Stunned is pleased to present an extract from Elizabeth Burns
THE CATHEDRAL OF EROTIC MISERY
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INTRODUCTION: KURT SCHWITTERS'
Although completely destroyed by Allied bombing raids over
Hannover in 1943, Kurt Schwitters' vast architectural construction,
Die Kathedrale des erotischen Elends ("the Cathedral of Erotic
Misery"), or Merzbau , remains one of the most compelling artworks
of the twentieth-century. Recent interpretations of the Merzbau
have attempted to explicitly situate the project in terms of
contemporary issues in art and architecture, comparing Schwitters'
construction with works as diverse as the Francesco Colonna's
late-sixteenth century architectural parable Hypnerotomachia
("Love and Strife in a Dream"), also known as the Polyphili,1
Abbot Suger's Cathedral at St. Denis, Sir John Soane's House
and Museum (13-17 Lincoln's Inn Fields), and Walter Benjamin's
unfinished Passagenwerk or The Arcades Project 2.
Artists Robert Rauschenberg and Joseph Beuys, among others have
also sought to extend Schwitters' overall artistic project within
the framework of their own creative practices 3.
In architecture, the project has been afforded the same talismanic
status as Mies van der Rohe's Barcelona Pavilion and Frank Lloyd
Wright's Larkin Building in Buffalo. More recently, it has been
suggested that Rem Koolhaas' architectural research and practice
contains traces of both the method and content of Schwitters'
unique approach to assemblage. As Ernst Nündel suggests, the
physical nature of the Merzbau, as well as the ideas that are
manifest in the project, continue to develop and grow, "...in
the memory of those who have seen it, in the imagination of
its descendants, and in the speculations of art historians.
Each individual has his or her own interpretation of the Merzbau.4"
The chaos of Schwitters' personal life and career echoes the
tumult of the era in which he lived. Born in 1887, Schwitters'
artistic coming-of-age did not occur until after World War I
when he had already reached his thirtieth birthday. Moving successively
through Expressionism, Dada, and Constructivism, the rapid development
that characterized Schwitters' work was similar to that of most
of his contemporaries 5.
In 1937, Schwitters was designated an entartete Künstler
(degenerate artist) by the Nazis. As a consequence of this
and the ensuing events of World War II, many of his artworks
were either lost or destroyed 6.
While Schwitters could have likely managed to forestall any
overt action against him by the fascist regime by remaining
silent, he chose instead to speak out, privately and publicly
against Hitler's government 7.
The 'suspicious' activities of Schwitters and many of his close
friends and colleagues finally forced Schwitters to leave for
Norway in January of 1938, barely avoiding arrest (officially
stated as a request for an interview) by the Gestapo
. His son, Ernst, had also been in jeopardy for some time
and had left Hannover via Hamburg for Oslo in the early hours
of 26 December 1936, thereby preceding his father's immigration
by several days. When Nazi Germany invaded Norway in 1940, father
and son were again on the move, traveling further to the north
before crossing by boat to Edinburgh where they were incarcerated
by the British government and held in internment camps for eighteen
months 9. After their
release, Schwitters and his son lived in and around London before
finally moving to Ambleside in the Lake District in June of
While the degenerate and difficult conditions of his internment
resulted in extensive physical and emotional scars, the war
and subsequent exile from Germany left him destitute and disoriented
in the most literal sense. Virtually unknown in art circles
(excepting the United States), Schwitters died in England on
the 8th of January 1948. In chronicling his life, Werner Schmalenbach,
the German art historian perhaps most responsible for resurrecting
Schwitters after the second World War, described the resonance
of Schwitters' legacy at the time of his death: "When Kurt Schwitters
died in England...in his sixty-first year, the event went virtually
unnoticed; indeed, his name meant little save to old friends
and members of the Avant-garde of the 1920s on the Continent.
First the Hitler Terror and then the war had scattered these
people all over the globe...in Germany, he was almost totally
forgotten...German art circles from 1945 on were mainly concerned
with rediscovering the Expressionists.10"
Yet despite personal and professional misfortune over the course
of his lifetime, Schwitters never lost the sense of who he was
as an individual and as an artist. In the words of Walter Benjamin,
he was "like a shipwrecked man who keeps afloat by climbing
to the top of a mast that is already disintegrating. But from
there he has a chance to signal for his rescue.11"
It is one of the sadder pages in modern history that Kurt Schwitters
was not rescued during the course of his lifetime. It is only
recently that the full import of his artwork and contributions
have begun to be recognized, contributions which are not limited
to the world of art and architecture alone, but resonate throughout
philosophy and literature as well.
While the resurgence of interest in Schwitters' Merzbau has
likely been the result of the project's formal characteristics
(characteristics that evoke the potential of a variety of contemporary
theoretical positions in architecture) it is also due to the
relevance of the underlying themes that inform Schwitters' construction.
These themes include the role of mysticism, sexuality and autobiography
in the production of art and architecture, as well as the possible
reading of the project as a Wunderkammer, or archive of the
time and space in which it was situated. Developed during a
period of intense upheaval in European history, the Merzbau
indeed represents not only a condensed version of one man's
creative and personal life, but a luminous manuscript of events
surrounding the first World War, events that continue to resonate
throughout the course of art and architectural history.
The actual form and contents of Kurt Schwitters' Hannover Merzbau
remain somewhat of a mystery still today. Recent scholarship
has attempted to unveil the considerable mythology surrounding
the project. Rivaled only by the enigmatic content of Marcel
Duchamp's Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors
