SCHWITTERS Kurt
( 1887-1948). German painter; born in Hanover; died at Ambleside, England. After his studies at the Royal Gymnasium in Hanover, Schwitters attended the Academy of Dresden for six years. For a long time he painted portraits to make a living and never looked down on this academic work. Mobilized during the First World War, he was so absent-minded a soldier that his superiors finally preferred to limit him to office work. There his mind, Dadaist before the word was coined, found a chosen field in the search for deserters. He succeeded in scrambling the files so thoroughly that in most cases all traces of the fugitives were lost. However, the job was done with such care that he was never suspected. Returning to Hanover after the Armistice, he was first influenced by the work of Kandinsky and Franz Marc, and a little later he began publishing the Merz magazine, both Dadaist and Constructivist, of which a score of issues appeared between 1923 and 1932. At the same time, at home, he undertook the first Merzbau, a sort of column erected in the middle of a room, to which be give a surprising architectural form and which he decorated or gradually developed with all kinds of odds and ends, many of them picked up in the street. Merzbau was to sculpture what papier collé is to painting: ready-made elements were superimposed and combined, sometimes alternated, the only concern being for the plastic effect of the whole. Schwitters worked for ten years on the structure, which finally pierced the three floors of the house. Unfortunately it was destroyed during the Second World War. In 1922 he accompanied Van Doesburg on a Dadaist tour through Holland. At the Bauhaus, in 1924, he recited for the first time his Sonata in Primal Sounds, a work that was not published until 1932. He stayed briefly in Paris in 1927; he collaborated on numerous reviews, notably, after 1919, the famous Berlin magazine Der Sturm, to which he contributed a number of poems and stories full of placid humour. At the same time he published Anna Blume and wrote fairy tales for a local paper. During all this time he did not give up collage. When Nazism came to power in Germany, he settled in Norway. At Lysaker, near Oslo, he began a second Merzbau, interrupted when the Nazis invaded Norway a few years later. He went to England, where he was interned for some time as a German citizen.
Liberated and finding some support (the Museum of Modern Art of New York made him a grant), he undertook a Merzbau for the third time in an isolated farm near Ambleside, in the Lake District. This time it was death that interrupted his work in January 1948.
Schwitters was childhood recaptured. He seemed to play with everything. To compose a poem or a picture, he resorted to the most trivial sentence, the most futile object: a used tramway ticket, a cork, valueless elements that, a scavenger of a new kind, he collected anywhere. Thereupon he transfigured these despised objects and showed that nothing is despicable. The tramway ticket glued in a certain way beside other cast-off things was no longer a ticket; it became part of a work whose value is literally inestimable. Touched by the artist's hands, objects suddenly changed their size and atmosphere. The whole animated them, gave them a soul. The artist was a kind of a miracle-worker whose touch transformed everything.
Schwitters himself condensed this idea into a seemingly exaggerated phrase: 'Everything the artist spits is art'. It would be difficult to find an apter illustration of this truth than in his own life and work, for no one has shown better than he that art is indeed anything, if done in a certain way.
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