Kurt Schwitters

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.

Merz by Kurt Schwitters
“Kurt Schwitters – Merz Blauer Vogel (Blue Bird) (1922)” by Playing Futures: Applied Nomadology licensed under CC BY 2.0

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.

Merz Barn
“Merz Barn” by poppet with a camera licensed under CC BY 2.0

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.