morphed throughout Schwitters’ career. Rather than adhering to a set of standard aesthetic principles, Merz took on a life of its own, “linked to the artist’s inner conflicts and contradictions” and emerging from Schwitters’ “entirely personal drive –free of missionary zeal –to share his own experiences […] lucidly and openly” (Schulz 244). 

The ultimate embodiment of this personalization of art, in which “art and life become one inextricable entity,” is the Merzabau construction (Schulz 247). Created over the span of almost fifteen15 years, from 1923 to 1937, Merzbau combined several art forms, such as painting, sculpture, collage, and architecture, to turn Schwitters’ family home and workplace into a piece of Merz art (Schulz 247). The piece ultimately spanned over eight rooms in the Schwitters’ home, spilling from the artist’s studio into the living space he shared with his family. Schwitters continually added to the construction, changing it constantly, building grottos and niches and then covering them, creating an unprecedented scope and implying that art is something to be lived, connected to life rather than existing as a separate extension. Schwitters’ incorporation of found objects, including “bus tickets, cloakroom stubs, bits of wood, wire, string, buckled wheels, silk paper, tin cans, slivers of glass, etc.,” was also illustrative of the inability to separate art from life (Schwitters 254). Rather than using specialized materials to create, Schwitters employed the mundane contents of the everyday, equalizing art and life as parallel processes. Schwitters’ private approach to Merzbau also indicates the concept of living within artistic creation. The primary purpose of the construction was not exhibition; it was a highly personal project, conducted almost exclusively by Schwitters, shown only to close personal friends, and eventually documented by Schwitters and his son (Gamard 8). Ultimately, the construction served internal, personal purposes, not external ones. 

The internalization of artistry is also seen in To the Lighthouse. Mrs. Ramsey’s artistic approach to life further shows the link between life and art. Woolf’s focus on color and shape emphasizes the adoption of painterly technique into the lives of the characters, but Mrs. Ramsey’s day-to-day life assumes artistic qualities in her painterly manner and artful habits. She reads to her children, helps James create collages of pictures cut from catalogs, and ultimately composes relationships and situations like an artist (Lewis 68). As she completes her painting, Lily acknowledges this quality explicitly, murmuring that Mrs. Ramsey’s talent for bringing people together, such as the fond memory of Lily and Charles on the beach despite her general distaste for Charles, is “like a work of art” (Woolf 161). 

But Mrs. Ramsey’s true masterpiece is, without a doubt, the dinner party in the first section of the novel. In this gathering, Mrs. Ramsey “has created a kind of living work of art by bringing these people into harmony with each other so that they form a whole which expresses something of the fundamental reality of her own life” (McNichol 105). The dinner party scene introduces another painterly element of Woolf’s writing: light. Mrs. Ramsey shows compositional concerns when she frets over the voids on her “canvas,” caused by the missing youths, who eventually arrive late to restore balance to the frame. However, it is light that ultimately completes the composition. When discord interrupts the evening, caused by Mr. Ramsey’s anger, Mrs. Ramsey calls on the children to light the candles, transfiguring the scene. Woolf writes:

Now all the candles were lit up, and the faces on both sides of the table were brought nearer by the table were brough nearer by the candlelight, and composed, as they had not been in the twilight, into a party round table, for the night was now shut off by panes of glass, which, far from any accurate view of the outside world, rippled it so strangely that here, inside the room, seemed to be order and dry land; there, outside, a reflection in which things wavered and vanished waterily. (Woolf 97)

The light unifies the composition, turning the fragments of the individual guests into a single canvas, bathed in light. Romantically, the scene is transformed from a discarded modernist collage into an impressionistic composition more in line with Mrs. Ramsey’s traditional side. In the sections that follow, Mrs. Ramsey and Lily are both explicitly described as being comforted by the new pervading atmosphere of unity, and it is implied that the other guests are made more at ease as well. Woolf furthers the impressionistic atmosphere when she writes, “solidity suddenly vanished” (Woolf 98), mimicking the fluid, somewhat borderless style of impressionist painters, calling to mind a Monet. The picture created is soft, eliminating the discordant elements that would associate the scene with a more modernist context, returning the family to the traditional social sense that makes Mrs. Ramsey comfortable. 

Unlike Woolf’s explicitly documented connection to painters like Paul Cezanne, and Schwitters’ direct literary allusions, it remains unclear whether the artists ever experienced each other’s work. However, they shared a basic inspiration by seeking to answer the questions of creation in the modernist period, and ultimately arrived at a similar conclusion by illustrating the unity of the arts and the connection of art to life. Both explored the multiplicity of medium within single works, such as Woolf’s novel or Schwitters’ Merzbau construction. However, on a more general level, Woolf and Schwitters addressed the inadequacy of a single medium of art by personally creating art that spanned categories. Woolf dabbled in painting, wrote poetry, essays, criticism, short stories, novels, and extensive letters and diaries, while Schwitters, in addition to collage, painting, and installation art, produced poetry, plays, short stories, fairy tales, and manifestos. Neither artist could isolate his or her talents to a single arena, implying that singularity in medium presented an inadequacy of expressionistic possibility. Their range of artistic creation implies also that creation is not a preoccupation, a hobby or distraction, but rather, a way of life. Creation spanned these artists’ very existences, constructing for each a phenomenal body of work and an enduring legacy of brilliance.

Works Cited

Briggs, Julia. Reading Virginia Woolf. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006. Print.

Brockelman, Thomas P. The Frame and the Mirror On Collage and the Postmodern (Philosophy, Literature and Culture). New York: Northwestern University Press, 2001. Print.

Cohn, Ruby. “Art in To the Lighthouse.” Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Criticism. Lewis, Thomas S.W., ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975. 63-72. Print.

Gamard, Elizabeth Burns. Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau. New York: Princeton Architectural press, 2000. Print.

Goldman, Jane. The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism and the Politics of the Visual. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print.

Hill, Will. “The Schwitters Legacy: Language and Art in the Early Twentieth Century.” Selby, Aimee, ed. Art and Text. London: Black Dog, 2009. 10-19. Print.

McNichol, Stella. Virginia Woolf and the Poetry of Fiction. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print. 

Miller, C. Ruth. Virginia Woolf: The Frames of Art and Life. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1988. Print.

Rochetti, Ann. The Artist, Society & Sexuality in Virginia Woolf’s Novels. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print. 

Schulz, Isabel. “ ‘What Would Life Be Without Merz?’ On the Evolution and Meaning of Kurt Schwitters’ Concept of Art.” In the Beginning Was Merz: From Kurt Schwitters to the Present Day. Meyer-Buser, Susanne and Karin Orchard, eds. Dusseldorf: Hatje Camtz Publishers, 2000. 244-251. Print.

Schwitters, Kurt. “Merz.” Architecture & Arts. Celant, Germano, ed. Milan: Skira Editore S.p.A, 2004. 254-255. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1989. Print.