July 9, 2012  |  Intern Chronicles
In Search of Lost Art: Kurt Schwitters’s Merzbau

Picture with Light Center by Kurt Schwitters, 1919

Kurt Schwitters. Picture with Light Center. 1919. Cut-and-pasted colored paper and printed paper, watercolor, oil, and pencil on board. Purchase. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

It was a gray, humid day in Hannover, Germany, and I was on a mission: to experience the Merzbau, a room-sized, living sculptural construction by artist Kurt Schwitters. But how do you experience something that doesn’t exist?

Kurt Schwitters was an early 20th-century Dada artist whose elegant collages are a touchstone of MoMA’s collection. One of my favorites is Picture with Light Center from 1919, currently on view in the Museum’s fifth-floor galleries. Schwitters made these collages in the wake of the First World War as hopeful portraits of how destruction can feed creation: how bits of advertising, scraps of newspaper, wood, garbage, and urban debris could all be collaged together into something new and beautiful.

Schwitters’ art was more than just the collage object itself. It was a whole process, philosophy, and lifestyle, which he called merz—a nonsense word that became his kind of personal brand. He was a merz-artist who made merz-paintings and merz-drawings, and naturally, the place where he merzed—his studio and family home—was his merz-building, or Merzbau. Over the years, this Merzbau developed into a kind of abstract walk-in collage composed of grottoes and columns and found objects, ever-shifting and ever-expanding. It was more than just a studio; it was itself a work of art.

The Hannover Merzbau

The Hannover Merzbau by Kurt Schwitters. Photo by Wilhelm Redemann, 1933.

Schwitters worked on the Hanover Merzbau from around 1923 until 1937, when he fled to Norway to escape the threat of Nazi Germany. Sadly, in 1943, while he was in exile, it was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid. The original Merzbau was gone forever. No one would ever again be able to stop in to chat with Schwitters and examine his growth of a studio. So how can we learn more about this once-living work of art?

One way is through photographs from the time. In 1933, Wilhelm Redemann took three black-and-white photographs of the Merzbau’s main room, one of which you can see here. These photographs are an invaluable resource for understanding what the Merzbau must have looked like at the time.

But these photographs only capture what the Merzbau looked like in one particular instant. For many artworks, that would be enough—but the Merzbau was not just a static painting or a sculpture, but a whole environment, and one that was in constant flux. One day the Merzbau could have a new column of debris stacked in the corner, the next day a new grotto dedicated to an artist friend. Photographs can’t quite capture the Merzbau‘s expanding and shifting nature.

The Sprengel Museum in Hannover

The Sprengel Museum in Hannover. Photograph © 2008 Achim Brandau

Which is why I was in Hannover that rainy day: to go to the <a href="" target="_blank"">Sprengel Museum</a>, which houses the Kurt Schwitters Archive. This amazing resource holds letters and accounts from Schwitters’s friends, family, and even MoMA curators and department directors. I work in the Museum Archives here at MoMA, and so I’m happily familiar with the letters we hold from Schwitters in our Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Papers and Exhibition Files, particularly those for the influential exhibition Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (December 7, 1936–January 17, 1937). At the Sprengel Museum, I could piece together the letters from our archives with the letters in theirs, and thus construct a kind of narrative of the Merzbau. I discovered that when you’re trying to understand something like the Merzbau, archives like these are critical. Through the written word, you can get an idea of not just what the space was like in a specific moment, but how it developed and grew, the methods of its expansion, even what the rooms smelled like.

The Merzbau reconstruction

A visitor inside the Sprengel Museum’s Merzbau reconstruction. Photograph © 2011 André Homan

In addition to the archives, the Sprengel Museum’s galleries also hold a reconstruction of the Merzbau’s main room, made in 1981–83 by Peter Bissegger. Bissegger based his reconstruction on Redemann’s photographs as well as careful reading of archival letters. As a static, unchanging room, the reconstruction can’t be fully accurate, but it’s still wonderful to duck into this three-dimensional space and imagine what it must have been like back when Schwitters was alive and working.

Schwitters had a fascinating relationship with MoMA—a museum he always wanted to visit, but never could before his death in 1948. For more information, I highly recommend the essay that New York–based art historian Adrian Sudhalter presented at a 2007 symposium at the Sprengel Museum. You may read it here.

The Merzbau has become a kind of art-historical myth, and one that has influenced many artists since. The definition of art shifted in the 20th century, and many artists now create not only paintings and sculptures, but also installations, happenings, performances, and other works that can be tricky to research. In this new landscape, archives are becoming more and more vital as resources, and research can be a bit of an adventure—but a fun one! You can learn more about MoMA’s own Museum Archives on our website.