Kurt Schwitters

Kurt Schwitters was certainly the odd man out of German Dada. He lived, not in Berlin like the others, but in Hanover where he created a self-enclosed world from his many varied artistic outpourings. At a fairly early stage he was seen by the more politically motivated Dadaists as too petit bourgeois for those revolutionary times, but Schwitters was always his own man and thrived in this relative isolation. As he was not an accepted Dadaist, he started to call himself and his artistic output “Merz” (from a cut-up fragment of newspaper that had originally read “Kommerz”.)

Whereas the raw material of most of the Dada montage of the times was photographic and relevant, Schwitters took his from the streets. The montages, collages and assemblages that he constructed from all this gathered refuse have an extraordinary integrity of vision, but they are certainly not in any way political, and it is easy to understand how Schwitters’ comfortable artistic sensibility may have alienated the likes of Heartfield and Grosz.

The centre of the Schwitters’ universe was his house in Hanover, and as of 1923, possibly influenced by the architectural concerns of Russian Constructivists like El Lissitzky, he began to construct his ultimate work of art. This began as disparate pieces of collage and assemblages round the studio walls, which over time were connected by string, then wire, then wood, and finally plastered wood. His “Merzbau” gradually took over the downstairs and when it required more space for expansion, Schwitters cut a hole in the ceiling and gave notice to his upstairs lodgers. Into the individual “grottos” of the Merzbau Schwitters placed a bizarre collection of objects gathered from his friends and fellow artists, anything from a stolen sock to a broken pencil.

Like most German artists, Schwitters was driven out of Germany by the Nazis, and after a spell in Norway, he came to live in the English Lake District where he died in 1948. The original Hanover Merzbau having been destroyed by allied bombing in 1943, he set about making his final work on the wall of a barn at Ambleside. This has now been purchased by Newcastle University and was lovingly transferred to a gallery there where it can still be seen.


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