Kurt Schwitters

Summary

Kurt Schwitters († January 8, 1948 in Kendal, Cumbria, England) was a German artist, painter, poet, spatial artist and commercial artist who developed a Dadaist “total world view” under the password Merz. His work includes the styles of Constructivism, Surrealism and Dadaism, to which they were similar only by opposites. From today”s perspective, Schwitters is one of the most influential artists of the early 20th century.

Kurt Schwitters was born in Hanover as the son of the married couple Eduard and Henriette Schwitters (née Beckemeyer) as a home birth on the first floor of Rumannstraße 2, the building with today”s house number 8. His father was co-owner of a ladies” clothing store, which he sold in 1898. He invested the proceeds in some tenement houses. In 1893, the Schwitters family moved to Waldstraße (later renamed Waldhausenstraße) in Döhren (Hanover). After attending the Realgymnasium in Hanover, Kurt graduated from high school in 1908 and studied for a short time at the Kunstgewerbeschule Hanover. After conventional Impressionist and Expressionist beginnings as a student of Carl Bantzer in the summer of 1909 at the Willingshausen Painters” Colony, Schwitters took courses until 1914 with Carl Bantzer and other professors, such as Emanuel Hegenbarth, who taught at the Royal Saxon Academy of Arts in Dresden. At the time, he was hardly aware of the artistic upheaval of the time, which was expressed in Italian Futurism, French Cubism, the Blaue Reiter, and the Brücke artists” group, which had already been founded in 1905.

After completing his studies, Schwitters married Helma Fischer in 1915. He was drafted for military service in World War I in March 1917 and due to his unstable health – he suffered from epilepsy and was prone to depression – was already discharged in June. Until November 1918 he was obliged to work as a technical draftsman in an ironworks. On September 9, 1916, his first son Gerd was born, but he died a few days later, on September 17, 1916. His second son Ernst was born on November 16, 1918. Also in 1918, he met Herwarth Walden and had his first exhibition at the latter”s gallery “Der Sturm” in Berlin, where, after an abbreviated recapitulation of Cubism and Expressionism, he showed the first “MERZ picture” in 1919. Other artists who exhibited there were Paul Klee, Johannes Molzahn and Magda Langenstraß-Uhlig. Until 1919 he studied two semesters of architecture in Hanover.

Schwitters was hardly involved politically, although he sympathized with the Novembergruppe, a radical group of artists founded in 1918. Since such a commitment was alien to him, he met with rejection from the politically influenced Berlin Dadaist group. Richard Huelsenbeck, in particular, took a negative view of Schwitters, later calling him “a genius in a robe” or the “Kaspar David Friedrich of the Dadaist revolution” in his Dada and Existentialism. However, relations between Huelsenbeck and Schwitters were initially friendly. At their first meeting in the spring of 1919, Huelsenbeck was enthusiastic about Schwitters”s work and offered his support; at the same time, Schwitters promised to find a publisher for Huelsenbeck”s Dada publications. Huelsenbeck visited Schwitters at the end of 1919 and received a lithograph as a gift, which he kept for the rest of his life. The relationship was now strained, however, although Huelsenbeck wrote a conciliatory letter in January 1920: “You know that I am quite friendly toward you. I also think that the certain contrast which you and I have been able to detect between our tendencies should not prevent us from acting together against the common enemy, bourgeoisie and philistinism.” The dispute did not begin until mid-1920, probably because of disagreements regarding Schwitters” planned contribution to Huelsenbeck”s (never published) Dada Atlas Dadaco. It is also very unlikely that Schwitters wanted to join the Berlin Dadabewegung, since he was under contract to Herwarth Walden”s Der Sturm; he was rather looking for an opportunity to exhibit his Merzbilder.

Since Schwitters” first contacts with both Berlin Dada and Zurich Dada explicitly mention his Merzbilder, there is no reason for the widespread opinion that the Dadaists” rejection encouraged Schwitters to invent his own Merz movement.

In any case, Schwitters was not admitted to the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920. He did, however, collaborate with the Dadaists Hans Arp, Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch, and Tristan Tzara, was the initiator of the Dada Hannover movement, and opened his own MERZ series of publications with a Dada number, Holland Dada. Schwitters, in contrast to the Dadaists who rejected art, saw his Merz art as art and defended Merz as an “absolutely individual hat that only fit on one head” – his own.

Schwitters used Merz to describe his technique of creating collages from newspaper clippings, advertisements, and trash. As a counter-project to the rather destructive Dadaism, these paintings and sculptures, created since 1919, were meant to stand for reconstruction, which places Schwitters close to Constructivism. The term “Merz” originated in a collage from an advertisement of the “Kommerz und Privatbank” and evokes associations with “commerce,” “eradicate,” “joke,” “mink,” “heart” and the month of March, which stands for the beginning of spring.

The Merzbau (a grotto-like collage-room-sculpture with memorabilia), on which Schwitters worked for about twenty years mainly in his apartment in his parents” house in Waldhausenstraße, was destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943, as were many of his works. A reconstruction can be seen in the Sprengel Museum Hannover.

In 1928 Schwitters initiated the artists” association die abstrakten hannover. On March 12, 1928, the other founding members Hans Nitzschke, Friedel Vordemberge-Gildewart, Karl Buchheister and Rudolf Jahns met in his apartment at Waldhausenstraße 5 in the Waldhausen district of Hanover.

In 1932 Schwitters joined the SPD.

As a lyricist and writer, Kurt Schwitters also left behind an extensive body of work. Influenced in his youth by expressionists such as August Stramm, 1919 also marked the poet Schwitters” breakthrough into an independent style with the poem An Anna Blume. The large-scale sound poem Sonate in Urlauten (or Ursonate), which recreates the sonata form, also became well-known. A sound recording of this text has also been preserved by Schwitters, whose performance qualities were often praised. With phonetic or typographical poems, Schwitters attempted to merge various artistic genres. His narrative and dramatic texts are experimental and often humorous. The story Auguste Bolte plays with the constriction and alienation of educated bourgeois discourse and can be understood allegorically as a critique of art criticism.

Ostracized as “degenerate” by the National Socialists, Schwitters emigrated to Norway in January 1937, where he had already spent the summer months in the years before. Two more Merzbauten were built in Norway, in Lysaker (it should be noted that he only referred to the first one as a Merzbau). After the German invasion of Norway, he fled to England in 1940.

Schwitters was interned as an Enemy Alien in various camps in Scotland and England: for ten days in Midlothian, two weeks in Edinburgh, six weeks in York, about four weeks in Warth Mills Internment Camp in Bury, and from July 17 to November 21, 1941, in Hutchinson Internment Camp in Douglas on the Isle of Man, where he set up a studio in a small house. Here he lived together with Alfred Sohn-Rethel. Twice he portrayed Sohn-Rethel, the first time on a piece of floor wood that they tore from under a cupboard and turned into a canvas. Schwitters produced numerous portraits of fellow internees, published stories in the internees” magazine The Camp, and held regular concerts at the camp”s Künstler Café. There he met Fred Uhlman, painted his portrait, and became a member of the League of Free German Artists in Britain.

From 1945 he lived in Ambleside, in the Lake District of northern England. In Elterwater he constructed a last Merz building (Merz Barn), a work he did not finish, however. The wall collage created in the Merz Barn was taken to the Hatton Gallery at Newcastle University, where it can be seen. He had been struggling with serious health problems since 1944, when he suffered a stroke following a severe bout of influenza. In 1946 he suffered a physical breakdown and also fractured his neck of the femur.

Schwitters died on January 8, 1948, in the presence of Edith Thomas and Ernst Schwitters at Kendal Hospital in Kendal, Westmoreland County. Cause of death was pulmonary edema and myocarditis. He was buried in St. Mary”s Cemetery in nearby Ambleside. In 1970, Kurt Schwitters” remains were transferred to the Engesohde City Cemetery (Section 6) in his hometown of Hanover. It is in this cemetery that his satirical play Das Familiengrab (The Family Grave), written in 1946 while in exile, is set. The gravestone bears his motto “You never know.” His son Ernst († 1996 in Oslo) was also buried in the family grave in 1998.

After moving to northern England, Schwitters had placed his work with the Alfred H. Ungers family, who were friends of his, in their house (London, Belsize Park). After his father”s death, his son came to collect them there. Some of his works were shown posthumously at documenta 1 (1955), documenta II (1959), and documenta III in 1964 in Kassel.

Since 1996, the Kurt Schwitters Prize has been awarded to international artists on a biennial basis and is endowed with 25,000 euros.

In memory of Kurt Schwitters, the Kurt Schwitters High School in Hanover-Misburg, the LVR Kurt Schwitters School in Düsseldorf-Gerresheim and the Montessori-oriented Kurt Schwitters School in Berlin-Pankow were named after him. In addition, in Hanover, the joint library of the Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media and the Hanover University of Applied Sciences and Arts, the library in the Kurt Schwitters Forum at the EXPO Plaza was named after him. His hometown of Hanover honored him by naming the square in front of the Sprengel Museum with his name. In Wittmund, a street was named after him.

On November 4, 2021, a city plaque was unveiled by the city of Hanover in front of Kurt Schwitters” birthplace at Rumannstraße 8. On the front is information about his life and work, and on the back is the poem An Anna Blume.

Kurt Schwitters bequeathed over 600 works to his son Ernst Schwitters. Ernst commissioned the Marlborough Gallery in London to manage and sell the works in 1963. In 1995, Ernst suffered a stroke and died in 1996, leaving Kurt”s grandson Bengt Schwitters to manage the estate. Bengt Schwitters had “no interest in art or his grandfather”s works” and terminated the family”s agreement with the Marlborough Gallery. In 2000, after a long legal battle, the gallery was awarded 18 million Norwegian kroner in compensation.

As early as 1996, Bengt Schwitters and his mother Lola offered the Norwegian Ministry of Culture to transfer all the works to a foundation in order to preserve the collection of works completely and not to have to sell them because of tax demands. The Norwegian Ministry of Culture showed no interest. In 2001, the “Kurt-und-Ernst-Schwitters-Stiftung” (Kurt and Ernst Schwitters Foundation) was founded in Hanover, which took over about 350 abstract and 300 naturalistic works of art, as well as documentary material, books and sketches, and a large number of photographs by Ernst Schwitters. Only 2009

Numerous paintings by Schwitters can also be seen in the Museum Insel Hombroich near Neuss.

Editions of works

Fiction

Comic

Sources

  1. Kurt Schwitters
  2. Kurt Schwitters
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