Kurt Schwitters and Die Scheuche Märchen

Die Scheuche Märchen (The Scarecrow Fairytale) is a 1925 children’s picture book. A collaboration between Kurt Schwitters, Käte Steinitz and Theo Van Doesburg, it was published in issue 14/15 of Schwitters’ magazine, Merz. Printed by Schwitters and Steinitz under the banner of their publishing house Aposs (an acronym for Active Paradox Oppose Sentimentality Sensitive), it followed two other children’s books by the pair: 1924’s Hahnepeter (Peter the Rooster) and 1925’s Die Märchen vom Paradies (The Paradise Fairy Tales).

Like all editions of Merz, Die Scheuche was a commercial project but, as Steinitz ruefully remarked, the book was ‘more bold than profitable.’ Bold it certainly is: the unorthodox fairytale has a minimal design scheme in which the illustrations largely consist of typographical characters.  Drawing on the work of other avant-garde artists, including El Lissitzky, all three artists collaborated on the design of the book, and Schwitters provided the narrative.

Kurt Schwitters, Käte Steinitz and Theo Van Doesburg, Die Scheuche Märchen, 1925, (Black and white reproduction: K. Schwitters, Luck Hans and Other Merz Fairytales, trans. and intro. J. Zipes, (Princeton, 2009), p. 211).
The cockerel (left) taunts the scarecrow (right) saying, ‘PHOOEY OLD man you’re a measly scarecrow.’ Kurt Schwitters, Käte Steinitz and Theo Van Doesburg, Die Scheuche Märchen, 1925.

The story is a simple one, centring on a farmer and his scarecrow. The scarecrow is beautifully dressed in a top hat, dinner jacket and a lace scarf, but he can’t scare the birds away from the farmer’s seeds. Instead, he’s taunted by the birds, enraging the farmer. Before the farmer can strike the scarecrow with his cane, darkness descends on the farmyard. Two ghosts appear and claim the scarecrow’s items of clothing and a small boy takes the farmer’s cane. The scarecrow is gone and all is well.

By the time Schwitters et al commenced work on Die Scheuche in 1925, fairy tales had been subject to politicisation by numerous avant-garde artists and writers in Europe. In France, Guillaume Appollinaire had penned politically charged fairy tales for the satirical journal La Baïonette during World War One. More famously, leading artists in the newly formed Soviet Union had become prolific producers of tales for children. Visually innovative, Soviet children’s books communicated socio-political ideas through style and content.

In Weimar Germany, politicised stories were written for both adults and children. The publishing houses Malik and Verlag für proletarische Freidenker were especially instrumental in this, printing radical fairy tales in the early 1920s. Malik’s series ‘Märchen der Armen’ (Fairy Tales of the Poor) featured illustrations by Dadaists including John Heartfield and George Grosz. At Verlag, Arthur Wolf oversaw the publication of overtly socialist artist books, noted for their anti-religious stance.

Kurt Schwitters, Käte Steinitz and Theo Van Doesburg, Die Scheuche Märchen, 1925
The farmer (‘B’) shouts ‘Phooey you scarecrow/ You’re no scarecrow/ I’ll soon make a Corpse of you.’ Kurt Schwitters, Käte Steinitz and Theo Van Doesburg, Die Scheuche Märchen, 1925.

Die Scheuche is not as overtly political as the stories published by Malik and Verlag. This is not to say Schwitters was politically apathetic: famously rejected by the Berlin Dada group for a perceived lack of political drive (their leader, Richard Huelsenbeck, considered Schwitters bourgeois), he was nonetheless politically minded. In particular, his essays and notes sharply criticise both nationalism and religion. However, Die Scheuche is not expressly political; rather, it is a radical experiment in narrative and illustration.

Instead of adhering to the model of the traditional fairy tale, Schwitters subverts the medium and disrupts its tropes. His protagonists are usually unsympathetic and his endings, instead of being distinctly happy, range from the ambiguous to the very dark indeed. In ‘Lucky Hans’, greedy Hans tricks money out of a banker before inveigling himself into the banker’s daughter’s affections. Bleaker still is ‘He’, which ends with a young man’s suicide. Similarly, in Die Scheuche, the situation is only resolved when the ineffectual scarecrow is disassembled, or ‘dies.’

The illustrations are also unusual. Though not entirely traditional, Steinitz and Schwitters’ previous collaborations, Die Märchen vom Paradies and Hahnepeter, had been less experimental in their design. In a page from Die Märchen vom Paradies, Steinitz’s simple, almost childlike, drawing nudges into the text, while Schwitters’ font varies in size and format.  Yet there remains a clear distinction between text and illustration. With Die Scheuche, Van Doesburg, Schwitters and Steinitz moved towards a synthesis of text and image.

das paradies auf der wiese
Page from Die Märchen vom Paradies featuring typography by Kurt Schwitters and illustration by Käte Steinitz, 1924.

Die Scheuche‘s illustrations are largely comprised of typographic signs, cleverly used to represent characters and objects. The scarecrow’s body is represented by a letter ‘X’; his jacket is indicated by an ‘F’ for ‘Frack’ (‘tuxedo’). This unusual approach distinguishes Die Scheuche from other avant-garde children’s books; though other artists experimented with design and layout, few entertained so drastic a marriage of text and image.

img001edited
Kurt Schwitters, Käte Steinitz and Theo Van Doesburg, Die Scheuche Märchen, 1925.

It is likely that the group were influenced by El Lissitzky’s designs for Dia Golosa (For the Voice, 1923), a book of poetry by Mayakovsky. Lissitzky used typography to express sound and cadence, visually enhancing Mayakovsky’s verse. The typography of Die Scheuche is similarly attuned to sound. When the cockerel loudly mocks the scarecrow with the words, ‘PFUI ALTER Mann du bist ja eine Scheuche‘ (‘Phooey old man you’re a measly scarecrow’), the capitalised PFUI ALTER‘ simply but effectively conveys an emphasis or increase in volume.

The group must also have felt the influence of Lissitzky’s book for children, Suprematist Story About 2 Squares, which Van Doesburg had published in De Stijl in 1923. About 2 Squares jettisons the traditional picture book design. Its minimal, non-figurative drawings are accompanied by only a few lines of text. Lissitzky experiments with verbal and visual communication, replacing the word ‘Squares’ in the title with a picture of a square. The use of typography in Die Scheuche is a similar exercise in visual communication, moving away from more traditional modes of representation.

Lissitzky For the Voice
Pages from Dia golosa (For the Voice), 1923, text by Vladimir Mayakovsky and typography by El Lissitzky
Detail of the front cover of El Lissitzky’s A Suprematist Tale About Two Squares, 1922.
Detail of the front cover of El Lissitzky’s A Suprematist Tale About Two Squares, 1922.

Schwitters is perhaps most famous for his collages, which are often cited as a major influence on Pop Art. Yet he was also a prolific writer and continued to produce stories until his death in 1948. Thirty-two of Schwitters’ fairy-tales have been translated by Jack Zipes and published as Lucky Hans and Other Merz Fairy Tales (2009). It’s difficult to find colour reproductions of the complete Die Scheuche Märchenbut Zipes’ volume includes the full book in black-and-white, alongside a English translation.

Sources and Further Reading

Cardinal, R. and G. Webster, eds., Kurt Schwitters: A Journey Through Art, (Ostfildern, 2011).

Fabre, G. et al., eds., Van Doesburg & the International Avant-Garde: Constructing a New World, (London, 2009).

Lissitzky, E., A Suprematist Tale About Two Squares, (London, 1990 [1922]).

Schwitters, K. Lucky Hans and Other Merz Fairy Tales, trans. and intro. J. Zipes, (Princeton and Oxford, 2009).

Schwitters, K. and K. Steinitz, Die Märchen vom Paradies, (Frankfurt, 1979 [1924]).

Steiner, Evgeny, Stories for Little Comrades: Revolutionary artists and the making of early Soviet children’s books, trans. J. A. Miller, (Seattle and London, 1999).

Steinitz, K., Kurt Schwitters: A Portrait from Life (Berkeley, 1968).

Webster, G., Kurt Merz Schwitters: A Biographical Study, (Cardiff, 1997).

White, M., De Stijl and Dutch Modernism, (Manchester and New York, 2003).

Zipes, J., ‘Recovering the Utopian Spirit of the Weimar Fairy Tales and Fables’, in Fairy Tales and Fables from Weimar Days, ed. J. Zipes, (Madison, 1989), pp. 3-13.

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