Kurt Schwitters  

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Kurt Hermann Eduard Karl Julius Schwitters (20 June 1887 – 8 January 1948) was a German painter who was born in Hanover, Germany.

Schwitters 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. He is most famous for his collages, called Merz Pictures.


Biography and art

Though not a direct participant in Dada activities, he employed Dada ideas in his work, such as his Merz works - art pieces built up of found objects; some were very small, some took the form of large constructions, or what would later in the be called "installations". The Sprengel Museum in Hanover has a reconstruction of the best known of these installations, called Merzbau, which was a redesign of at least four rooms in Schwitters's house in Hannover. (These were not in his apartment, but on the ground floor, in the attic and possibly in the basement.) The original Merzbau was destroyed in an air raid during World War II. According to Schwitters, merz is derived from the name of the Commerzbank; the word is also notably similar to the French word merde, which translates into English as "shit."

A story is told, though untrue, that he attempted to join the network of Dada artists, only to be rejected by the leader of the Berlin movement, Richard Huelsenbeck, on the premise that Schwitters was "too petit bourgeois" for Dada. A 2005 exposition on Dada at the Centre Georges Pompidou further acknowledged Schwitters as a member of the larger movement by devoting an entire section to the exhibition of some of his work (Ramade 2005).

Thanks to Schwitters' lifelong patron and friend Katherine Dreier, his work was exhibited regularly in the US from 1920 onwards. Schwitters published his own Merz magazine from 1923-32 and in the late 1920s became a well-known typographer; his best-known work was the catalogue for the Dammerstocksiedlung in Karlsruhe. From 1924 he ran an advertising agency called Merzwerbe, and in the late 1920s was the official typographer of Hannover town council. In a manner similar to the typographic experimentation by Herbert Bayer at the Bauhaus, Schwitters experimented with the creation of a new more phonetic alphabet in 1927. Some of his types were cast and used in his work. A digital revival of Schwitters' 1927 typeface called Architype Schwitters was released in 1997. In the late 1920s Schwitters joined the Deutscher Werkbund (German Work Federation).

Photos of the Merzbau were reproduced in the journal of the Paris-based group abstraction-création in 1933-4, and were exhibited in MoMA in New York in late 1936. In January 1937 Schwitters fled to Norway, and in the same year, his Merz pictures were included in the Nazi exhibition titled "entartete Kunst" in Munich. Schwitters started a second Merzbau while in exile in Lysaker nearby Oslo, Norway in 1937 but abandoned it in 1940 when the Nazis invaded; this Merzbau was subsequently destroyed in a fire in 1951. His hut on the Norwegian island of Hjertoya, near Molde, is also frequently regarded as a Merzbau. This building has been more or less left to rot since 1940.

After a short period of internment on the Lofoten Islands, Schwitters fled to England, and was initially interned in Douglas Camp, Isle of Man. He spent time in London, then in 1945 moved to the Lake District, where, in August 1947, he began work on the last Merzbau, which he called the Merzbarn. One wall of this last structure is now in the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle; the shell of the barn remains in Elterwater, near Ambleside. The site has now been purchased from its former owners and will house a digital replica of the wall in Newcastle, and, eventually, a Kurt Schwitters study centre.

Schwitters composed and performed an early example of sound poetry, Ursonate (1922-32; a translation of the title is Original Sonata). Schwitters also authored the poem An Anna Blume.

Schwitters died in Kendal, England, and was buried in Ambleside. His grave was unmarked until 1966 when a stone was erected with the inscription Kurt Schwitters – Creator of Merz. The stone remains as a memorial even though his body was later disinterred and reburied in Hannover, Germany, the grave being marked with a marble copy of his 1929 sculpture Die Herbstzeitlose.

Marlborough Gallery Controversy

Schwitters' son, Ernst, largely entrusted the artistic estate of his father to Gilbert Lloyd, director of the Marlborough Gallery in Oslo, Norway. However, Ernst fell victim to a crippling stroke in 1995, moving control of the estate as a whole to Kurt's grandson, Bengt Schwitters. Controversy erupted when Bengt, who has said he has "no interest in art and his grandfather's works," terminated the standing agreement between the family and the Marlborough Gallery. The Marlborough Gallery filed suit against the Schwitters estate in 1996, after confirming Ernst Schwitters' desire to have Mr. Lloyd continue to administer the estate in his will.

Professor Henrick Hanstein, an auctioneer and art expert, provided key testimony in the case, stating that Schwitters was virtually forgotten after his death in exile in England in 1948, and that the Marlborough Gallery had been vital in ensuring the artist's place in art history. The verdict, which was eventually upheld by Norway's highest court, awarded the gallery USD 2.6 million in damages.

Archival and Forgeries

Schwitters' visual work has now been completely catalogued in the catalogue raisonné. Forgeries of collages by Schwitters turn up almost weekly on eBay. Before purchasing any work supposedly by Schwitters, it is best to consult the Kurt Schwitters Archive at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, Germany.


  • Brian Eno sampled Schwitters recording of Ursonate for the "Kurt's Rejoinder" track on his 1977 album, Before and after Science.
  • Japanese musician Merzbow took his name from Schwitters.
  • Canadian poet Colin Morton wrote a book of poetry inspired by Schwitters and a play based on it.
  • A fictionalised account of Schwitters's time in London is the subject of an opera by Michael Nyman, Man and Boy: Dada.
  • Big City Orchestra has performed several of Schwitters plays including "Dramatic Scene" and "Pastoral Play"
  • Canadian composer Christopher Butterfield has performed Ursonate multiple times. He recorded the work at the National Research Council of Canada in 1979.
  • The German hip-hop band Freundeskreis quoted from his poem "An Anna Blume" in their hit single "ANNA".
  • The British indie rock band British Sea Power play parts of Ursonate between songs while playing live.
  • The krautrock band Faust have a song entitled "Dr. Schwitters snippet".
  • Tonio K's second album "Amerika" ends with the "Merzsuite" which includes the lines "This one is for Mr. Schwitters / This one is for Kurt".



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