Kurt Schwitters Critical Essays

Introduction

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.