Merzbilder – A brief account of Kurt Schwitters’ life and work

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A quick update on myself – I’ve been quite busy lately. I graduated last Friday, and I’m now trying to sort out moving home, which if all goes to plan should be done by Monday…Let’s rephrase, this has to be done by Monday. Other than this, I have actually been working on my book (which was the original point of this blog). I am fast approaching the completion of the first draft of what I’m considering to be Part One (even though I wont be making these divides in the text). It means I’m about a third the way through, I’ll soon start seeing what people think of it. The second part needs a lot of research though, so that’ll be slow going for a while. It’s beginning to look like the book will be far shorter than I first envisioned. This is because, firstly, I’ve learnt more about what is appropriate length for a children’s novel, and secondly, because I don’t want to drag the story out at all. In October, I will be travelling to Moscow to perform our show Pages from the Book of… in the Moscow Arts Theatre, which I’m super excited about. I’m also trying to arrange a couple of other bits for the show. On top of this I’ve been writing the odd article on WhatCulture. So, if this post seems a bit rushed. It is! I really want to keep this blog up to date, and I’m trying to split up my time efficiently.

Well, without further ado – Kurt Schwitters and Merz.

A modern day Merz image and tribute to Schwitters – 2006

Kurt Schwitters (1887 – 1948) gave the name Merz to his particular style and genre of art. Schwitters is generally considered to be the master of collage, and his works, at the time of creation, would not fit into any pre-existing brackets such as expressionism, futurism, etc.

The term MERZbilder (later just Merz), came from a specific work of Schwitters in which he cut out the syllable ‘merz’ from a magazine called Kommerz- und Privatbank. Merz became the label under which he presented his works. He even started to go by the title himself after 1922.

So, what is Merz? As I said, Schwitters concentrated on, and excelled in collage. He was especially keen on found objects and would often simply collect things on his journeys, to include in his art. There were two reasons why he chose recycled materials for his work. One, was that he sought to create something from the wastes of a war ravished state – or as he says far more skilfully than I could:

 “…when this racket to which men give the name of war, ended…I felt free, and I felt the need to proclaim my joy throughout the world. For economic reasons I took what I found, because we were a people that had fallen into misery. One can also yell using garbage, and that is what I did gluing and nailing. That was called Merz. It was my prayer at having survived the war, once peace had triumphed. In any case, everything was ruined, and it was a matter of building new things from debris.”

The Holy Night by Antoni Allegri, known as Correggio… – 1947

Another reason, was purely aesthetic. Schwitters, in taking found objects (or Merz objects, we can call them), wanted to remove any previous use or connotations they may have had. He made a point that whatever a material meant before he found and incorporated it into his art, was not important. Obviously, this is easy to say, and perhaps, not difficult to do when you’re the author of a work. But, it’s not easy to convince a spectator of this. It’s very difficult for us not to make assumptions on a piece, if a political logo or an image with religious connotations makes its way into a work. To combat this, Schwitters put into effect a process of ‘dematerialization’. Firstly, we ‘distribute’ the materials onto the canvas, then, we ‘deform’ them by covering, transforming or otherwise changing the material. In this way, the materials become, simply that; materials. Colours, lines and other bits. I guess you have to judge for yourself if it works.

I don’t think it would be necessarily wrong to look at the works in this way though, as all the objects were collected from specific places, at a specific time. So, of course the works carry with them a sort of wider context. I think, it’s almost impossible to escape this when using found objects, and I’m sure Schwitters would have known, and accepted that.

Through his early life, Schwitters was a quiet, insecure person and suffered from Epilepsy. He was an only child, living with his parents Edward and Henriette. The family owned a small business selling ladies’ clothes, which they sold in 1898. With the money from this they bought five properties in Hanover which they rented out, allowing them to live comfortably.

Mountain Graveyard – 1919

Schwitters studied at the Royal Academy of Art in Dresden, between 1909 and 1914 and apparently, didn’t prove to be anything special. Moving back home he began his career as a painter, being increasingly influenced by the expressionism movement.

Schwitters married Helma Fischer, his cousin. Unfortuantly, their first son died after a week of being born. But their second son, Ernst, lived and he and Schwitters were very close. A year later, in 1917 he was drafted into the military, but was discharged later that year because his epilepsy rendered him unfit for duty. It was during this time, he became fascinated with machines and the image of the wheel. He says that he “recognized that machines are abstractions of the human spirit.”

Schwitters big break came in 1918, when he was invited to exhibit some of his work in the Sturm gallery in Berlin. The Sturm, was run by Herwarth Walden, who was a very famous German expressionist artist. Primarily a pianist, Waldon expressed his love for the arts through his writing and the galleries he owned. The Sturm gallery was considered ground-breaking, because it displayed work from some of the most cutting-edge European artists. It was in this time that Schwitters started on his collages, and of course the beginning of the Merz brand. Whilst exhibiting his art in Sturm, opinions were divided. Some, thought his work was great, others deemed him insane. Although, as we’ve said his work didn’t necessarily have any political references, he was often viewed as being a threat to ‘traditional German values’.

Revolving – 1919

In 1919, he approached Tristan Tzara, who was the spokeman for the Zurich Dadaists. The group was very interested in Schwitters’ work, even though it differed from their own. Schwitters rejected some of the ideas put forth by the Dadaists, choosing to continue referring to himself as a painter, albeit one who nailed his painting together. I’m not exactly sure why, but Schwitters and Richard Huelsenbeck, the leader of the Dadaists, fell out in 1920. Between 1919 and 1923 he created some of his most well known works. He was also working on much larger pieces called Merzbau. These were big constructions made from Merz materials, which were then incorporated into a sculptural interior. It was probably about 6 rooms large, but we’re not sure. Unfortunately the Merzbau was destroyed in a raid on Hanover in 1943, and all other attempts to build new Merbau were also unsuccessful.

In time, Schwitters found himself at the forefront of the avent-garde. He began holding his own Merz exhibitions, and allied himself with the Bauhaus group. From here on, Schwitters experimented with various mediums, including theatre, literature, music, photography and more. He tended to be pretty good at everything he attempted. He published his own arts journal, unsurprisingly called Merz, between 1923 and 1932 and at some point created Ursonate, his sound poem masterpiece.

The Star Picture – 1920

Unfortunately, with the rise of National Socialism in Germany, things became rather difficult. The avant-garde community fell apart and the Nazis strongly opposed his work, publicly ridiculing it. In 1937, Schwitters moved to Norway, after the Gestapo ‘requested his presence for a interview’…I’d probably run as far as I could too.

Following this, Schwitters’ life becomes a bit sporadic, and he doesn’t settle for a while. In 1940, he fled to Scotland with his son. He moved between internment camps in Scotland and England. He came to rest for a year and a half, in a internment camp on the Isle of Man where he staged a fair number of Merz recitals. In 1941, he was released and stayed in London until 1945 before moving to the Lake District, where he began work on his final Merzbau, the Merzbarn. Apparently, you can still see the shell of the Merzbarn now, although it’s completely dilapidated.

His wife died in 1944 and Schwitters started seeing a woman called Edith Thomas. Together they moved to the Lake District in 1945, where Schwitters would walk for hours collecting objects from the beach, to use in his new art projects.

In 1948 Schwitters himself died, poor, but confident that has work would one day be acknowledged in the way he knew it deserved to be.

Some years after his death, a stone was put near his grave in England (though his remains were transported to Hanover) with the inscription ‘Kurt Schwitters – Creator of Merz’.

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4 responses »

  1. Good article. I’ve loved Schwitters’ work for years and particularly his poetry. The following link connects to an article about his ‘Anna Blume’ (http://dr.rb.tripod.com/id13.html) . Interestingly they have a translated version which may have been put through a translator program which is especially interesting. This is such a dada idea. Write a piece in English, translate it into another language through babelfish or something and then translate it back into English through the same medium and see what you get – a kind of verbal collage. Was it Tristan Tzara who used to cut up newspaper articles into single words and then throw them up into the air and reproduce them as they fell to produce da da poetry?

    • Hi. Thanks for your comment and for the article link – I really enjoyed reading it.
      Yeah, it was Tristan Tzara who wrote poetry in that way. I do like the idea of using Babelfish to come up with a sort of unreliable translation in this way. I think there’s a lot of fun things we can do with computers that the Dadaists would approve of. I remember as a kid, I would open the Microsoft Sam voice thing and just mash the keyboard to see what he came up with. Also, I’ve recently just got a phone which I can dictate into and it will write what I’m saying, but it is rather unreliable. I began speaking gobbledygook or just making sounds at it and some of the outcomes are quite funny – sometimes, just sometimes it will hit on something bizarrely profound. And then of course there’s the thing where you can make Google Translate beatbox: http://techcrunch.com/2010/11/29/google-beatbox/
      There really ought to be a sort of Techno-Dada movement.

  2. Thanks for this article. I’m sure you’re aware that the first illustration is not by Schwitters, but it might be worth adding a caption to make this clear.
    For the record:
    1. Herwarth Walden was a Berlin gallery owner and professional pianist, not a painter.
    2. Schwitters approached Tzara, not vice versa
    3. Dresden, not Dresdon
    4. Nazis, not Nazi’s
    5. Schwitters’ life, not Schwitters life (and can a life really become ‘sporadic’?)
    6 The Merz recitals were very well received in the Isle of Man internment camp.
    7 Not sure the sentence ‘Schwitters started seeing someone else’ really sums up his relationship with Edith Thomas .
    8. A gravestone still exists in England, but Schwitters’ remains were later moved to Hanover.

    • Hello, thank you for your comment and the suggestions. As I said, this post was a bit rushed so certainly not the best it could (or should) have been.
      You’re right about the captions, I have been meaning to caption all the pictures, but just got around to doing it now.
      As for your other notes; thank you kindly – I have made a few brief changes. I think the moral of this story is not to rush my writings!
      Glad you read the article.

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