Kurt Schwitters: Citizen of the World


Merz Picture with Rainbow, 1939

Kurt Schwitters, Merz Picture with Rainbow (1939)

“To say that Kurt Schwitters was an amazingly versatile artist and anticipated much is such an absurd understatement that the remark is almost dada,” wrote Walter Hopps in 1962, and it’s no less true today. The art of assemblage in particular is inconceivable without him, but his ideas reached into graphic art, architecture and theater as well, and he wrote all manner of texts, including short urban tales parallel o today’s flash fiction craze. The following is a brief homage to Kurt Schwitters . . .

He was a citizen of the world.

Despite the fact that, in manners and dress, he was a solid bourgeois member of his hometown of Hannover, he dedicated his life to questioning the mores of society in favor of the humanity that unites us all. His convictions led him to develop friendships that crossed national lines, and his political views made him an exile. In 1923 he wrote:

We should not fight our enemies, but our mistakes. The enemy has more right to live than we to kill him….we should all feel like common members of a great nation: Mankind. He who loves his own country must love the whole world. This is world patriotism.

His friend Kate Steinitz had this to say about his years in exile:

He was able to put down his roots in new countries and be at home after a short while because he was always at home within himself.

Some of Schwitters’ best friends and collaborators were women, putting him years ahead of his time.

He never lost sight of the little things.

Some of his collages are very tiny, just a few inches on either side. One of the most famous ones, For Kate, is said to have anticipated Pop Art since it is made out of American comic strips. But it’s not flat like Pop Art, and it lacks the sometimes claustrophobic irony that characterizes a lot of Pop Art. Its tiny dimensions swell and resonate. The artist juxtaposed ultra-male images with ultra-female ones, and overlaid some of the chosen images with transparent tissue. The result is that it vibrates with the male-female dyad, and actually has depth—a remarkable thing, considering it is only 4×5 inches and is made entirely of tissue paper, comic strips and a postage stamp.

For Kate
Kurt Schwitters, For Kate (1947)

An eyewitness reported that in flight from Norway to England, amid blowing sirens and approaching Nazi planes, a group of fugitives huddled under rocks on the beach, waiting for the allied ships to come–all but Kurt. He’d been carrying a piece of sculpture in one pocket, and whenever he had the chance, he’d pull it out to whittle on. In the other pocket were several white mice. As his comrades ducked and covered, Kurt let the mice go scampering away just so he could chase after them. Later they inquired after his behavior and he explained that the little creatures diverted him from the bombs and sirens.

It is also reported that he took dancing lessons while in exile.

His sense of humor.

Schwitters was branded a degenerate by the Nazis. His son Ernst refused to join the Hitler Youth, and so in 1937  father and son had to run for their lives. Schwitters’ wife Helma stayed behind to look after their properties, their sole source of income. She was able to visit her husband and son briefly, but after the outbreak of the war this was no longer possible. After 1939, Mr. And Mrs. Schwitters never saw each other again. Yet friends say that even though he got depressed and sometimes indulged in dark jokes, Schwitters never lost his sense of humor. The last two years of his life were full of illness. He expressed it this way in one of his letters:

Yes, yes, all the grease is gone off the soup!

In another letter of 1946 he wrote:

We keep right on playing until death comes for us.

He was an enigma to his contemporaries.

Schwitters considered the Hannover Merzbau his lifework. This was a unique artwork that began as a very strange form of sculpture, but grew until it merged with the house he lived in, almost threatening to take over. Surely one of the strangest works of art ever undertaken, its first incarnation was a column with caves or grottos built into it, in which the artist inserted materials—collages, assemblages, personal items, and artworks by friends.

Here is how the artist described the love grotto:

A wide outside stair leads to it, underneath which stands the female lavatory attendant of life in a long narrow corridor with scattered camel dung. Two children greet us and step into life; owing to damage only part of a mother and child remain. Shiny and broken objects set the mood. In the middle a couple is embracing: he has no head, she no arms; between his legs he is holding a huge blank cartridge. The big twisted-around child’s head with the syphilitic eyes is warning the embracing couple to be careful. This is disturbing, but there is reassurance in the little bottle of my own urine in which immortelles are suspended.

As author John Elderfield points out:

The mood of the grottos seems to have been one of black humor, very far from the exuberant and clownish side of Schwitter’s character most often reported.

Indeed, one must bear in mind that this is the work Schwitters chose to live with. Many of his contemporaries were baffled. Some were appalled. Lissitzky stared at it in astonishment, and his future wife thought it might be insane. Alexander Dorner, one of the strongest supporters of avant-garde, said:

[it is] a kind of fecal smearing—a sick and sickening relapse into the social irresponsibility of the infant who plays with trash and filth.

