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Artists Kurt Schwitters
Kurt Schwitters Photo

Kurt Schwitters

German Painter, Collagist, and Writer

Movement: Dada

Born: June 20, 1887 - Hanover, Germany

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

Kurt Schwitters Timeline

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"

Kurt Schwitters Signature

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

Kurt Schwitters Famous 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.
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Kurt Schwitters Artworks in Focus:

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.

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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 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.

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.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Pablo PicassoPablo Picasso
Georges BraqueGeorges Braque
El LissitzkyEl Lissitzky
Hans ArpHans Arp

Friends

Theo van DoesburgTheo van Doesburg
Raoul HausmannRaoul Hausmann
Tristan TzaraTristan Tzara
Richard HuelsenbeckRichard Huelsenbeck

Movements

CubismCubism
DadaDada
De StijlDe Stijl
Kurt Schwitters
Kurt Schwitters
Years Worked: 1917 - 1948

Artists

Jasper JohnsJasper Johns
Robert RauschenbergRobert Rauschenberg
Ed RuschaEd Ruscha
ArmanArman
Joseph BeuysJoseph Beuys

Friends

Hans ArpHans Arp
Theo van DoesburgTheo van Doesburg
Hannah HöchHannah Höch
Francis PicabiaFrancis Picabia
Tristan TzaraTristan Tzara

Movements

DadaDada
Pop ArtPop Art
Conceptual ArtConceptual Art
Installation ArtInstallation Art
Performance ArtPerformance Art

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Caroline Igra

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Synopsis and Key Ideas added by Caroline Igra
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Useful Resources on Kurt Schwitters

Books

Websites

Articles

Videos

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of 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 Recomended resource

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 Recomended resource

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 Recomended resource

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

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