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Kurt Schwitters (German, 1887–1948)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

German painter, sculptor, designer and writer. He studied at the Kunstakademie in Dresden (1909–14) and served as a clerical officer and mechanical draughtsman during World War I. At first his painting was naturalistic and then Impressionistic, until he came into contact with Expressionist art, particularly the art associated with Der Sturm, in 1918. He painted mystical and apocalyptic landscapes, such as Mountain Graveyard (1912; New York, Guggenheim), and also wrote Expressionist poetry for Der Sturm magazine. He became associated with the Dada movement in Berlin after meeting Hans Arp, Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch and Richard Huelsenbeck, and he began to make collages that he called Merzbilder. These were made from waste materials picked up in the streets and parks of Hannover, and in them he saw the creation of a fragile new beauty out of the ruins of German culture. Similarly he began to compose his poetry from snatches of overheard conversations and randomly derived phrases from newspapers and magazines. His mock-romantic poem An Anna Blume, published in Der Sturm in August 1919, was a popular success in Germany. From this time ‘Merz’ became the name of Schwitters’s one-man movement and philosophy. The word derives from a fragment of the word Kommerz, used in an early assemblage (Merzbild, 1919; destr.; see Elderfield, no. 42), for which Schwitters subsequently gave a number of meanings, the most frequent being that of ‘refuse’ or ‘rejects’. In 1919 he wrote: ‘The word Merz denotes essentially the combination, for artistic purposes, of all conceivable materials, and, technically, the principle of the equal distribution of the individual materials …. A perambulator wheel, wire-netting, string and cotton wool are factors having equal rights with paint’; such materials were indeed incorporated in Schwitters’s large assemblages and painted collages of this period, for example Construction for Noble Ladies (1919; Los Angeles, CA, Co. Mus. A.; see also Collage). Schwitters’s essential aestheticism and formalism alienated him from the political wing of German Dada led by Huelsenbeck, and he was ridiculed as ‘the Caspar David Friedrich of the Dadaist Revolution’. Although his work of this period is full of hints and allusions to contemporary political and cultural conditions, unlike the work of George Grosz or John Heartfield it was not polemical or bitterly satirical. Schwitters’s ironic response to what he saw as Huelsenbeck’s political posturing was the extraordinary absurd story ‘Franz Mullers Drahtfrühling, Ersters Kapitel: Ursachen und Beginn der grossen glorreichen Revolution in Revon’ published in Der Sturm (xiii/11, 1922), in which an innocent bystander starts a revolution merely by being there. Another more macabre story, ‘Die Zwiebel’ (Der Sturm, x/7, 1919), underlines Schwitters’s romantic view of the artist as sacrificial victim and spiritual leader, a notion likewise quite antipathetic to Huelsenbeck’s dialectical materialism and scorn of bourgeois categories.

From 1922 to 1930 Schwitters’s art was indebted to Russian Constructivism and to De Stijl. Both movements had a great impact in Germany, particularly at the Bauhaus, and Schwitters was a friend of and collaborator with El Lissitzky (on Nasci, Merz, 8–9, 1924) and Theo van Doesburg (on Die Scheuche, for example, a children’s book published as a special issue of Merz in 1925). His magazine Merz, which appeared irregularly from 1923 to 1932, devoted much space to Constructivist art and ideas. The widespread search among avant-garde artists in the 1920s for a new style for the age was shared by Schwitters, who differed from Constructivists mainly in his insistence on ‘natural’ rather than ‘geometrical’ forms as the basis for a new visual language. His collages and constructions of the mid-1920s, however, are sharper and more rectilinear than previously, although characteristically irregular and even quizzical in format, for example elikan (c. 1925; New York, MOMA). As his incantatory abstract poem Merz 24. Ursonate (Hannover, 1932) shows, systems and repetitions are never allowed to compromise the expressive potential of the materials used and the free development of organic form; ‘Every form’, he wrote ‘is the frozen instantaneous picture of a process.’

In 1924 Schwitters set up his own advertising and design agency in Hannover, the Merz-Werbezentrale. This was a successful enterprise, which secured the accounts of Wagner, makers of Pelikan inks, and of Bahlsen biscuits. He promoted new forms of typography and was the guiding light of an association of modernist advertising agents that included László Moholy-Nagy and César Domela. During this period, when Merz became a ‘paying business’, he enjoyed life as an entrepreneur, travelling across Europe and earning a reputation as an eccentric and brilliant businessman. In 1927 he combined with friedrich Vordemberge-gildewart to form a group known as ‘die abstrakten hannover’. He also instigated the ‘ring neue werbegestalter’.

