Biography of German Artist Kurt Schwitters

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Kurt Schwitters Kurt Schwitters, (1887-1948) is generally acknowledged as the twentieth century’s greatest master of collage. Just as collage is essentially the medium of irony, so Schwitters’ life is characterized by paradox and enigma. Born in Hanover, the only child of affluent parents, he was a loner in his youth, plagued by epileptic attacks, introverted and insecure, and as a student at the Dresden Academy of Art he proved as apt as he was unimaginative.

Although his contact with Expressionist artists in Hannover in 1916 gave him more confidence to develop his own style, even his most impressive works (such as Mountain Graveyard) were little more than imitations of his contemporaries.A major challenge came in 1918 with the invitation to exhibit at Herwarth Walden’s notorious Sturm gallery in Berlin, for Walden had contacts with most progressive European artists, including the Zurich Dada group. Schwitters found further stimulus in the activities of the revolutionary Berlin Dadaists. (The generally accepted story that Schwitters was rejected by Berlin Dada is, however not true.

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) But it was Hans Arp, himself a pioneer of collage, who first persuaded Schwitters to abandon his sterile academic techniques. Schwitters’ first known collage, Hansi, is strongly reminiscent of Arp’s work, and soon afterwards he began making assemblages from scraps of refuse, including one he called the Merz picture. Subsequently he referred to all his work as Merz.A Sturm exhibition of his new style in mid-1919, which showed his abstract Merz works and some whimsical ‘Dada drawings’ (such as The Heart goes from Sugar to Coffee) caused a furore among the critics, as did his ‘Anna Blume’ poem published in the same year.

Schwitters thrived on public opposition, and from 1919 to 1923 he created a succession of Merz pictures which are now seen as his greatest contribution to twentieth century art. These pictures carry an inner tension that derives from the sensitive juxtaposition of abstraction and realism, aesthetics and rubbish, art and life, and their innate dynamism is one of the characteristics of Merz. Schwitters stands alone in the consummate mastery of colour, the delicate balance of content and form and the intricate interplay of coarse and filigree displayed in Merzbild Rossfett; the almost minimalist Revolving, using the barest of materials, conveys a mysterious shadowy rotating cosmos extending far beyond the bounds of the frame: in Construction for Noble Ladies, the precarious equilibrium of the disparate elements is stabilised only by the side-on portrait of Schwitters’ angelic and long-suffering wife Helma.Schwitters’ revolution came late – he was 32 at the time of the first Merz exhibition – but Merz changed his life radically.

He suddenly found himself at the forefront of contemporary art and quickly allied himself with the avant-garde, including various European Dada groups, the Bauhaus (Schlemmer, Klee, Kandinsky, Feininger, Gropius) and the new generation of Contructivists from Eastern Europe and the Netherlands (Lissitsky, Moholy-Nagy, Theo van Doesburg). By now his fantasy knew no bounds and over the next decade he undertook radical experiments in such fields as abstract drama and poetry, cabaret, typography, multimedia art, body painting, music, photography and architecture. He published a Merz magazine which appeared irregularly from 1923-32 and founded what was to become a successful advertising agency in 1924.Schwitters was a master of subtle colour and precarious balance, and during the twenties the influence of Constructivism, with its clinical reliance on primary colour and clear geometrical forms, was not always advantageous to his work.

Although a quasi-minimalist approach came naturally to him (he experimented with it early, in pictures like Coloured Squares), he introduced Constructivist ideas more rigorously into his work after 1924. The composition of the Merz pictures becomes more clear-cut, the textures more uniform, the individual elements larger and simpler. But luckily he never abandoned the principles of Merz, as can be seen from the splendid Relief with Cross and Sphere and Cicero, where the effects of stark Constructivist colours and tight composition are brilliantly offset by sharp curves and shadows and Schwitters’ beloved scraps of battered Merz refuse. An equally startling example is Small Seaman’s Home (made in Holland, where Schwitters would comb the beaches for Merz finds during his summer holidays).

For thirteen years (1923-36) he also worked on an extraordinary construction that came to be known as the Merzbau; it was what we would now call an Environment and eventually spread to eight rooms of his house in Hannover. Its original name was the ‘Cathedral of Erotic Misery’ and its contents were as shocking as anything produced by radical young artists today.With the rise of National Socialism in Germany after 1929, Schwitters found himself in serious difficulties. As the artistic community emigrated or went into hiding, so Schwitters was robbed of much of the impetus that was crucial to his art.

The death of his father and of Theo van Doesburg in 1931 mark the start of a new phase of his work, as Schwitters himself makes clear in ‘New Merz Picture’, with its contemplative mood and coarse dabs of colour. The sombre restraint of Pino Antoni is likewise in sharp contrast to the works of the exuberant early Merz period.Schwitters kept a low profile during the Third Reich and emigrated to Norway in January 1937, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained. But the Gestapo were certainly on his trail, and in summer 1937 his pictures were displayed at the infamous ‘Entartete Kunst’ exhibition in Munich.

Clearly his return to Germany was blocked for ever.We read about Kurt Schwitters on when we read that, “Schwitters is increasingly recognized as one of the great visual artists of the twentieth century—a recognition reconfirmed in 1985 by a highly acclaimed retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art—his achievements as one of the major poets and theorists of Modernism have not received the same degree of attention. This collection of Schwitters’ literary work, presented by two American poets of international standing, brings the vast range and unique genius of his writings to English-language audiences for the first time.

Coining the word “Merz” to identify his one-man version of Dadism, Schwitters sought to “erase the boundaries between the arts” and to emphasize the reciprocal relationship of his visual and verbal works. Schwitters worked with and developed more new forms and genres than almost any poet of his time. The wide sweep and inventiveness of his literary output—essays, plays, fiction, manifestos, as well as poetry—reflect or prefigure movements such as expressionism, surrealism, sound-texts, concrete poetry, performance art, and language poetry.To present Schwitters’ astounding range, the poet-translators of this volume have selected poems, “proses,” performance pieces, and manifestos; included complete major works, such as “Augusta Bolte” and “Ur Sonata”; offered selections from Schwitters.

”Robin Martakies, author of the book, (Martakies, 2006) tells us “Born in Hanover, Germany, in 1887, to wealthy parents, Kurt Schwitters became a giant of 2011, Century European Art plays; and provided a sampler of the collaged and word-filled paintings (some in full color).”Schwitters used a very unique writing style in his poems as we read some of his poetry, we understand more about the author.  “Influence”  When I was born Picassohad not yet entered his blue period– I criedAs soon as I could standI stood under Picasso’s influenceI pointed to the arch wherethe road passes over the canaland “Tom” I said or “happening”My lyric period was when I lived inViolet Street — I never saw a violetThat was owing to Matissewhose palette then was always redAs a boy I built little housesout of little bricks with MondrianLater on I played football with the Surrealiststrapped turtles and frogs andkept them in my pocket till they diedbut I never went along withtearing the wings off fliesI had my own garden — strawberriesroses a pond with lily pads –till the boys I ran withtore up root and branchfor the pleasureof watching me kick in rageEver since I’ve been wary of gangsparties movements teamsSome friends I have madehave loved also but fewI meet are droll as guinea pigs sayor even white micethough mice like men are alwaysstupidly running in circlesand when old they often go baldlike men in their prime of lifeAs for cold-blooded creaturesI prefer salamanders to menThey don’t spin in circles but keepa noble repose digesting wormsBest of all a salamandersheds its skin more often than a man– a trick I’m still hoping to learn  Lighting a Fire, 1914Kindle, little wordsOde to SunsetFeed the flame. .

. how you wept when we parted . . .

Words that burn twice –Picking Flowers in the Parkin my heart and on the page. . . the pools of your eyes .

. .How the tears have dried. .

. could I but rest on your heart . . .

How they tinge the flames green. . . your ivory breast .

. .Burn, little words,. .

. the Kaiser said . . .

Warm me once more now we are cold.Outside my window grey clouds weep . . .

No more of this! –piston! sprocket! carburetor!– these are the words of the new poetry!Or if I can’t believe that– if the old words of heart and tears endure –I will write them as I see them flare up,turn black, then grey, then go up in smokelike — like nothing! –simply write them as the paper curls and burnsand give them back their own place in the world.Kurt Schwitters influenced the definition of poetry by being true to what he believed, whether it was thoughts of doom or having his own strawberry garden. He reflected his mood in his writing which developed new ways of writing poetry. His extreme ideas good go either way, as we read in his unique writing.

Schwitters greatly influenced literature with his poetry and offered many generations of reading pleasure, where one could visualize the authors poetry, with relative ease.                     Reference Page (1993).

“Kurt Schwitters”. Editorial Review.Martakies, Robin. (2006).

“Kurt Schwitters Free Spirit”.Schwitters, Kurt; Rothenberg, Jerome; Pierre, Joris. (1993). “Poems Performance Pieces             Proses Plays Poetics”.

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Biography of German Artist Kurt Schwitters. (2017, Mar 16). Retrieved from

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