Kurt Schwitters was born in Hannover (1887). He began studying art at the School of Applied Arts in Hannover in 1908, and from 1909 to 1914 attended the Dresden Art Academy. When war broke out, Schwitters returned to Hannover. Unfit for military duty he continued to work on his painting and began to write poetry, both of which, though influenced by cubism and expressionism, were also indebted to the German romantic tradition. In 1918, through the Kestner Society, Schwitters made contact with Herwarth Walden. He showed two abstract paintings at a group show at Sturm Gallery in June 1918. Over the winter of 1918–1919, Schwitters began making abstract assemblages and collages from materials he found or accumulated in his daily life—ration cards, string, paper doilies, newspaper fragments, streetcar tickets, and other bits of discarded refuse. Schwitters named his new pictures 'Merz', after a fragment of the phrase 'Kommerz-und Privatbank' that appeared in one of his first assemblages, and adopted the term to describe all of his artistic activities.
In July 1919 Schwitters first exhibited the Merz pictures at Sturm Gallery and published a programmatic statement on Merz painting in Der Sturm. His affiliation with Sturm and the active adoption of his own brand name kept Schwitters from being accepted into the inner circle of Berlin dadaists, though he became good friends with Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch. He tirelessly promoted Merz, popularizing his poem, 'An Anna Blume', by pasting it up in the streets of Hannover as a poster, and then publishing it in Der Sturm and as a separate edition. In 1923 Schwitters launched Merz magazine. The first issue was devoted to the De Stijl-Dada tour that Schwitters organized with Theo van Doesburg, and subsequent issues featured contributions from Höch, Arp, and Tristan Tzara. Besides being a medium for the exchange of ideas between dadaists, Merz also functioned as a juncture between Dada and international constructivism.
One of Schwitters' goals with Merz was the achievement of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art that would encompass painting, poetry, sculpture, theater, and architecture. Around 1923, he began work on the construction of what would become his Merzbau, an installation in his home in Hannover (formerly the nineteenth-century home of his parents) that gradually took over his studio and encroached onto the other rooms of the house. Constructed of a series of grottoes that Schwitters filled with borrowed and stolen objects from friends and family and then covered over with further construction, the Merzbau became a lifelong project of accumulation and memorialization.
Kurt Schwitters died in 1948 in Kendall, England.
More extensive is Amanda L. Hockensmith, 'Kurt Schwitters', published in Leah Dickerman (ed.), Dada. Zurich, Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, New York, Paris (National Gallery of Art : Washington DC 2005) 485 and online available at Dada biographies: Kurt Schwitters, an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. The article is translated in French and published in Dada / Catalogue publié sous la direction de Laurent Le Bon (Éditions du Centre Pompidou : Paris 2005).
Kurt Schwitters by El Lissitzky (1924/25) [Collection Paul Getty Trust]
Kurt Schwitters [The Artchive]
Kurt Schwitters [Artcyclopedia]
Kurt Schwitters [International Dada Archive]
Kurt Schwitters [Wikipedia]
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