Kurt Schwitters - Biography and Legacy
German Painter, Collagist, and Writer
Kendel, Cumbria, England
Biography of Kurt Schwitters
Kurt Schwitters was born on June 20, 1887 in Hanover, Germany. He was the only child in a middle-class family. As a boy, he travelled with his father to the 1900 World's Fair in Paris. When he was 14, he had his first epileptic fit, signifying the start of a recurring condition that the artist felt continually impacted how he related to the world.
Although not a diligent student, Schwitters studied art and drawing at the Dresden Academy from 1909-1915, distinguishing himself by his skill in rendering. This relatively long period of academic training prepared him for a conventional career as a painter and indeed, his works from this time show no sign of avant-garde modernist ideas, such as Cubism, currently in Paris. On October 5, 1915, he married Helma Fischer, a cousin, and the couple lived with Schwitters' parents in a large and comfortable apartment building in Hanover. They had one son who died shortly after birth and then a second child, Ernst, in 1918. Schwitters was originally exempt from military service during World War I, due to his epilepsy, but when conscription was extended to a wider portion of the population, he was enlisted. He spent the last year and a half of the war working as a technical draftsman in a factory not far from Hanover, an experience he later claimed responsible for his fascination with the idea of machines as metaphors for human activity.
Schwitters' art changed dramatically around 1918 when, seeking connection with the modernist avant-garde in Berlin, he began using litter found in the street to make works of art. This sudden shift is largely associated with the collapse of economic and political stability in Germany at the end of World War I and the rising tide of the multi-national Dada movement. That year he had a solo exhibition at the important Der Sturm gallery in Berlin and published An Anna Blume, a nonsensical Dadaist love poem. This poem garnered him the significant attention of members of German Dada such as Raoul Hausmann and Hans Arp, and gained him a local following in Hanover.
His relationship with Hausmann was quite significant in his eventual creation of Ursonate, a sonata based on two of Hausmann's poems featuring, instead of recognizable words, sounds created by letters connected in unexpected ways. The purpose of the sonata was to startle and awaken an audience expecting traditional prose. Schwitters hoped to encourage listeners to make connections between the sounds and accordingly arrive at their own personal meaning, exactly as he hoped would be the effect of his collages. Although greatly intrigued by other artists, especially the Zurich Dada group, he began to develop his own style. He called this style Merz after finding a fragment of an advertisement from the Kommerz - a local bank - (containing the four letters MERZ) in his wanderings around Hanover. He continued to use the Merz moniker for his works over the course of his lifetime.
In 1923, Schwitters began to produce Merz magazine, which would solidify his place in the international Dada network. Avant-garde periodicals provided an excellent means of exchange for European artists, and through this publication Schwitters formed relationships with leading modernist thinkers such as Theo van Doesburg, Hannah Höch, Hans Arp, Tristan Tzara, and El Lissitzky. His relationship with the Dutch van Doesburg was especially close and in addition to exchanging content and advertising in their periodicals, the two frequently visited one another's family homes. Tokens of the artist's various friendships were integrated into the fabric of his home in an ever-growing Merzbau, a large sculptural installation worked on for fourteen long years that incorporated a collection of art and objects from these friends, combined into continually changing tableaux. His close relationship with El Lissitzky at this time was fruitful as both artists explored art environments. Lissitzky's museum installation environment was titled Abstract Cabinet, and it came to Hanover in 1927.
During the same period Schwitters worked as a commercial artist, graphic designer, and typographer for local businesses, collaborating with his friend, Kate Steinetz. Together they created children's stories notable for their bold, linear design and typography. All of his design work, whether commercial, for the Merz magazine, or private, is characterized by Constructivist and De Stijl ideas of balance, order, and line. This graphic aesthetic gradually replaced the Dada one by which his earlier works were noted.
Schwitters was an idiosyncratic character. He rode his bicycle through the streets of Hanover, often loaded down with scrap paper and materials he would later make into art. Unfortunately, his work was not commercially successful during his lifetime, his various projects rarely resulted in profits. He often carried a second suitcase packed with potatoes, carrots, and a portable stove in order to save the cost of eating at restaurants. Despite this, he traveled frequently throughout Europe organizing exhibitions and maintaining contact with an extensive network of artists. His creative work extended beyond the visual arts and he was well known as an inveterate poet who enjoyed reciting his poetry aloud to fellow avant-garde figures. Artist Raoul Hausmann recalled how Schwitters presented himself: "[I remember] the night he introduced himself in the Café des Westens [in Berlin]. 'I'm a painter,' he said, 'and I nail my pictures together."
The artist's personal connections led to wonderful opportunities. Schwitters was included in the exhibition 'Abstrakte und surrealistische Malerei und Plastik' at Kunsthaus Zurich in 1929 and in 1930 contributed to the Parisian journal Cercle et Carré. In 1932, he joined the Paris-based Abstraction-Creation group, occasionally publishing in their eponymous journal. In 1936 his work was featured in two seminal exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, 'Cubism and Abstract Art' and 'Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism.' Despite these promising developments, the turbulent political environment negatively affected his career. His shocking aesthetic did not fare well in Germany and in 1937 the Nazi regime banned his work as "degenerate." In response, Schwitters left for Norway, leaving his wife Helma behind to manage their property.
In the later part of his life, Schwitters compulsively produced art even under the most difficult circumstances. He created a second Merzbau while in exile in Norway before being forced to flee to the United Kingdom. As a German, he was interned in a series of camps, moving around quite a bit until 1940 when he finally settled in with a group of other detained Austrian and German artists on the Isle of Man. During this period he created art out of whatever materials were available, allegedly even using leftover oatmeal for small sculptures. Schwitters was finally released from this last camp on November 21, 1941 and moved to London. There he tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain a visa to America, a long-held dream.
In April of 1944 the artist suffered his first stroke, which left him temporarily paralyzed on one side of his body. Schwitters' wife Helma, with whom he had been separated since the onset of the war, died of cancer in October 1944 in Hanover, but Schwitters only learned of it months later. Despite being largely bedridden from 1946 to 1947, Schwitters began construction of a new, third, Merzbau in England (directing others on the physical work) with financial support from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He died on January 8, 1948 before it was completed.
The Legacy of Kurt Schwitters
Schwitters believed in his own artistic importance and kept copious records of all his work in manila folders in the attic of his family home in Hanover. Tragically, an Allied bombing raid in WWII destroyed all of them, including his complete archives, the magazines and books he had designed and written, multiple works of art, and his first Merzbau - the elaborate sculptural environment that was his masterwork. This tremendous loss, and the fact that he did not receive commercial success during his lifetime, has complicated gauging his significant contribution to modern art.
Nevertheless, Schwitters anticipated many of the most significant trends in avant-garde art, most importantly the combination and manipulation of ordinary materials within multi-media oeuvre, as noted in the works of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and an almost whimsical approach to art as noted in that of Claes Oldenburg. His belief that art could not be restricted to a canvas on the wall and anticipated the Happenings, participatory events of the 1960s characterized by mixed media, art, and performance. The idea that art should provoke the audience to make their own connections between the given elements, so fundamental to his Merz creations, was key to many postmodernist artists.