As Schwitters worked, he closed the grottos up and smoothed them over, enclosing their strange contents forever. He said that the Merzbau was “the development into pure form of everything that had impinged upon [his] consciousness.” But he never had a chance to finish it; that was left to the Nazis.

His ideas.

After touring the Netherlands in 1922 giving Dada performances, Schwitters reflected that it was the public that directed what the artists did,

It was as if the dadaistic spirit went over to hundreds of people who remarked suddenly that they were human beings.

But he added something else:

And so you will understand why we have had enough of Dada. The mirror that indignantly rejects your worthy countenance, that in mirroring it banishes it, such a mirror does not love you, it is in love with the very opposite.

Schwitters never stopped growing. One of the most baleful aspects of art today is the blind repetition of artistic maneuvers of the past. Schwitters, like Picasso, like John Lennon, was always moving on to the next thing.

The Nasci issue of Schwitters’ Merz journal, created with Lissitzky, appeared in 1924, with this definition:

NATURE, FROM THE LATIN NASCI, I.E., TO BECOME OR COME INTO BEING, EVERYTHING THAT THROUGH ITS OWN FORCE DEVELOPS, FORMS, OR MOVES.

The magazine juxtaposes organic with geometric forms, pairs natural with scientific structures, and dares to propose that, as the methods of art and science are one with nature, the processes of the machine are one with nature. Therefore, geometry and abstraction were not only the province of contemporary urban life, but also what links us to our natural roots and the primordial past. Again, from Nasci:

EVERY FORM IS THE FROZEN INSTANTANEOUS PICTURE OF A PROCESS. THUS A WORK OF ART IS A STOPPING POINT ON THE ROAD OF BECOMING AND NOT THE FIXED GOAL.

NASCI-KS

After studying art for years and producing work in a wholly traditional (and by most accounts, not very exciting) way, Schwitters, already in his thirties (1917-18), completely bypassed what was then advanced in art and created his own form of art which he called Merz. He continued to define it for the rest of his life. This is one characteristic statement, written in the twenties:

Out of parsimony I took whatever I found, because we were now a poor country. One can even shout out through refuse, and this is what I did, nailing and gluing it together . . . it was a prayer about the victorious end of war, victorious as once again peace had won in the end; everything had broken down in any case and new things had to be made out of fragments.

As far as I’m concerned, these are words to live by.

A look at the life of this inspiring man cannot help but make you wonder what you would do in similar political circumstances. As a flea on the American beast, I haven’t had to worry. I don’t know what it is like to be persecuted by my government. But as someone who has made art all his life, I know how easy it is to get discouraged. There are always plenty of good reasons not to make art. But Schwitters never stopped. Think of that piece of sculpture in his pocket. Near the very end, working hard, his friends warned him to slow down. He answered, “There’s so little time.”

escape biopicMark Kerstetter is the former poetry editor of Escape into Life. Along with poetry, he writes fiction and essays on art and literature. He loves to draw and make art out of wood salvaged from demolition sites, and samples it all on The Bricoleur.

Works consulted: Kurt Schwitters, by Werner Schmalenbach; Kurt Schwitters, by John Elderfield; Kurt Schwitters: A Portrait From Life, by Kate Trauman Steinitz




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  • Gwendolen Webster

    Dear Mark – thanks for this heartening essay on Schwitters, which I very much appreciated. Just a few points – Schwitters was branded a degenerate artist by the Nazis in early 1933, so had to live with this status for four years before fleeing to Norway. The Merzbau never penetrated any ceilings – for more on this, including Dorner's comment, see my essay on The Reception of the Merzbau under
    http://www.sprengel-museum.de/kurt_schwitters_a
    Lissitsky actually contributed a grotto to the Merzbau (as Schwitters contributed to Lissitsky's Kabinett der Abstrakten) – I have never read anything about Lissitsky saying that the Merzbau was 'insane', but would be glad of further information if you have it.
    Lastly, it wasn't the Nazis who finished the Merzbau off, but the British, in an air raid over Hannover on 8 October 1943. I have the Air Force documents to prove it. Oh yes, and the collage Blue Bird is unfortunately a forgery.
    Sorry about this nitpicking – as I say, I really enjoyed your article, so thanks from me for doing justice to one of the greats of the 20th century.
    Warm regards,
    Gwendolen Webster

  • Gretta Barclay

    I really loved learning about Kurt Schwitters and his art. I also liked his way of thinking and perspective on the world. I think I would have liked knowing him.

  • markkerstetter

    Thank you, Gretta. I think I would have liked him too.

