It’s Day 79 and my roof is officially done! And I have a brief respite until the exterior painters paint the outside of the house. Our house is going to look so cute! I am however suffering a bunch from my costochondritis (benign chest inflammation) and I think I want to go to the doctor to check myself out (just in case). My anxiety from this condition is going crazy. I think the stress from the move and all this mayhem is starting to manifest itself physically. Not to mention all the tragedy from the last year. Other than that, I’ve been painting a ton of large canvases (fun!) and today I am honoring Kurt Schwitters.
Kurt Schwitters was born on 20 June 1887, at No.2 Rumannstraße, Hanover, the only child of Edward Schwitters and his wife Henriette (née Beckemeyer). His parents were proprietors of a ladies’ clothes shop. They sold the business in 1898, using the money to buy five properties in Hanover which they rented out, allowing the family to live off the income for the rest of Schwitters’ life in Germany. In 1901 the family moved to Waldstraße (later Waldhausenstraße) 5, future site of the Merzbau. The same year, Schwitters suffered his first epileptic seizure, a condition that would exempt him from military service in World War I until the last stages of the conflict, when conscription began to be applied to a far wider section of the population.
After studying art at the Dresden Academy alongside Otto Dix and George Grosz, (although
Schwitters seems to have been unaware of their work, or indeed of contemporary Dresden artists Die Brücke), 1909–15, Schwitters returned to Hanover and started his artistic career as apost-impressionist. In 1911 he took part in his first exhibition, in Hanover. As the First World War progressed his work became darker, gradually developing a distinctive expressionist tone.
Schwitters spent the last one and half years of the war working as a technical draftsman in a factory just outside Hanover. He was drafted into the 73rd Hanoverian Regiment in March 1917, but exempted as unfit in June of the same year. By his own account, his time as a draftsman influenced his later work, using machines as metaphors of human activity.
“In the war [at the machine factory at Wülfen] I discovered my love for the wheel and recognized that machines are abstractions of the human spirit.”
He married his cousin Helma Fischer on 5 October 1915. Their first son, Gerd, died within a week of birth, 9 September 1916; their second, Ernst, was born on 16 November 1918, and was to remain close to his father for the rest of his life, up to and including a shared exile in Britain together.
In 1918, his art was to change dramatically as a direct consequence of Germany’s economic, political, and military collapse at the end of the First World War.
“In the war, things were in terrible turmoil. What I had learned at the academy was of no use to me and the useful new ideas were still unready…. Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments; and this is Merz. It was like a revolution within me, not as it was, but as it should have been.”
Schwitters was to come into contact with Herwarth Walden after exhibiting expressionist paintings at the Hanover Secession in
February 1918. He showed two Abstraktionen (semi-abstract expressionist landscapes) at Walden’s gallery Der Sturm, Berlin, June 1918, which led directly to meetings with members of the Berlin Avant-garde, including Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch, and Hans Arp in the autumn of 1918.
“[I remember] the night he introduced himself in the Café des Westens. “I’m a painter,” he said, “and I nail my pictures together.” Raoul Hausmann
Whilst Schwitters still created work in an expressionist style into 1919 (and would continue to paint realist pictures up to his death in 1948), the first abstract collages, influenced in particular by recent works by Hans Arp, would appear in late 1918, which Schwitters dubbed Merz after a fragment of found text from the sentence Commerz Und Privatbank in his picture Das Merzbild, Winter 1918–19. By the end of 1919 he’d become famous, after his first one-man exhibition at Der Sturm gallery, June 1919, and the publication that August of the poem An Anna Blume (usually translated as ‘To Anna Flower’, or ‘To Eve Blossom’), a dadaist non-sensical love poem. As Schwitters’s first overtures to Zurich and Berlin Dada made explicit mention of Merz pictures, there are no grounds for the widespread claim that he invented Merz because he was rejected by Berlin Dada.
Schwitters asked to join Berlin Dada either in late 1918 or early 1919, according to the memoirs of Raoul Hausmann. Hausmann claimed thatRichard Huelsenbeck rejected the application because of Schwitters’ links to Der Sturm and to Expressionism in general, which were seen by the Dadaists as hopelessly romantic and obsessed with aesthetics. Ridiculed by Huelsenbeck as ‘the Caspar David Friedrich of the Dadaist Revolution’, he would reply with an absurdist short story Franz Mullers Drahtfrühling, Ersters Kapitel: Ursachen und Beginn der grossen glorreichen Revolution in Revon published in Der Sturm (xiii/11, 1922), which featured an innocent bystander who started a revolution ‘merely by being there’.
