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Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)
One of the most extraordinary modern artists of the early 20th century, the German Dada artist Kurt Schwitters is considered to be the greatest ever master of collage art and assemblage. In this media, Schwitters is world famous for his extraordinary contribution to avant-garde art, notably in the form of painted collages and relief montages made out of urban refuse and "found objects", like bus tickets, waste paper, torn newspapers, cardboard cartons, string, rags and fragments of wood or metal. From 1919, Schwitters used the term "Merz" to describe his first collages and assemblages. The word, which was meaningless, came from an early assemblage that included a scrap of paper bearing the word MERZ. (Schwitters later revealed that it was cut out of an advertisement for the Hanover Kommerz und Privatbank). a term he later applied to all his art and to the journal he founded in Hanover in 1923. Schwitters' most unique contribution to modern art was his "Merzbau" - a carefully constructed mixed-media sculpture or "building" of bits and pieces that meandered through his house, eventually filling it completely.
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Schwitters was obsessed by the idea of creating a type of Gesamtkunstwerk, an art that embraced all forms of expression, and used his strange assortment of rubbish to make sense of a world that he believed had gone mad. Unlike most other Dada artists, he had no specific political views, and virtually all his work was personal or autobiographical. Even so, it is fair to say almost all his activities in the 1920s were regarded in their time as political, for they were shaped by the utopian framework of the International Constructivist movement. Constructivism challenged traditional hierarchical structures and envisaged a major role for the artist in the reorganization of social life and the built environment. Furthermore, though he created a few high quality paintings and sculptures, he rarely deviated from his avant-garde Dadaist-style collages and paper constructions. His collage works had a significant impact on later modern art movements like Junk Art, Arte Povera and Fluxus and on new types of expression such as Assemblages, making him one of the most influential of 20th century painters within the Dada movement.
Born in Hanover, an introverted, only-child of rich parents, Kurt Hermann Eduard Karl Julius Schwitters studied at the Dresden Academy of Art from 1909 to 1914 at the same time as German Expressionist painters Otto Dix (1891-1969) and George Grosz (1893-1959) - both later important members of the 1920s Neue Sachlichkeit movement. Largely unaware of avant-garde trends in Dresden art, such as the Expressionist group named Die Brucke (the bridge) championed by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and others, Schwitters returned to Hanover after graduating, and began his artistic career as a post-Impressionist.
However, as World War I (from which he was excluded due to his epilepsy) gradually took hold, his work became more expressionist in tone. During this time he worked on technical drawings in a machine factory near Hanover. Here, he says, "I discovered my love for the wheel and recognized that machines are abstractions of the human spirit." He also married, and had two sons. The first, Gerd, died shortly after birth; the second, Ernst, was to become a famous photographer and remained close to his father all his life.
In 1918, in response to the carnage of the conflict and the resulting social and economic turmoil across Germany, his entire attitude to art began to change. "What I had learned at the academy was of no use to me... Everything was wrecked anyway and what counted was to construct something from the fragments. But that is Merz It was a reflection of the revolution within me..."
Schwitters had already exhibited his expressionist paintings at the Hanover Secession in February 1918. Then in June 1918, he showed several semi-abstract expressionist landscapes at the renowned Sturm gallery in Berlin. This brought him into contact with members of the politically active Berlin avant-garde Dada movement, including Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971), and Hans (Jean) Arp (1886-1966). At the instigation of Arp, Schwitters now abandoned his traditional academic-style art techniques and took up collage, and also started making assemblages from fragments of refuse. Nonetheless, he never abandoned his academic style and continued to produce conventional portraits and landscapes for the reminder of his life.
Schwitters made contact with Zurich Dada in May 1919 and his work was published in Der Zeltweg, the final Zurich Dada publication. He also applied to join Berlin Dada probably in late 1918 or early 1919. According to Raoul Hausmann, his request was refused because of Schwitters' links to the Sturm gallery and to Expressionism in general, which the politically-minded Berlin Dadaists rejected for its absurd romanticism and borgeois aesthetics. But this widely publicized anecdote of Hausmann's sounds dubious. Richard Huelsenbeck, the self-appointed leader of Berlin Dada, showed considerable interest in the Merz pictures as early as May 1919. He encouraged Schwitters, visited him in Hanover and invited him to contribute to a (never published) 'Dada Atlas'. Why the two men fell out is not entirely clear, and is likely to remain a mystery. Ironically, Schwitters' challenge to all ideologies, his preference for the dynamic over the static and his promotion of art in the context of the everyday environment would prove him to be a more authentic and dedicated supporter of radical Dadaist ideas than almost any other artist of his era. His work was certainly more in accord with the Dadaist philosophy being pursued in Zurich, where artists were less political, favouring instead the pursuit of performance and abstract art.
Meanwhile, during the winter and spring of 1918-1919, Schwitters put all his energy into his new "Merz" works, incorporating a wide variety of found materials. Dubbed by later critics as "psychological collage", these works represented Schwitters attempt to make aesthetic sense of a world gone mad - a world whose moral values and social norms were in pieces. It was Schwitters unique vision to create a new art and a new aesthetic from (literally) discarded fragments he found on the streets, and which he lovingly restored. And in this highly symbolic activity, he perfectly expressed the Dadaist concept that art could be made of anything, although unlike most Dada artists he was (as his building activities suggest) a creator rather than a critic - positive, not negative.
Schwitters artistic breakthrough came in June 1919. An exhibition of his new Merz pictures at the influential Sturm gallery - founded by Herwarth Walden - caused a furore among the critics. The works projected a dynamic tension between abstraction and realism, aesthetics and trash, art and life. Schwitters' use of colour, his delicate balance and interplay between content and form, all demonstrated his mastery of the collage genre. Suddenly, he found himself at the cutting edge of contemporary art and the full power of his imagination was unleashed. Mixing with a number of avant-garde groups, including Bauhaus design school teachers (Walter Gropius, Oskar Schlemmer, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Lyonel Feininger), the emerging Constructivists from Russia, Eastern Europe and the Netherlands (Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, Theo van Doesburg), and various Dadaists, he organised performances with other artists such as Raoul Hausmann and Tristan Tzara, and held provocative recitals and lectures in cities across Europe. In 1921 he became friendly with Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931), the Dutch abstract painter, art theorist and founder of De Stijl, and the two artists toured Holland in the same year, promoting the Dada anti-art movement. He also explored a range of other art forms, such as drama and poetry, cabaret, printmaking, multimedia art, photography and architecture. In 1923 he launched his Merz journal, followed in 1924 by a successful advertising agency (1924-30).
In 1923, he began work on his masterpiece, an extraordinary sculptural construction - resembling a modern-day installation - consisting of huge columns of refuse, wood and plaster, one of which he called the "Cathedral of Erotic Misery". In about 1931 he began to incorporate these columns into a sculptural interior, and in 1933 he removed his studio from this room and named his new artwork the Merzbau (Merz building). From 1933-1936, he expanded on his original studio constructions until they filled six or more rooms of the house.
The rise of National Socialism in Germany during the 1930s was a death-blow to many German painters and sculptors, including Schwitters. The avant-garde artist community scattered or went into hiding, leaving many creative practitioners isolated and vulnerable. Schwitters responded with a new style of abstract painting and a series of almost Surrealistic works, which were more contemplative, more restrained and far less exuberant than his earlier collages. In 1933, his work - along with that of Emil Nolde (1867-1956), Paul Klee (18791940), Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), Otto Dix (1891-1969), Max Beckmann (1884-1950), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), and Marc Chagall (1887-1985) and many more - was labelled Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) by the Nazis. In the following years, his pictures were defamed in a series of Degenerate Art exhibitions that culminated in the largest and most notorious of all, staged in Munich in mid-1937. By now, however, Schwitters had emigrated to Norway, for reasons that have never been fully explained. In Lysaker, near Oslo, he worked on a second Merzbau and also created a sculptural interior in a hut on the island of Hjertoya, near Molde, that some art historians also regard as a Merzbau. Schwitters fled north when Nazi troops invaded Norway in April 1940 and procured a passage on an ice-breaker carrying members of the Norwegian government to England.
He was interned for nearly one and a half years, mostly on the Isle of Man. After his release in November 1941, he spent the rest of the war in London, drawing inspiration from his new surroundings to create new Merz pictures, complete with light-hearted references to the Old Masters. In 1945 he relocated to the English Lake District, and in mid-1947 began work on a new Merzbau known as the Merz Barn, funded by a Pittsburgh businessman by way of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It remained unfinished when he died in January 1948. Some of the interior constructions were subsequently demolished, while other free-standing elements were moved to new locations. The sculptured end wall was transported to the Hatton Gallery of Newcastle University in 1965, where it is still on show. The Hannover Merzbau was destroyed in an Allied bombing raid in 1943, while the Lysaker Merzbau was destroyed in a fire in 1951. The Merz Barn site has now been cleared and is under development, while the interior of the hut on Hjertoya has recently been moved to a museum on the mainland.
Schwitters was unquestionably an artistic genius, as well as a committed humanist. His pioneering work in collage, pictorial montage, mixed-media-sculpture (such as his Merzbau) had a significant impact on modern art movements like Arte Povera, Fluxus, Pop Art, Conceptualism, Happenings, as Junk Art, Neo-Dada, Neo-Expressionism and is often discussed in terms of postmodernist art. His ground-breaking Merzbau, completely misunderstood in its time, is now regarded as the precursor of contemporary artforms like Installation, Environment, Assemblage and site-specific art.
Way ahead of its time, Schwitters' creativity was a huge influence 40 years later on the great contemporary artist Robert Rauschenberg, who said, after viewing an exhibition of Schwitters' work at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1959: "I felt like he made it all just for me."
Works by Kurt Hermann Eduard Karl Julius Schwitters can be seen in several of the world's best art museums, including the Samuel R Guggenheim Museum New York; the Museum of Modern Art MOMA; Centre Pompidou in Paris; the Tate Gallery in London; the Armitt Museum in Ambleside, England; Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, England; and Insel Hombroich in Germany.
The most important collection of his work, along with a reconstruction of the first Merzbau room, can be found in the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, Germany. The Sprengel Museum also houses an extensive Kurt Schwitters Archive and has published a three-volume Catalogue Raisonné. Researchers are welcome on appointment.
Acknowlegements: I am indebted to Gwendolen Webster, Founding President of the Kurt Schwitters Society (UK), for her invaluable assistance in the completion of the above article.
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