The Art Story.org - Your Guide to Modern Art

MovementsArtistsTimelinesIdeasBlog
Artists Kurt Schwitters

Kurt Schwitters

German Painter, Collagist, and Writer

Movement: Dada

Born: June 20, 1887 - Hanover, Germany

Died: January 8, 1948 - Kendel, Cumbria, England

Quotes

"Art is a primordial concept, exalted as the godhead, inexplicable as life, indefinable and without purpose"
Kurt Schwitters
"In the war [at the machine factory at Wulfen] I discovered my love for the wheel and recognized that machines are abstractions of the human spirit."
Kurt Schwitters
"Merz stands for freedom from all fetters, for the sake of artistic creation. Freedom is not lack of restraint, but the product of strict artistic discipline."
Kurt Schwitters
"The artist creates by choosing, distributing, and reshaping the materials."
Kurt Schwitters
"I felt myself freed and had to shout my jubilation out to the world. Out of parsimony I took whatever I found to do this because we were now an impoverished country. One can even shout with refuse, and this is what I did, nailing and gluing it together. I called it 'Merz': it was a prayer about the victorious end of the war .. everything had broken down .. and new things had to be made out of the fragments: and this is Merz.
Kurt Schwitters
"I could see no reason why used tram tickets, bits of driftwood, buttons and old junk from attics and rubbish heaps should not serve well as materials for paintings; they suited the purpose just as well as factory-made paints... It is possible to cry out using bits of old rubbish, and that's what I did, gluing and nailing them together."
Kurt Schwitters
"Merz art strives for immediate expression by shortening the path from intuition to visual manifestation of the artwork.. ..they will receive my new work as they always have when something new presents itself: with indignation and screams of scorn."
Kurt Schwitters
"Any desire to reproduce natural forms .. limits the force and consistency of working out an expression."
Kurt Schwitters
"The picture is a self-sufficient work of art. It is not connected to anything outside."
Kurt Schwitters

"Merz, means to create connections, preferably between everyting in this world"

Synopsis

Directly affected by the depressed state of Germany following World War I, and the modernist ethos of the Dada movement, Kurt Schwitters began to collect garbage from the streets and incorporate it directly into his art work. The resulting collages were characterized by their especially harmonious, sentimental arrangements and their incorporation of printed media. He actively produced artistic journals, illustrated works, and advertisements, as well as founding his own Merz journal. He wrote poems and musical works that played with letters, lacing them together in unusual combinations, as he'd done in the collages, in the hope of encouraging his audience to find their own meanings. His multiple avant-garde efforts culminated in his large merzbau creations. These works, collaborations with other avant-garde artists, would start with one object to which others were added, causing the whole piece to change and evolve over time, growing to great proportions that forced the viewer to actually experience, rather than simply view, the art.

Key Ideas

Schwitters used actual trash, such as broken items and scraps of paper, in his collages. Although the use of found objects aligns him with other branches of Dada, his bold dependence on society's throw-aways provoked additional associations on the part of the viewer and differentiated his expression. Ultimately, he investigated links between seemingly unconnected objects and ideas.
Instead of honoring the age-old tradition of giving precedent to text and containing visual imagery to set areas by essentially dividing the page into quadrants, Schwitters' print work exhibits a lack of order: his advertisements, artwork, and text are placed in unexpected areas. As a result, the space left between draws equal attention to the text and images themselves, challenging the organizational hierarchy by which printed documents were formerly governed.
Schwitters' work was critical in the early development of experiential art. His Merzbau, for example, created through collaboration with other artists and evolving with the constant addition of elements, were a kind of walk-in collage necessitating the viewer to assume an active role in the work's interpretation and significance.
In a very different format, but with similarly exploratory goals, Schwitters created a poem he called Ursonate, a musical composition composed of letters strung together into sounds, not words, which compelled the audience to create her own connections and draw her own significance. Schwitters' part in modernism is emphasized in this auditory performance work as well as the visual oeuvre, both encouraging the audience to find a way to draw their own conclusions; to enable them to find a better world beyond the depressed one in which they lived between the wars.

Most Important Art

Revolving (1919)
This work demonstrates a significant shift in Schwitters' early artistic practice from primarily conservative figurative painting to abstract collage. After World War I, Schwitters began to collect broken and discarded materials he found on the streets and arrange them into works of art. Born from the rubble left by the war, these works emphasize the fact that art can be made from destruction; that urban detritus could be made into something beautiful. In Revolving, found items are organized to form lines and shapes to which he adds bits of yellow and blue paint for shading. He creates a geometrically harmonious work by finding a careful balance between the physical roughness of the found materials and the smooth shapes they form. The concept that attaching small objects (not to mention - garbage) to the surface of the canvas could be considered art was radical. Yet Schwitters was convinced that the act of taking broken fragments and unifying them into a whole demonstrated art's potential to remake and reimagine a fractured world. Additionally, it enabled him to reject conventional illusionism, the rendering of objects as they appear, something he associated with trickery and even hypocrisy in light of the crumbling socio-economic situation in Germany following World War I.
Read More ...

