Kurt Schwitters was born in Hanover, Germany, and trained as an artist in Dresden before moving back to Hanover to start his career as a post-impressionist.
His life and art were disrupted by the First World War, which made his work darker and it developed an expressionist tone. The collapse of Germany after the war ended further influenced his artistic output:
‘In the war, things were in terrible turmoil. What I had learned at the academy was of no use to me and the useful new ideas were still unready…. Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments; and this is Merz. It was like a revolution within me, not as it was, but as it should have been.’
– Excerpt from ‘The Collages of Kurt Schwitters’ Dietrich, Cambridge University Press 1993, p6-7
He produced his first abstract collages in 1918, which he called ‘“Merz”, a fragment of the word “Commerzbank.” He continued these collages alongside work as a as a commercial artist, graphic designer and typographer. He used rubbish materials such as labels, tickets, and bits of broken wood in his collages, which paved the way for later movements such as pop art.
Throughout the 1930s the political situation in Germany became more restrictive, and his work was labelled as ‘degenerate art’ – he lost his work with Hanover City Council in 1934 and his work was confiscated from museums. On 2nd January 1937 he fled to join his son in Norway, as he was wanted for an interview with the Gestapo.
After Nazi Germany invaded Norway he fled to the UK where he spent seventeen months in internment camps, with the longest period spent in Hutchinson camp in the Isle of Man. While there he signed a protest letter published during the internment debate by the New Statesman and Nation on August 28th, 1940:
‘Art cannot live behind barbed wire… the sense of grievous injustice done to us, the restlessness caused by living together with thousands of other men… prevent all work and creativity.’
Upon his release in November 1941 he moved to London. In an essay for the Tate Modern, Professor Sarah Wilson describes his time in England as, ‘both a death and a birth, a question of identity through time, of new and old languages.’
During his years in London, the shift in Schwitters’ work continued towards an organic element using natural forms and muted colours. In 1945 he moved to Ambleside in the Lake District, where he worked on a Merz Barn, one of four started in his lifetime, a modernist grotto with walls featuring sculptures and found objects.
On 7th January 1948 he heard that he had been granted British Citizenship. He died the next day of heart failure.
‘The language of Merz now finds common acceptance and today there is scarcely an artist working with materials other than paint who does not refer to Schwitters in some way. In his bold and wide-ranging experiments he can be seen as the grandfather of Pop Art, Happenings, Concept Art, Fluxus, multimedia art and post-modernism.’
– Excerpt from Gwendolyn Webster – “Artchive Online”. Artchive.com. 1948-01-08.
The rise of Hitler and increasingly restrictive environment in Nazi Germany caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee. The German annexation of Austria in March 1938 and increase in personal attacks on Jews followed by the nationwide pogrom Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass) in November and seizure of Jewish property caused around 36,000 Jews to leave Germany and Austria in 1938 and 77,000 in 1939.
On top of Jewish emigration, many academics, artists, authors and musicians whose work was labelled as ‘degenerate’ left for Europe or the United States as persecution increased throughout the decade. Degenerate was a term used to describe nearly all modern art, which was severely restricted.
When Britain went to war in September 1939 there were around 80,000 Germans and Austrians in the country who might support Germany as spies. The majority of these were Jews fleeing persecution. In the Spring of 1940 the situation in the UK was increasingly tense as Nazi Germany was gaining territory in Europe; when Churchill became Prime Minister a series of increasingly restrictive policies were introduced – eventually interning all citizens aged 16-70 from enemy nations, including Germany, Austria and Italy. These suspected enemies were sent to internment camps, the majority in the Isle of Man. They began to be released from 1940 onwards and many went on to serve Great Britain during the war in the armed forces.