Hausmann’s anecdote about Schwitters asking to join Berlin Dada is, however, somewhat dubious, for there is well-documented
evidence that Schwitters and Huelsenbeck were on amicable terms at first. When they first met in 1919, Huelsenbeck was enthusiastic about Schwitters’s work and promised his assistance, while Schwitters reciprocated by finding an outlet for Huelsenbeck’s Dada publications. When Huelsenbeck visited him at the end of the year, Schwitters gave him a lithograph (which he kept all his life) and though their friendship was by now strained, Huelsenbeck wrote him a conciliatory note. “You know I am well-disposed towards you. I think too that certain disagreements we have both noticed in our respective opinions should not be an impediment to our attack on the common enemy, the bourgeoisie and philistinism.” It was not until mid-1920 that the two men fell out, either because of the success of Schwitters’s poem ‘An Anna Blume’ (which Huelsenbeck considered unDadaistic) or because of quarrels about Schwitters’ contribution to Dadaco, a projected Dada atlas edited by Huelsenbeck. It is unlikely that Schwitters ever considered joining Berlin Dada, however, for he was under contract to Der Sturm, which offered far better long-term opportunities than Dada’s quarrelsome and erratic venture. If Schwitters contacted Dadaists at this time, it was generally because he was searching for opportunities to exhibit his work,
Though not a direct participant in Berlin Dada’s activities, Schwitters employed Dadaist ideas in his work, used the word itself on
the cover of An Anna Blume, and would later give Dada recitals throughout Europe on the subject with Theo van Doesburg, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp and Raoul Hausmann. In many ways his work was more in tune with Zürich Dada’s championing of performance and abstract art than Berlin Dada’s agit-prop approach, and indeed examples of his work were published in the last Zürich Dada publication, Der Zeltweg, November 1919, alongside the work of Arp and Sophie Tauber. Whilst his work was far less political than key figures in Berlin Dada, such as George Grosz and John Heartfield, he would remain close friends with various members, including Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, for the rest of his career.
In 1922 Theo van Doesburg organised a series of Dada performances in the Netherlands. Various members of Dada were invited to
join, but declined. Eventually the programme comprised acts and performances by Theo Van Doesburg, Nelly van Doesburg as Petrò Van Doesburg, Kurt Schwitters and sometimes Vilmos Huszàr. The Dada performances took place in various cities, amongst which Amsterdam, Leiden, Utrecht and The Hague. Schwitters also performed on solo evenings, one of which took place in April 1923 in Drachten, Friesland. Schwitters later on visited Drachten quite frequently, staying with a local painter, Thijs Rinsema. Schwitters created several collages there, probably together with Thijs Rinsema. Their collages can sometimes hardly be distinuished from each other.
Merz has been called ‘Psychological Collage’. Most of the works attempt to make coherent aesthetic sense of the world around Schwitters, using fragments of found objects. These fragments often make witty allusions to current events. (Merzpicture 29a, Picture with Turning Wheel, 1920 for instance, combines a series of wheels that only turn clockwise, alluding to the general drift Rightwards across Germany after the Spartacist Uprising in January that year, whilst Mai 191(9), alludes to the strikes organized by the Bavarian Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council.) Autobiographical elements also abound; test prints of graphic designs; bus tickets; ephemera given by friends. Later collages would feature proto-pop mass media images. (En Morn, 1947, for instance, has a print of a blonde young girl included, prefiguring the early work of Eduardo Paolozzi, whilst many works seem to have directly influenced Robert Rauschenberg, who said after seeing an exhibition of Schwitters’ work at the Sidney Janis Gallery, 1959, that “I felt like he made it all just for me.”)
Whilst these works were usually collages incorporating found objects, such as bus tickets, old wire and fragments of newsprint,
Merz also included artists’ periodicals, sculptures, sound poems and what would later be called “installations”. Schwitters was to use the term Merz for the rest of the decade, but, as Isabel Schulz has noted, ‘though the fundamental compositional principles of Merz remained the basis and centre of [Schwitters’] creative work […] the term Merz disappears almost entirely from the titles of his work after 1931’.
In March 1947, Schwitters decided to recreate the Merzbau and found a suitable location in a barn at Cylinders Farm, Elterwater, which was owned by Harry Pierce, whose portrait Schwitters had been commissioned to paint. Having been forced by a lack of other income to paint portraits and popularist landscape pictures suitable for sale to the local residents and tourists, Schwitters received notification shortly before his 60th birthday that he had been awarded a £1,000 fellowship to be transferred to him via the Museum of Modern Art in New York in order to enable him to repair or re-create his previous Merz constructions in Germany or Norway. Instead he used it for the “Merzbarn” in Elterwater. Schwitters worked on the Merzbarn daily, travelling the five miles between his home and the barn, except for when illness kept him away. On 7 January 1948 he received the news that he had been granted British citizenship. The following day, on 8 January, Schwitters died from acute pulmonary edema and myocarditis, in Kendal Hospital.
He was buried on 10 January at St. Mary’s Church, Ambleside. His grave was unmarked until 1966 when a stone was erected with the inscription Kurt Schwitters – Creator of Merz. The stone remains as a memorial even though his body was disinterred and reburied in the Engesohde Cemetery in Hanover in 1970, the grave being marked with a marble copy of his 1929 sculptureDie Herbstzeitlose.
This is just an excerpt from a very extensive biography from wikipedia.
I decided to do a collage mixed media piece in honor of Kurt Schwitters. I had fun piecing together the various things I wanted to paste onto the canvas…including a black feather! I hope you enjoy my tribute to this wonderful man who was a big part of starting an art movement that’s still celebrated and used today by so many people. I will see you tomorrow on Day 80! Best, Linda