Kurt Schwitters Artworks in Focus:


By submitting the above you agree to The Art Story privacy policy.

Biography

Childhood

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.

Early Training

Kurt Schwitters Biography

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.

Mature Period

Kurt Schwitters Photo

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.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Kurt Schwitters Biography Continues

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 bald, 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 Cafe 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.

Late Period

Kurt Schwitters Portrait

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.


Legacy

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.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Kurt Schwitters
Interactive chart with Kurt Schwitters's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
View Influences Chart

Artists

Pablo Picasso
Georges Braque
El Lissitzky
Hans Arp

Friends

Theo van Doesburg
Raoul Hausmann
Tristan Tzara
Richard Huelsenbeck

Movements

Cubism
Dada
De Stijl
Kurt Schwitters
Kurt Schwitters
Years Worked: 1917 - 1948

Artists

Jasper Johns
Robert Rauschenberg
Ed Ruscha
Arman
Joseph Beuys

Friends

Hans Arp
Theo van Doesburg
Hannah Höch
Francis Picabia
Tristan Tzara

Movements

Dada
Pop Art
Conceptual Art
Installation Art
Performance Art

Useful Resources on Kurt Schwitters

Books
Websites
Articles
Videos
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.
biography
Kurt Schwitters: A Journey Through Art

By Gwendolen Webster, Roger Cardinal

Kurt Schwitters: Space, Image, Exile

By Megan R. Luke

Kurt Schwitters: Artist Philosopher

By Mel Gooding

Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage (Menil Collection)

By Isabel Schulz and Josef Helfenstein

More Interesting Books about Kurt Schwitters
In Search of Lost Art: Kurt Schwitters's Merzbau

Information on Maerzbau, and it's significance

Kurt Schwitters: Reconstructions of the Merzbau

Description of Tate Modern's attempt to re-create Merzbau

Some words to Kurt Schwitters' Ursonate

By Jaap Blonk
Published in a catalogue for the exhibition "Kurt Schwitters in Norway"
September 2009

Kurt Schwitters: the pop art pioneer who brought order to chaos

By Phillip Oltermann
The Guardian
January 19, 2013

The sorrows of Kurt Schwitters

By Hilton Kramer
The New Criterion
October 1985

Kurt Schwitters - Collages, Paintings, Drawings, Objects, Ephemera

By Grace Glueck
New York Times
April 18th 2003

Kurt Schwitters Interned | Animating the Archives

Video by Tate exploring Kurt Schwitter's time in Hutchinson Internment Camp (1940 - 41) featuring letters, pamphlets and sketches donated to the archive by fellow internee Klaus Hinrichsen and recollections from his widow.

TateShots: Kurt Schwitters' Portraits

If you see an error or typo, pls
tell us
Cite this page

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised by Caroline Igra

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised by Caroline Igra
Available from:
[Accessed ]

