In the spring of 2016, Senior Curator of Prints, Drawings & Photographs Rena Hoisington taught the course “Paper Museums: Exhibiting Artists’ Books” to 11 students in Johns Hopkins University’s Program in Museums and Society. The students’ work resulted in Off the Shelf: Modern & Contemporary Artists’ Books, closing June 25. In addition to determining the exhibition’s checklist and organization, Rena’s students wrote descriptions of the artworks featured for wall labels as well as blog posts that explore individual artworks featured in Off the Shelf. This post in the blog series is by Grace Golden on Die Scheuche:
I’ve been assigned to read dozens of books throughout my college career, but before this course I have never been assigned a children’s book.
Die Scheuche, or The Scarecrow, is not a normal children’s book. A collaboration between the German artists Kurt Schwitters and Kate Steinitz as well as the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg, Die Scheuche presents avant-garde concepts to children and adults through a series of typographic illustrations. Kurt Schwitters is often linked to the modernist movement of Dada, which rejected reason and embraced chaos. Theo van Doesburg was a member of the De Stijl movement, which limited expression to abstract, geometric forms and primary colors. Die Scheuche clearly presents the influences of these movements.
The story focuses on a scarecrow that owns a top hat, cane, and silk scarf. He feuds with a farmer, a rooster, and chickens, who hack at the scarecrow until he loses his belongings to the ghosts of their former owners. The story is radical and undoubtedly silly, but it successfully packages modernist concepts and design into an entertaining children’s book.
Each spread of Die Scheuche is made up of a red and blue page, each displaying sans serif illustrations and text. The narrative text is integrated into typographic illustrations, with the layouts growing increasingly complicated with each turn of the page. An uppercase letter represents each character, transforming the alphabet into a set of anthropomorphic figures who interact with the dialogue and narrative text directly.
The Dada and De Stijl movements both focused on destroying the future in order to usher in the future, the main theme of Die Scheuche. The scarecrow is literally a straw man, representing the past. His fanciful clothing links him to the bourgeois culture that Dada aims to destroy. The farmer, the rooster, and the chickens hack away at his accouterments until they reveal that he has no substance. Although less direct than most children’s books, the complexity of Die Scheuche reflects the movements from which it is derived. The overlap of De Stijl and Dada concepts is paired with the overlap of visual narrative and illustration, creating a fully integrated and experimental children’s fable.
Bibliography: Atzmon, Leslie. 1996. The Scarecrow Fairytale: A Collaboration of Theo Van Doesburg and Kurt Schwitters. Design Issues 12 (3). The MIT Press: 14–34. doi:10.2307/1511700.
Schwitters, Kurt, Annja Müller-Alsbach, and Heinz Stahlhut. Kurt Schwitters: Merz—A Total Vision of the World. Wabern/Bern: Benteli, 2004.
Image credit: Kurt Schwitters, Käte Steinitz, and Theo van Doesburg. The Scarecrow. 1925. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased with funds contributed to Celebrate the 90th Birthday of Beatrice Levi; Nelson and Juanita Greif Gutman Fund; and Art Acquisition Fund, BMA 2009.114 © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn