Kurt Schwitters Essay - Critical Essays

Schwitters, Kurt

Introduction

Schwitters, Kurt 1887-1948

German artist, poet, essayist, dramatist, novelist, and short-story writer.

Schwitters is recognized for his unique contribution to twentieth-century art and literature. Influenced by Dadaism, Cubism, German Expressionism, and similar avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century, Schwitters offered his idiosyncratic vision of postwar bourgeois culture in the form of collage, sculpture, experimental poetry and prose. Furnishing the neologism Merz—a name derived from a discarded scrap of paper bearing the phrase "Kommerz und Privatbank" ("Commerce and Private Bank")—to describe his projects, Schwitters produced a series of visual and literary works collected from the rubbish of the modern industrial landscape. In his Merz collages and assemblages Schwitters attached found fragments to one another in an apparently chaotic fashion. Using the concept of Merz figuratively in his written works, Schwitters presented an absurdly ironic view of life in modern society in poetry, prose, and performance pieces.

Biographical Information

Schwitters was born in Hanover, Germany in 1887, the only child of prosperous middle-class parents. He was educated at the Kunstgewerbeschule, in Hanover and later studied at the Kunstakademie (Academy of Art), Dresden between 1909 and 1914. Schwitters married Helma Fischer in 1915 after a six year engagement, and served briefly in the German army as a draughtsman in an ironworks at the close of the First World War. In 1918, Schwitters produced his first Merz piece, a collage. The following year his works were displayed at the Der Sturm Gallery in Berlin under the direction of Herwarth Waiden, editor of the journal Der Sturm. In 1919 Schwitters's essays and poetry, including his best-known work "An Anna Blume," were published in the journal. Due to the success of this poem and his visual works during this period, Schwitters quickly established himself as a noted German avant-garde artist. He also became increasingly associated with artists of the Berlin Dadaist movement, although he never became an orthodox member of the group. In 1922 he befriended Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg, an influential member of the De Stijl movement in art and architecture. Schwitters also began to publish his journal Merz in 1923, and continued work on his visual art and Dadaist sound poetry. During the Weimar years of the 1920s in Germany, Schwitters created the first of his grand Merz assemblages, or Merzbau, with the Kathedrale des erotischen Elends ("Cathedral of Erotic Misery"), which was later destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II. By the 1930s, Schwitters was splitting his time between Germany and Norway, where he emigrated in 1937 after the Nazi government confiscated 13 of his works for their Entartrete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibit in Munich. Schwitters was forced to flee following the 1940 Nazi invasion of Norway; he sought refuge in England. After spending some time in London with his son, he suffered a stroke and retreated to the Lake District in 1944. Meanwhile, Schwitters, who enjoyed notoriety in England the United States, continued his work, attempting to recreate his destroyed assemblages. He died on 8 January 1948 in Kendal, England.

Major Works

One of Schwitters's principal goals was the production of a "Gesamtkunstwerk" or "total work of art" that would encompass all artistic mediums. This he endeavored to do with his Merzbau. The first of these assemblages, "The Cathedral of Erotic Mystery," Schwitters began constructing in his Hanover house in 1923. Using various scrap materials and personal effects from friends and strangers—including toe-nail clippings and jars of urine—Schwitters created a strange structure filled with myriad columns and semi-enclosed grottos arranged to symbolize postwar bourgeois culture and materialism. As the accumulation of detritus rapidly progressed, the assemblage gradually expanded to the upper floors of Schwitters's home. As with his other artworks, his Merz collages are formed from bits of trash he found on city streets—discarded train tickets, candy wrappers, and the like—arranged in seemingly chaotic fashion on canvas.

As for Schwitters's poetry and prose, his collected writings contained in the five-volume Das literarische Werk feature a variety of experimental stories and lyrics that subvert conventional norms. Many of his early poems were written in a compressed, Expressionistic style heavily influenced by the work of August Stramm. A representative poem, Sehwitters's famous "An Anna Blume" uses such elements of parody and nonsense verse as exaggeration, unusual metaphors, and bathos to express the speaker's mystical love for Anna Blume. Other examples of Schwitters's Merz poetry, most of which originally appeared in Der Sturm, include such abstract works as "Gedicht 25", which uses patterns of numbers instead of words, and the song poem "Meine Sonate in Urlauten," which was designed for recitation. Among Schwitters's prose works, the satirical story "Die Zwiebel" ("The Onion") vividly describes the narrator's grotesque slaughter by a butcher followed by the reintegration of his body, which is left with no scars or apparent mental side effects. The Expressionist tone of "Die Zwiebel" is sustained in the first chapter of Schwitters's unfinished novel, Franz Müllers Drahtfrühling, in which a group of people gather to condemn a man as he stands, doing nothing, in public. As the man leaves, an. absurd hysteria strikes the crowd causing many to be trampled to death. Later, a boy proclaims that Müller's movement has precipitated a great and glorious revolution in the town of Revon (Schwitters's imaginary name for Hanover).

Critical Reception

Because of the intensely personal vision of his work, Schwitters was never fully accepted by his contemporary, Hans Richter, the presiding force within the Berlin Dada group, who disliked what he thought of as Schwitters's bourgeois sensibility. Nonetheless, Schwitters's artistic work is frequently considered Dadaist work. He has since been credited with making Hanover a major center for art in Germany and his work has been compared to the geometrical pieces of the Russian Constructivists and the products of the Dutch De Stijl movement. While his large assemblages no longer exist except in photographic images, Schwitters's collages continue to be highly valued pieces of abstract expressionism. Since his death, many critics have viewed his work as strikingly original and have reaffirmed his contribution to modern visual art and his importance as an early creator of concrete poetry. Most commentators on his work have celebrated his endeavor to liberate humankind "from the chaos and tragedy of life" through art.

Principal Works

Anna Blume, Dichtungen (poetry) 1919

Franz Müllers Drahtfrühling. ["Revolution: Causes and Outbreak of the Great and Glorious Revolution in Revon"] (unfinished novel) 1922

Elementar. Die Blume Anna. Die neue Anna Blume (poetry) 1922

Memoiren Anna Blumes in Bleie (poetry) 1922

Tran Nr. 30. Auguste Bolte (ein Lebertran) (novella) 1923

Die Scheuche [The Scarecrow, with Kate Steinitz and Theo van Doesburg] (children's book) 1925

"Meine Sonate in Urlauten" (poetry) 1927

Zusammenstoc̷ [Collision] (drama) 1927

Anna Blume und Ich, Die Gesammelten Anna Blume-Texte (poetry and prose) 1965

Das literarische Werk. 5 vols. (poetry, drama, and prose) 1973-1981

Merzhefte als Faksimile-Nachdruck (facsimile reprints) 1975

Wir spielen, bis uns der Tod abholt: Briefe aus fünf Jahrzehnten (letters) 1975

pppppp: Poems Performance Pieces Proses Plays Poetics [edited and translated by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris] (poetry, drama, and prose) 1993

Criticism

Sidney Tillim (essay date 1963)

SOURCE: "Schwitters: Dada as Fine Art," in Arts Magazine, Vol. 38, No. 3, December 1963, pp. 54-59.

[In the following essay, Tillim explores Schwitters 's relationship to orthodox Dada.]

The artistic substance of Dada has rarely, if ever, been treated to purely aesthetic dissection. The works of visual art that came of the movement conceived in a Zurich cabaret in 1916 are invariably regarded as the extension or expression, or both, of a disturbance that went far beyond the limits of art and which gained its artistic context, since music, literature, drama and architecture were also involved, simply because artists happened to be associated with it. Artists, in fact,...

(The entire section is 3296 words.)

John Elderfield (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: "The Early Work of Kurt Schwitters," in Artforum Vol. X, No. 3, November, 1971, pp. 54-67.

[In the following essay, Elderfield examines the structure of Schwitters's collages and assemblages of 1917 to 1923, discussing aesthetic developments in his art during this period.]

An object that tells of the loss, destruction, disappearance of objects. Does not speak of itself Tells of others. Will it include them.

—Jasper Johns

In 1919, Kurt Schwitters chose the word "Merz" to describe what he called his "pasted and nailed pictures" because he could not "define them with the older...

(The entire section is 10425 words.)

Philip Thomson (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "A Case of Dadaistic Ambivalence: Kurt Schwitters's Stramm-Imitations and 'An Anna Blume,'" in The German Quarterly, Vol. XLV, No. 1, January, 1972, pp. 47-56.

[In the following essay, Thomson evaluates the ambiguous nature of Schwitters's "An Anna Blume" as art and anti-art, sense and nonsense, serious poetry and parody.]

The recent revival of interest in Dada, accompanying such essentially neo-Dadaist phenomena as pop art, "happenings," and the like, has raised anew the question—properly, for it is a central one—of the Dadaists' attitude to their activities. The question is usually put in the form of contraries: Art or anti-art? Sense or nonsense?...

(The entire section is 3609 words.)

Ulrich Finke (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Kurt Schwitters' Contribution to Concrete Art and Poetry," in Forum For Modern Language Studies, Vol. IX, No. 1, January, 1973, pp. 75-85.

[In the following essay, Finke considers Schwitters as an early proponent of concrete poetry and discusses his contribution to the visualization of language in writing and art.]

"Kurt Schwitters was called the master of collage. He was the master of collage. The heresy of giving a new value to odd and overlooked, downtrodden bits of reality—be they bits of wire or bits of words—by putting them together into some specific kind of relationship and creating thus a new entity, was the essence of Schwitters'...

(The entire section is 5033 words.)

John Elderfield (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Private Objects: The Sculpture of Kurt Schwitters," in Artforum, Vol. XII, No. 1, September, 1973, pp. 45-54.

[In the following essay, Elderfield studies Schwitters's sculptural pieces, characterizing these as the artist's most personal works.]

Schwitters' output as an artist was prodigious, but of all the arts he worked in, the one most objectlike in character—sculpture—seems somewhat peripheral to his main achievement. The eccentric Dadaist sculptures of the early years appear to be mere offshoots from the far more seriously motivated assemblages that spawned them. The small organic-looking works of wood or plaster and wire dating from the mid-'20s are...

(The entire section is 7906 words.)

Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: A review of Das literarische Werk, in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3735, October 5, 1973, p. 1186.

[In the following review, the unsigned critic laments the editorial flaws present in the first volume of Schwitters's Das literarische Werk, which make Schwitters "seem even more obscure, whimsical, and inaccessible than before. "]

The literary productions of German Dada have long languished under a cloud. They have never been regarded as a respectable object for scholarly investigation, and in any event it has been virtually impossible to study them in depth because the works have for the most part either been out of print for a generation or...

(The entire section is 1794 words.)

Rex W. Last (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Kurt Schwitters: The Merz Artist from Revon," in German Dadaist Literature: Kurt Schwitters, Hugo Ball, Hans Arp, Twayne Publishers, 1973, pp. 31-61.

[In the following essay, Last surveys Schwitters's life, prose, and poetry, calling his work "a retreat from reality " into a "private world of shapes and patterns. "]

Each of the Dadaists approached the practical business of creating a work of art—or nonart—in his own unique fashion; although all pursued the same, or at least closely related, objectives, each chose his own unmistakable and distinctive angle of attack. The very lack of uniformity was, in itself, a sign both of their positive strength...

(The entire section is 11742 words.)

Rex W. Last (review date 1975)

SOURCE; "One Man's Merz," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3808, February 28, 1975, p. 231.

[In the following review, Last describes Schwitters's short prose works "Die Zwiebel" and "Franz Müllers Drahtfrühling. "]

Like many of that generation of the European avant-garde associated with Dada and Surrealism, Kurt Schwitters worked in several artistic media and sought to break down the barriers between the different art forms, and also between what convention deemed to be "art" and "non-art". Although something of a loner, in that he did not join any large group of artists, but preferred to work in relative isolation, cultivating "Merz", his own brand of Dada,...

(The entire section is 1016 words.)

Annegreth Nill (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Weimar Politics and the Theme of Love in Kurt Schwitters' Das Baumerbild" in Dada/Surrealism, No. 13, 1984, pp. 17-36.

[In the following essay, Nill interprets Schwitters's assemblage Das Bäumerbild in the context of post-World War I German politics, finding in the work symbols of love and war.]

While the Hanover Dadaist Kurt Schwitters vociferously rejected using art as political propaganda, he did not reject the use of political propaganda in art, as countless political phrases which function as "material" in his literary works attest.1 For example, in his prose poem "Aufruf (ein Epos)" (1921), Schwitters spliced together...

(The entire section is 6575 words.)

Friedhelm Lach (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Schwitters: Performance Notes," in Dado/Dimensions, Edited by Stephen C. Foster, UMI Research Press, 1985, pp. 39-45.

[In the following essay, Lach characterizes Schwitters's Merz works as avant-garde performances of creativity.]

The rediscovery of Kurt Schwitters coincided with the discovery of the "event" character of art—with Pop, neo-Dada, happenings, and performance art. It is this event character of art that allows me to present Kurt Schwitters, who died in 1948, as the father of contemporary art currents and events and to celebrate him as the ingenious inventor who did in the 1920s what became, in the long run, the representative art of the...

(The entire section is 3156 words.)

E. S. Shaffer (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Kurt Schwitters, Merzkunstler: Art and Word-Art," in Word and Image, Vol. 6, No. 1, January, 1990, pp. 100-18.

[In the following essay, Shaffer investigates the multiple genres of Schwitters's oeuvreincluding visual and literary works: collages, poems, essays, performances, and plays. Shaffer concludes, "We need a new reading of the full verbal and visual core of his work, which is more extensive and more significant for all his work than has been understood hitherto. "]

Kurt Schwitters was born in Hanover in 1887, trained in Dresden (1909-13) and Berlin and, on being condemned by National Socialism as a 'cultural bolshevik' whose works were...

(The entire section is 7988 words.)

Marjorie Perloff (review date 1994)

SOURCE: A review of pppppp: Poems Performance Pieces Proses Plays Poetics, in Sulfur, Vol. XIV, No. 1, Spring, 1994, pp. 201-08.

[In the following review of pppppp: Poems Performance Pieces Proses Plays Poetics, Perloff discusses the pitfalls of translating Schwitters's "abstract poetry. "]

In a 1924 manifesto called "Consistent Poetry/' which appears in Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris's beautifully produced and edited selection of Schwitters's literary works, we read:

Classical poetry counted on the similarities between people. It considered the association of ideas as unambiguous. It was mistaken. At any rate it...

(The entire section is 2983 words.)