The most extraordinary project by Schwitters between the two World Wars was the Merzbau, a vast sculptural construction, which took over part of the artist’s home and studio in Hannover, begun in 1923 and unfinished when he left Germany in December 1936 ( reconstruction, 1980–83; Hannover, Sprengel Mus.). He had spoken early in his career of his ‘ultimate aspiration’ being ‘the union of art and non-art in the Merz total world view’. The refuse and objets trouvés of his assemblages, collected and stored with a manic passion in suitcases and specially made wooden boxes, became the cult objects of what was in Max Ernst’s words ‘a huge abstract grotto’, made around and within a basic structure of wire, wood and plastered struts. The Merzbau was in effect an elaborate autobiographical ‘growth’ of interconnecting grottoes, in which pieces of friends’ clothing, hair and even the artist’s own bottled urine were placed along with a host of other bizarre objects in compartments and behind secret panels. It was entirely destroyed by an Allied bomb in 1943.

The 1930s were a period of change and eventual tragedy for Schwitters. He contributed to the Parisian magazine Cercle et Carré and joined the Abstraction-Création group. After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, however, Schwitters’s links with international modernism were broken, and he spent more and more time in Norway, where his Merzbilder incorporated ‘natural’ forms, such as pieces of stone and wood, and where he painted naturalistic landscapes. In 1937 his work was included in the Entartete Kunst exhibition, selected by the Nazis, and in the same year he fled with his son to Lysaker, near Oslo, leaving his wife in Hannover, where she died in 1944. In Lysaker he constructed a second Merzbau, which he referred to as the ‘Haus am Bakken’. Although it was destroyed by fire in 1951, and no photographs of it were taken, it is known from Schwitters’s writings that he planned this Merzbau carefully and intended it to be transportable.

Schwitters arrived in England in 1940 and was immediately interned in a camp on the Isle of Man. Here, in the company of other German artists and intellectuals, he tried to revive the popular Merz evenings he had staged in Hannover in the 1920s. He continued to make collages and also sculpture, some of which was apparently concocted from porridge and stale bread. Many fellow inmates considered him to be a rather pathetic relic of a dead avant-garde movement. On his release in October 1941 he moved to London, where he lived with his son and a devoted friend, Edith Thomas. In 1945 he moved to Little Langdale, near Ambleside in the Lake District, where he remained until his death, often painting portraits to earn a living.

Schwitters’s work in England comprised reliefs and sculptures that verge on the quaint, for which he used a loose brushwork and incorporated pieces of wood, stone and shells. He also made collages that frequently incorporated American magazine and commercial imagery, sometimes in conjunction with Old Master images, for example Merz 42 (Like an Old Master) (1942; Hannover, Sprengel Mus.). These seem to anticipate Pop art in their interests and to extend the tradition of Dada collage, in which Schwitters had made his début as a modernist. Schwitters also made simple plaster sculptures, such as All-embracing Sculpture (c. 1943–5; Cologne, Gal. Gmurzynska), which in their biomorphic qualities reveal a debt to Hans Arp. In 1947, with financial aid from MOMA, New York, Schwitters began work on the Merzbarn in an old straw barn in Langdale Valley. The project was unfinished at his death, but a wall (l. 3.5 m) that was complete was removed and installed at the Hatton Gallery, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, in 1965. As with his contemporaneous reliefs, the abstracted forms derive from natural sources and reflect the qualities of the surrounding landscape.

Despite Schwitters’s links and associations with Dada, there is something in his approach to art and life that makes him an uneasy member of the conventional modernist pantheon. His Dadaism, in the form of his Merz productions, was in some crucial senses antipathetic to Dada; his Constructivism had, at its core, a faith in the aesthetic and moral properties of natural form quite at odds with the formal and intellectual premises of classic Constructivist art; his move towards a lyrical, romantic art in the last 20 years of his life perhaps underlines his reaction against those movements with which he is most usually identified. This belief in nature as a transcendent category, and in the need for artists to continue to study the natural world, is reflected in his practice, intermittently throughout his life, of painting conventional landscapes and portraits. In many respects the obsessional Merzbau may, even through photographs, present the fullest immediate image of Schwitters’s complex and contradictory art. It allows one to see the childlike and convoluted, the grandiose and bathetic, the abstract and the representational, the elated and troubled, all in one work.

Richard Humphreys
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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