Kurt Schwitters

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Kurt Schwitters performs Ursonate in London, 1944.
Born June 20, 1887(1887-06-20)
Hanover, Germany
Died January 8, 1948(1948-01-08) (aged 60)
Kendal, Cumbria, England
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Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) was a painter, sculptor, designer and writer and worked in several genres and media, including Dada, Constructivism, Surrealism, poetry, sound, painting, sculpture, graphic design, typography, and what came to be known as installation art. Between 1923-32, Schwitters edited the magazine Merz.

Life and work[edit]

Bild mit heller Mitte [Picture with Light Center], 1919. Cut-and-pasted colored paper and printed paper, oil, and pencil on paperboard. 84.5 x 65.7 cm. MoMA.
Anna Blume. Dichtungen, 1919, PDFs.
Merz 2(8/9): Nasci, eds. Lissitzky & Schwitters, Apr-Jul 1924, PDF, JPGs.
Merzbau in Hannover, 1933. Photo: Wilhelm Redemann.
For Kate, 1947. Collage. 9.8 x 13 cm. Private collection.

Kurt Hermann Eduard Karl Julius Schwitters was born into a well-off family of shopkeepers in the provincial bourgeois city of Hannover. He began studying art at the School of Applied Arts in Hannover in 1908, and from 1909 to 1914 attended the Dresden Art Academy, where he studied traditional oil painting techniques and produced numerous landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. Although Schwitters would become known for his innovative experiments with new media like collage, assemblage, and installation art, he continued to paint traditional pictures throughout his life, often to earn money.

When war broke out, Schwitters returned to Hannover. Drafted, he was then declared unfit for active duty in 1917 when, according to his account, he pretended to be stupid and then bribed an army doctor. He was assigned to perform auxiliary military service, first as a clerical office worker, and then as a mechanical draftsman at an ironworks outside Hannover. He continued to work on his painting and began to write poetry, both of which, though influenced by cubism and expressionism, were also indebted to the German romantic tradition. In 1918, through the Kestner Society, an organization founded in Hannover in 1916 to promote the exhibition and discussion of modern art, Schwitters made contact with Herwarth Walden, whose Sturm Gallery and magazine in Berlin were devoted to promoting expressionism. Schwitters showed two abstract paintings at a group show at Sturm Gallery in June 1918.

Over the winter of 1918-1919, Schwitters began making abstract assemblages and collages from materials he found or accumulated in his daily life--ration cards, string, paper doilies, newspaper fragments, streetcar tickets, and other bits of discarded refuse. Schwitters named his new pictures "Merz" after a fragment of the phrase "Kommerz-und Privatbank" that appeared in one of his first assemblages, and adopted the term to describe all of his artistic activities. Although influenced to make collages by Hans Arp, Schwitters' works far surpass Arp's in the sheer variety of stuff incorporated, borrowing the language and strategies of commercial culture in order to reevaluate the relationship between art and everyday life.

In July 1919 Schwitters first exhibited the Merz pictures at Sturm Gallery and published a programmatic statement on Merz painting in Der Sturm magazine. His affiliation with Sturm and the active adoption of his own brand name kept Schwitters from being accepted into the inner circle of Berlin dadaists, though he became good friends with Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch. He tirelessly promoted Merz, popularizing his poem, An Anna Blume by pasting it up in the streets of Hannover as a poster, and then publishing it in Der Sturm and as a separate edition. Anna Blume became a renowned figure. Schwitters included her character in other short stories and poems, and capitalized on her popularity to advertise Merz as the recognizable brand name of Hannover Dada.

In 1923 Schwitters launched Merz magazine. The first issue was devoted to the De Stijl-Dada tour that Schwitters organized with Theo van Doesburg, and subsequent issues featured contributions from Höch, Arp, and Tristan Tzara. In addition to being a medium for the exchange of ideas between dadaists, Merz also functioned as a juncture between Dada and international constructivism, as in the 1924 collaboration between Schwitters and El Lissitzky on Merz 8-9, "Nasci"; Schwitters also used the magazine to further promote his poetry, which had developed after 1921 from parodies of expressionist sentimental lyrics like An Anna Blume to abstract sound poetry. In 1932 he published his most famous sound poem, the Ursonate, as a 29-page special issue of Merz. Remarkably, he also recorded his performance of the Ursonate, which gains much of its appeal from his inimitable delivery.

One of Schwitters' goals with Merz was the achievement of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art that would encompass painting, poetry, sculpture, theater, and architecture. Around 1923, he began work on the construction of what would become his Merzbau, an installation in his home in Hannover (formerly the 19th-century home of his parents) that gradually took over his studio and encroached onto the other rooms of the house. Constructed of a series of grottoes that Schwitters filled with borrowed and stolen objects from friends and family and then covered over with further construction, the Merzbau became a lifelong project of accumulation and memorialization.

In 1937, after his works were confiscated from German museums and shown in Entartete Kunst, the "Degenerate Art" exhibition, Schwitters emigrated to Norway, where he began a new Merzbau project. He remained in Norway until 1940 when the German invasion forced him to flee to England. After a 17-month internment on the Isle of Man, he moved to the English countryside, where he continued to make collages and assemblages. In 1943 Allied bombs hit Schwitters' house in Hannover, destroying the Merzbau. Shortly before he died, he began work on a new Merz construction in a barn near his home in England supported by a grant from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. (Source)



  • editor, Merz, 21 numbers, Hannover, 1923-1932.
  • Ursonate, Hannover: Merzverlag, 1932, [44] pp, KHZ. (German)


  • Schwitters In Britain, eds. Emma Chambers and Karin Orchard, London: Tate Publishing, 2013. Review: Spens (Studio Intl). Exh.review: Cooke (Observer). (English)



  • John Elderfield, Kurt Schwitters, London: Thames and Hudson, 1985, 424 pp. (English)


See also[edit]