Dada
Dada
Dada
Dada was an artistic and literary movement that emerged in 1916. It arose in reaction to World War I, and the nationalism and rationalism that many thought had led to the War. Influenced by several avant-gardes - Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Expressionism - its output was wildly diverse, ranging from performance art to poetry, photography, sculpture, painting and collage. Emerging first in Zurich, it spread to cities including Berlin, Hanover, Paris, New York and Cologne.
TheArtStory: Dada
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism
Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
TheArtStory: Cubism
Raoul Hausmann
Raoul Hausmann
Raoul Hausmann
Raoul Hausmann was an Austrian artist and writer. He was a key figure in the Berlin Dada movement and on January 22, 1918 delivered his 'First Dada Speech in Germany.' Hausmann and Hannah Hoch were among the first artists to work in photomontage.
Raoul Hausmann
Hans Arp
Hans Arp
Hans Arp
Hans Arp (also known as Jean Arp) was a German-French artist who incorporated chance, randomness, and organic forms into his sculptures, paintings, and collages. He was involved with Zurich Dada, Surrealism, and the Abstraction-Creation movement.
TheArtStory: Hans Arp
Theo van Doesburg
Theo van Doesburg
Theo van Doesburg
Theo van Doesburg was a Dutch artist, who together with Piet Mondrian established the De Stijl movement. Van Doesburg's most famous work experimented with geometric abstraction and archetypal forms. He was also a prominent architect and writer.
TheArtStory: Theo van Doesburg
Hannah Höch
Hannah Höch
Hannah Höch
Hannah Hoch was a German-born Dada artist. She and Raoul Hausmann were among the first artists to work in photomontage. Hoch is most famous for her works dating from the Weimar years, most notably 1919's 'Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany,' which critiqued Weimar Germany.
TheArtStory: Hannah Höch
Tristan Tzara
Tristan Tzara
Tristan Tzara
Tristan Tzara was a Romanian and French poet, playwright, and avant-garde performer who played a key role in the development and founding of Dada. A proponent of pure automatic techniques, he had an at-times contentious relationship with the Surrealism's direction in Paris.
TheArtStory: Tristan Tzara
El Lissitzky
El Lissitzky
El Lissitzky
El Lissitzky was a Russian avant-garde painter, photographer, architect and designer. Along with his mentor Kazimir Malevich, Lissitzky helped found Suprematism. His art often employed the use of clean lines and simple geometric forms, and expressed a fascination with Jewish culture. Lissitzky was also a major influence on the Bauhaus school of artists and the Constructivist movement.
TheArtStory: El Lissitzky
Constructivism
Constructivism
Constructivism
Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
TheArtStory: Constructivism
De Stijl
De Stijl
De Stijl
Founded in the Netherlands in 1917, De Stijl was an avant-garde dedicated to isolating a single visual style that would be appropriate to all aspects of modern life, from art to design to architecture. Taking its name from a periodical, its most famous practitioners were Theo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, whose mature art employed geometric blocks of primary colors and vertical and horizontal lines.
TheArtStory: De Stijl
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns
Jasper Johns is an American artist who rose to prominence in the late 1950s for his multi-media constructions, dubbed by critics as Neo-Dada. Johns' work, including his world-famous targets and American flags series, were important predecessors to Pop art.
TheArtStory: Jasper Johns
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg
Robert Rauschenberg, a key figure in early Pop art, admired the textural quality of Abstract Expressionism but scorned its emotional pathos. His famous "Combines" are part sculpture, part painting, and part installation.
TheArtStory: Robert Rauschenberg
Claes Oldenburg
Claes Oldenburg
Claes Oldenburg
The Swedish-American artist and architect Claes Oldenburg, an early figure in New York happenings and Pop art, is best known for his floppy sculptures and larger-than-life public works of consumer goods, musical instruments, and everyday objects.
TheArtStory: Claes Oldenburg
Happenings
Happenings
Happenings
The term "happening" was coined by artist Allan Kaprow in 1957 to decribe a series of multi-media artworks on display in a single locale. In general, a happening is an art event, often staged or pre-scripted, that requires active participation from an audience to come to full fruition. This relatively new form of artistic media could be called participatory.
TheArtStory: Happenings
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
TheArtStory: Pablo Picasso
Georges Braque
Georges Braque
Georges Braque
Georges Braque was a modern French painter who, along with Pablo Picasso, developed analytic Cubism and Cubist collage in the early twentieth century.
TheArtStory: Georges Braque
Richard Huelsenbeck
Richard Huelsenbeck
Richard Huelsenbeck
Richard Huelsenbeck was a German poet, writer and musician. He was a founding member of the Berlin Dada group and was the editor of the Dada Almanach. When he later moved to New York City, he practiced Jungian psychoanalysis under the name Charles R. Hulbeck.
Richard Huelsenbeck
Ed Ruscha
Ed Ruscha
Ed Ruscha
Ed Ruscha is recognized as one of the leading figures of Pop art and Conceptualism on the West Coast. From his iconic images of gasoline stations to his 'word paintings,' his work is deeply influenced by the graphic arts and deals largely with themes of commercial culture, language, and the mundane.
TheArtStory: Ed Ruscha
Arman
Arman
Arman
Born Armand Pierre Fernandez, Arman is a French painter who moved from using the objects as paintbrushes, to using them as the painting itself. He is best known for his "accumulations" and destruction/recomposition of objects.
TheArtStory: Arman
Joseph Beuys
Joseph Beuys
Joseph Beuys
Joseph Beuys was a German multi- and mixed-media artist best known for incorporating ideas of humanism, social philosophy and politics into his art. Beuys practiced everything from installation and performance art to traditional painting and "social sculpture." He was continually motivated by the belief of universal human creativity.
TheArtStory: Joseph Beuys
Francis Picabia
Francis Picabia
Francis Picabia
Francis Picabia was a French artist who worked in Dada, Surrealist, and abstract modes, often employing language and mechanical imagery. He published the Dada journal 391 in Barcelona and America.
TheArtStory: Francis Picabia
Pop Art
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
TheArtStory: Pop Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
TheArtStory: Conceptual Art
Installation Art
Installation Art
Installation Art
Installation art is a genre of contemporary art-making in which two- and three-dimensional materials are used to transform a particular site. Installations may include sculptural, found, sound-based, and performance elements, and can be permanent or ephemeral.
Installation Art
Performance Art
Performance Art
Performance Art
Performance is a genre in which art is presented "live," usually by the artist but sometimes with collaborators or performers. It has had a role in avant-garde art throughout the twentieth century, playing an important part in anarchic movements such as Futurism and Dada. It particularly flourished in the 1960s, when Performance artists became preoccupied with the body, but it continues to be an important aspect of art practice.
TheArtStory: Performance Art
Did we succeed in explaining the art to you?
If Yes, please tell others about us: