German artist Kurt Schwitters was a pivotal figure in the rise of avantgarde art movements in early-20th-century Europe. Living and working in Hanover, his revolutionary works—collages and constructions born out of urban detritus—placed him at the forefront of Dada and Constructivism and contemporary art.
It was after the First World War and the subsequent socio-economic collapse in Germany that Schwitters began to gravitate from painting to collage, an artistic medium he considered to hold the potential to gather broken pieces and reinvent the world. The materials he primarily used for his artworks consisted of detritus including product labels, newspaper clippings and industrial refuse. In Revolving (1919), for example, fragments of wood, wool, leather and cardboard as well as wire form a harmonious configuration of overlapping circles and curves.
Schwitters' work is closely associated with Dada. Having befriended Hans Arp and Raoul Hausmann around 1919, Schwitters applied for a membership in the German Dada circle but was rejected because of his comparative disinterest in politics. Nevertheless, he worked jointly with key figures in Dada on several occasions and, in 1919, invented his own brand of Dada called 'Merz'. The term derives from kommerz, the German word for commerce, which appeared on a newspaper scrap that he used for one of his collages. First employed to describe Schwitters' collages made of newspaper bits, 'Merz' extended over time to refer to all his artistic creations, which encompassed poetry, typography, graphic design, performance and prose.
As is characteristic of a Dada artist, Schwitters attempted to expose the arbitrariness of established values. Merz Picture 3A The Cherry Picture (1921), for instance, is a rectangular board that he covered with pieces of wood and fabric, newspaper clippings, candy wrappers, product labels and a picture of cats. Treating discarded materials as artistic media, the artist questioned if art and the prosaic were as disparate as they seemed. At the centre of the collage, Schwitters draws attention to a white flashcard that bears a printed picture of cherries and the German and French words for the fruit. The card's educational capacity, however, is sabotaged by the text he has written on it: 'Ich liebe dir!' ('I love she!')—a deliberately erroneous sentence meant to poke fun at assumptions of verity in art.
In 1923, Schwitters published a magazine called Merz. Merz 5, printed later that year, was titled 7 Arpaden by Hans Arp—Arpaden being an invented word to mean 'Arp things'—and focused on Arp's lithographs. Schwitters also promoted his own work: the bold orange strokes on the cover of Merz 11 (1924), for instance, highlight his interest in typography and Constructivism, which sought to marry art with industry and emphasised the use of solid, bright colours and geometric shapes. Merz ran until 1932—the year Schwitters published his acclaimed sound poem, the 'Ursonate' (1922–32), which was a four-part sonata of phonetics.
Among Schwitters' most celebrated creations is the Merzbau, an immersive installation of columns and caves built out of found objects. He began with a column in his Hanover studio, expanding it and inviting his artist friends to make their own contributions. As it grew, the Merzbau transformed his studio into a three-dimensional collage of continually shifting surfaces and structures. Schwitters had to halt the work in 1937, however, when the Nazis branded his work as degenerate art and he was forced to flee his country. Once in safety in Norway, he constructed the second Merzbau near Oslo, then the third in the Lake District in Britain where he lived from the German occupation of Norway in 1940 to his death in 1948. Although all three Merzbau were later destroyed or unable to be fully preserved, their surreal portraits survive as photographs, and between 1981 and 1983, the stage designer Peter Bissegger reconstructed the original Merzbau for the Sprengel Museum in Hanover.
During his years in Norway and Britain, Schwitters sold portraits and landscapes as a means of living. Portrait of Fred Uhlman (1940)—painted while Schwitters and Uhlman were interned at the Isle of Man before being allowed to live in Britain—depicts the German artist-writer leaning on the wall with two books open before him. The naturalistic treatment of Uhlman's face, along with the loose brushwork in his surroundings, marks a return to the post-impressionist paintings of Schwitters' early days as an artist. However, he also continued to produce abstract collages and constructions into the 1940s, testified to by works such as (Relief in Relief) (c. 1942–5), a framed collage of painted wood pieces and plaster.
When he was at the Isle of Man, Schwitters created sculptures out of porridge. While these perishable creations are no longer extant and little is known about them, his more enduring sculptural works display a concern with combining geometric and organic forms. The Autumn Crocus (1926–8), for example, is a painted concrete column that splits into two towards the top and curls into what the artist described as 'the half spiral'. Other sculptures are comparable to his collages, such as Red Wire Sculpture (1944), for which Schwitters incorporated found objects—in this case, painted metal rods—into plaster to make a biomorphic shape.
Schwitters studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Hanover (1908–1909) and the Kunstakademie Dresden (1909–1914), training as a painter. He exhibited extensively during his lifetime. In 1927, a solo exhibition titled Große Merzausstellung 1927 (Great Merz Exhibition) toured Germany. His work was also included in Cubism and Abstract Art (1936) and Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism (1936)—the groundbreaking group exhibitions organised by The Museum of Modern Art in New York. His legacy continues to be recognised in the 21st century; notable solo exhibitions include Kurt Schwitters: Merz, Galerie Gmurzynska, Zürich (2016); Schwitters in Britain, Tate Britain, London (2013); and Kurt Schwitters: Colour and Collage, the UCBerkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, California (2011).
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