  • markkerstetter

    Thank you Gwendolen. You're right about the ceiling detail; p 156 of Elderfield explains this. And I misspoke about Lissitzky. Elderfield (p 162) quotes Lissitzky's future wife, Sophie Küppers as saying the two of them “gazed in astonishment” at the merzbau, and she was “unable to draw the line between sanity and madness.” The detail about being branded a degenerate is less clear. According to Elderfield, the earliest “Degenerate Art” exhibitions occurred in 1933, but outside Hannover, where “the art administration remained intransigently pro-modern” (p197). It wasn't until 1937 that things became too dangerous for Schwitters to stay. Perhaps you will agree that the Nazis had something to do with the bombing of the merzbau? And if Blue Bird is a forgery, it's a very good one. It's gratifying to know someone is paying attention!

  • gwendolenwebster

    HI Mark, and thanks for your repsonse. Always rewarding to have a conversation about Schwitters! Sophie Küppers and Lissitzky visited Schwitters' studio in 1923, when there was only a sort of weird column, as far as I can establish – the word Merzbau doesn't occur till 1933, so to talk about the Merzbau before this time is really a bit misleading – Sophie is of course writing long after the event, with the benefit of hindsight – as was everyone else, practically.
    Schwitters coins the term Merzbau in early 1933 for the sort of scuptural environment you see on the 1933 photos, and it was this idea that he caried on in Merzbau II and III. Eldefield is a bit wrong on Hannover, as the municipal authorities in Hannover were resolutely anti-Modernist even in the 1920s, and the Nazis soon took control of the Kestner Society after 1934. There is a huge and excellent tome on the subject by Ines Katenhusen but it's all in German and extremely weighty, so I don't recommend it.
    Whether it was too dangerous for Schwitters to stay in Germany after 1937 I don't know. He'd hung on till then fairly successfully and lots of other artists like Otto Dix and Hannah Höch stuck it out till the end. I have no idea why he emigrated, unless he was associated with the Socialist Resistance in Hannover, which had been uncovered a few months previously. Unfortunately all the Gestapo records relating to him were destroyed, though one of these days I am going to dig around in some archives and see if there isn't something left somewhere….
    Warm regards,
    Gwendolen

    Yes, Blue Bird is a forgery, discovered at the opening of the MoMA exhibition of 1985, embarrassingly, and there are plenty about (the Sprengel Museum get at least one a week). It even appeared on the cover of the Tate Exhibition catalogue of 1985 and all copies had to be withdrawn and replaced by new ones.

  • markkerstetter

    Gwendolen, I have read your essay with great interest. It is indeed impossible to ignore the fact that Steinitz is writing from a subjective point of view, and years after the fact. Yet she does claim to be an eyewitness to the development of the merzbau over time. But I had not been aware of Hannah Höch's observation that the grottos also served as receptacles to store Schwitters' stuff. I think your sense that a finished work was a desire as well as a capability of the artist is right on. (The picture of Schwitters as some kind of mad Dr. Frankenstein never entered my mind.) It's also important to know about the uncertain status of the Dorner statement.

    Please dig! Art lovers like myself depend on the hard work of scholars. The material on Scwhitters that is readily available in English is limited and fragmentary. I would be thankful just to see translations of the issues of Merz, as close to the originals as possible.

  • gwendolenwebster

    Dear Mark,
    Tale your point about the Merz journals – very little has been translated. There is probably more on Schiwtters in English than in German though. I did a PhD on the Merzbau in 2007, but it is, as these things are supposed to be, very dry stuff – not for the faint-hearted, and not really for art lovers. Very lengthy and an inordinate number of footnotes. Now writing a new book on Schwitters with a co-author – it should come out next year in English and German, but the publishers haven't given us much space, unfortunately, so there will only be the briefest summary of much of KS's work – such as the content of the Merz journals. Still, it'll provide a fairly comprehensive survey for newcomers, we hope.
    Anyway, always happy to discuss Schwitters! and thanks for the feedback,
    Gwendolen

  • gwendolenwebster

    Dear Mark,
    Tale your point about the Merz journals – very little has been translated. There is probably more on Schiwtters in English than in German though. I did a PhD on the Merzbau in 2007, but it is, as these things are supposed to be, very dry stuff – not for the faint-hearted, and not really for art lovers. Very lengthy and an inordinate number of footnotes. Now writing a new book on Schwitters with a co-author – it should come out next year in English and German, but the publishers haven't given us much space, unfortunately, so there will only be the briefest summary of much of KS's work – such as the content of the Merz journals. Still, it'll provide a fairly comprehensive survey for newcomers, we hope.
    Anyway, always happy to discuss Schwitters! and thanks for the feedback,
    Gwendolen

  • Alicia

    writing like this makes you really connect to the artist and his life, those quotes are inspirational.

  • Alicia

    writing like this makes you really connect to the artist and his life, those quotes are inspirational.

  • Alicia

    writing like this makes you really connect to the artist and his life, those quotes are inspirational.

  • Thank you for this homage about one of the most visionary artists in the world history. This entry – combined with important feedback by Gwendolen Webster – is great reading.