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Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)


German artist, typographer and writer, who was associated with Dadaism, although he was never an active member of any Dada group. From the 1920s until his death, Kurt Schwitters's artistic career was guided by his endeavour to create a total work of art (Gesamtkunstwerk). However, he never finished the grand synthesis of his ideas, the Merzbau. Many of Schwitters's artworks have been lost or destroyed.

Preisfrage: 1. Anna Blume hat ein Vogel.
----------------2. Anna Blume ist rot.
----------------3. Welche Farbe hat der Vogel?

(from Anna Blume, 1919)

Kurt Schwitters was born in Hanover to a well-to-do family. His parents, Eduard and Henriette Schwitters, were owners of a ladies' wear shop. From early childhood Schwitters suffered from epileptic seizures, later he said that these experiences led him to art. He studied at the school of Arts and Crafts, Hanover, and then attended the Kunstakademie in Dresden. His early paintings were mostly landscapes and academic portraits. In 1915 he married Helma Fischer, a teacher, she served as a model for several of his paintings. Schwitters's second son, Ernst, was born in 1918. At that time the family lived in Schwitters's parents' house.

Schwitters began to construct his first Merzbau in 1915, using wood and plaster for the basic structure of the cubistic assemblage, which also included carboard, scraps of metal, old furniture, leftover objects found in garbage bins and in dumps, and items from his friends and associates, such as Mies van der Rohe's pencil and Sophie Täuber-Arp's brassiere. "Everything an artist spits out is art," Schwitters allegedly said. The word "Merz" has a variety of associations, starting from "Kommerz" (commerce) to Schmerz (pain) and ausmerzen (to discard). With "Merz", Schwitters defined his own unique movement, "in close artistic friendship with Core dadaism," as he wrote. He also applied collage technique to his poetry, pasting poems from words and sentences and arranging pictures and drawings "so that sentences could be read in them."

After the death of his son Gerd, he incorporated his death mask in the Merzbau. Schwitters christened the gigantic work, which eventually extended through several floors and room, The Column and then as his Cathedral of Erotic Misery. Because it was in his apartment at Waldhausenstrasse 5, where he lived with his family, only a few people saw it. Only the gallery owner and critic Herwath Walden, the architectural historian Sigfried Giedion, and Hans Arp were allowed to see the most secret caves of the Merzbau. His visitors Schwitters greeted with his own onomapoetic language "the language of the birds" while sitting on a tree branch.

During WW I Schwitters served for a short period in the army as a clerk at the regimental office in Hanover and then as a technical draftsman at the Wunfel Iron Works. His poems and essays were published in Herwarth Walden's Der Sturm magazine, a leading mouthpiece of the expressionist movement. 'An Anna Blume', which appeared in the magazine, provoked a very strong response. Schwitters's first collection of verse, Anna Blume (1919), which parodied the high-flown language of love poetry, was a critical and commercial success; it sold a 13,000 copies.

In 1920 Schwitters met Hans Arp, who introduced him to the new collage method, and Raoul Hausmann, a member of the Berlin the Berlin Dada group, and made a lecture tour with Hausmann in Chechoslovakia. In 1922 he attended the Dada meeting in Weimar. However, Schwitters never became a friend of the Berlin Dadaist George Grosz, who once drove him from his door, saying "I am not Grosz." Schwitters replied after ringing the bell again: "I am not Schwitters, either." Grosz was rebellious and politically committed, Schwitters described himself ambiguously as "Bürger und Idiot."

Schwitters founded the Merz magazine in 1923; the last issue, entitled Ursonate, was published in 1932. Schwitters's performance poem 'Ursonate', which was 35 minutes long, had been nearly as popular as 'Anna Blume' in the 1920s. Merz publications consisted of books, catalogues, poems, paitings, there was also one gramaphone record entitled Lautsonate (Merz 13). Numbers 14-17 contained children's books written by Schwitters, Kate Steinitz and Theo van Doesburg. Schwitters also worked for the Pelikan ink and stationery company and in 1927 he joined with Moholy-Nagy Vordemberge-Gildewart and Domela in a collaborative design association. For Dammerstock Estates in Karlsruhe he worked as Director of Typography in 1929.

In 1928 Schwitters traveled in Norway, where he began to spend much of his time from 1931 onwards. In 1937 Schwitters was designated a degenerate artist by the Nazis and his works were shown in the Entartete Kunst exhibition, organized by Adolf Ziegler, a member of the Nazi Party. At the opening Ziegler said, "What you are seeing here are the crippled products of madness, impertinence, and lack of talent." Schwitters left Germany for Norway, settling in Lysaker near Oslo. He never returned to the city of his birth. His wife Helma died of cancer in 1944 in Hanover.

In 1936 Schwitters began his second Merzbau, which survived until 1951, when it was burnt down by local children playing with matches. When Nazis invaded Norway, Schwitters fled in 1940 with his son for the United Kingdom on the ice breaker Fridtjof Nansen. Interned as an enemy alien by the British government he was held in interment camps for eighteen months. After being discharged from Hutchinson Square Camp at Douglas, Isle of Man, he settled in London. Schwitters had an exhibition in London in 1944 Herbert Read wrote the introduction to the catalogue and in 1947 in New York and Basel, but his work did not attract significant popular or critical interest. Schwitters's Hanover Merzbau was completely destructed by Allied bombing raids on the night of October 8, 1943. The last photographs of the work were taken by his son.

In 1944 a stroke left Schwitters temporally paralyzed on one side of his body. The next year he moved with Edith Thomas to Ambleside, in the Lake District. There he became a well known figure, although he did not talk about his past. His portraits of local residents were displayed in shops. With the financial aid from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Schwitters began to build in 1947 his third Merzbau (or the Merzbarn) into a stone barn At Elterwater. He never finished it. Schwitters died in solitude on January 8, 1948, in Kendal, and was buried at Ambleside. The Merzbarn was later relocated at the Hatton Art Gallery, University of Newcastle. In 1970 Schwitters's remains were exhumed in 1970 and taken to Hanover for burial in Engesohde Cemetery.

For further reading: Kurt Schwitters: A Journey Through Art by Gwendolen Webster, Roger Cardinal and Kurt Schwitters (2011); Kurt Schwitters: Free Spirit by Robin Martakies (2006); Kurt Schwitters Merzbau: The Cathedral of Erotic Misery by Elizabeth Burns Gamard (2000); Kurt Merz Schwitters: A Biographical Study by Gwendolen Webster (1997); The Collages of Kurt Schwitters: Tradition and Innovation by Dorothea Dietrich (1993); Kurt Schwitters by John Elderfield (1985) - Fort further information: The Kurt and Ernst Schwitters Foundation

Selected bibliography:

  • Anna Blume, 1919
  • Memoiren Anna Blumes in Bleie, 1922
  • Die Blume Anna, 1923
  • Auguste Bolte, 1923
  • Die Märchen vom Paradies, 1924
  • Familie Hahnepeter, 1924
  • Die Scheuche, 1925
  • Veilchen, 1931
  • Ursonate, 1932
  • Anna Blume und ich, 1965 (edited by Ernst Schwitters)
  • Emils blaue Augen, Grotesken, 1971 (edited by Ernst Schwitters and Friedhelm Lach)
  • Briefe, 1974 (ed. by E. Nündel)
  • Das literarische Werk, 1973-81 (5 vols., edited by Friedhelm Lach)
  • Pppppp: Kurt Schwitters Poems, Performance, Pieces, Proses, Plays, Poetics, 1993 (edited & translated by Jerome Rothenberg & Pierre Joris)
  • A Flower Like a Raven, 1996 (translated by Jerome Rothenberg)
  • Schwitters in Norwegen: Arbeiten, Dokumente, Ansichten, 1999 (edited by Klaus Stadtmüller)
  • Lucky Hans and Other Merz Fairy Tales, 2009 (translated and introduced by Jack Zipes)
  • Three Stories, 2010 (with a tribute by E.L.T Mesens; edited by Jasia Reichardt)

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