Biography of Kurt Schwitters, German Collage Artist

kurt schwitters landscape
Untitled (1947). Kurt Schwitters / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Kurt Schwitters (June 20, 1887 - January 8, 1948) was a German collage artist who anticipated many later movements in modernist art, including the use of found objects, Pop Art, and art installations. Initially influenced by Dadaism, he created his own style, which he called Merz. He used found objects and items others considered garbage to create aesthetically appealing works of art.

Fast Facts: Kurt Schwitters

  • Full Name: Kurt Hermann Eduard Karl Julius Schwitters
  • Occupation: Collage artist and painter
  • Born: June 20, 1887 in Hanover, Germany
  • Died: January 8, 1948 in Kendal, England
  • Parents: Eduard Schwitters and Henriette Beckemeyer
  • Spouse: Helma Fischer
  • Child: Ernst Schwitters
  • Selected Works: "Revolving" (1919), "Construction for Noble Ladies" (1919), "The Merzbau" (1923-1937)
  • Notable Quote: "The picture is a self-sufficient work of art. It is not connected to anything outside."

Early Life and Career

Kurt Schwitters was born into a middle-class family in Hanover, Germany. At age 14, he suffered an epileptic seizure, a condition that recurred throughout much of his life and had a significant impact on the way he looked at the world.

Schwitters began studying art at the Dresden Academy in 1909 seeking a traditional career as a painter. In 1915, when he returned to Hanover, his work reflected a post-impressionist style, showing no impact from modernist movements such as cubism.

In October 1915, he married Helma Fischer. They had one son who died as an infant and a second son, Ernst, born in 1918.

Initially, Kurt Schwitters' epilepsy exempted him from military service in World War I, but as conscription expanded late in the war, he faced enlistment. Schwitters didn't serve in battle, but he spent the last 18 months of the war serving as a technical draftsman in a factory.

kurt schwitters
Genja Jonas / Public Domain

First Collages

The economic and political collapse of the German government at the end of World War I had a profound impact on Karl Schwitters' art. His painting turned toward Expressionist ideas, and he began picking up litter in the streets as found objects to incorporate into works of art.

Schwitters gained the attention of other artists in postwar Berlin with his first one-person exhibition at Der Sturm Gallery. He created a non-sensical Dada-influenced poem, "An Anna Blume," for the event and displayed his first collage works. Through the use of items that others would consider garbage, Schwitters illustrated his idea that art could emerge from destruction.

kurt schwitters construction for noble ladies
Construction for Noble Ladies (1919). Kurt Schwitters / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Kurt Schwitters was suddenly a respected member of the Berlin avant-garde. Two of his closest contemporaries were Austrian artist and writer Raoul Hausmann and German-French artist Hans Arp.

Merz or Psychological Collage

While he engaged directly with many artists in the Dada movement, Kurt Schwitters devoted himself to the development of his own style that he labeled Merz. He adopted the name when he found a piece of an advertisement from the local bank or kommerz that contained only the last four letters.

The Merz magazine first appeared in 1923. It helped solidify Schwitters' place in the European art world. He supported lectures and performances by a wide range of Dada artists, musicians, and dancers. He often created collages to help advertise the events.

The Merz collage style is also often called "psychological collage." Kurt Schwitters' work avoids non-sensical construction by trying to make sense of the world with a harmonious juxtaposition of found objects. The materials included sometimes made witty references to current events, and other times were autobiographical including bus tickets and items given to the artist by friends.

In 1923, Kurt Schwitters began the construction of the Merzbau, one of the most ambitious of his Merz projects. He ultimately transformed six rooms of his family's house in Hanover. The process was a gradual one and involved contributions of art and objects from Schwitters' ever-expanding network of friends. He completed the first room in 1933 and expanded from there into other parts of the house until fleeing to Norway in 1937. A bombing raid destroyed the building in 1943.

merzbau kurt schwitters
Merzbau. Sprengel Museum / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In the 1930s, Kurt Schwitters' reputation spread internationally. His work appeared in two landmark 1936 exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936. One show was titled Cubism and Abstract Art and the other Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism.

Exile from Germany

In 1937, the Nazi government in Germany labeled Kurt Schwitters' work "degenerate" and confiscated it from museums. On January 2, 1937, after finding out that he was wanted for an interview with the Gestapo, Schwitters fled to Norway to join his son who left a week earlier. His wife, Helma, stayed behind in Germany to manage their property. She visited Norway regularly until the outbreak of World War II in September 1939. The last time Kurt and Helma saw each other was a family celebration in Oslo, Norway in June 1939. Helma died in 1944 of cancer before World War II ended.

After Nazi Germany invaded and occupied Norway in 1940, Schwitters escaped to Scotland with his son and daughter-in-law. As a German national, he was subject to a series of interments by the U.K. authorities in Scotland and England until he eventually arrived at Hutchinson Square in Douglas on the Isle of Man on July 17, 1940.

dadaists germany kurt schwitters
Dadaists in Germany including Kurt Schwitters. Apic / Getty Images

A collection of terraced houses around Hutchinson Square served as an internment camp. Most of those in residence were German or Austrian. It soon became known as an artist's camp since so many internees were artists, writers, and other intellectuals. Kurt Schwitters soon became one of the most prominent residents of the camp. He soon opened up studio space and took on art students, many of whom later became successful artists.

Schwitters earned release from the camp in November 1941, and he moved to London. There he met Edith Thomas, the companion of his last years. Kurt Schwitters met a number of other artists in London including British abstract artist Ben Nicholson and Hungarian modernist pioneer Laszlo Moholy-Nagy.

Later Life

In 1945, Kurt Schwitters moved to the Lake District of England with Edith Thomas for the last stage of his life. He moved into new territory in his painting creating what are considered precursors to the later Pop Art movement in a series titled For Kate after his friend, art historian Kate Steinitz.

Schwitters spent many of his last days working on what he called the "Merzbarn" in Elterwater, England. It was a recreation of the spirit of the destroyed Merzbau. To maintain his income, he was forced to paint portraits and landscape pictures that could be sold easily to residents and tourists. These show a heavy influence from his Post-Impressionist past. Kurt Schwitters died on January 8, 1948, from chronic heart and lung disease.

The Cathedral by Kurt Schwitters
'This is a cover of a book of 8 lithographs entitled ''Die Kathedrale,'' published in Hanover in 1920. This publication was created as response to the Dadaism included in the periodical ''Dada: Receuil litteraire et artistique'' by Tristan Tzara. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Legacy and Influence

Whether intentional or not, Kurt Schwitters was a pioneer anticipating many later developments in modernist art. His use of found materials anticipated the later collage work of artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. He believed that art couldn't be and shouldn't be restricted to a frame on a wall. That point of view impacted the later development of installation and performance art. The series For Kate is considered proto-pop art through its use of a comic book art style.

kurt schwitters collage
Merzzeichnung 47 (1920). Kurt Schwitters / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Arguably, the most complete representation of Schwitters' artistic point of view was his beloved Merzbau. It allowed those in the building to immerse themselves in an aesthetic environment composed of found objects, autobiographical references, and the contributions of friends and acquaintances.

Sources

  • Schulz, Isabel. Kurt Schwitters: Color and Collage. The Merrill Collection, 2010.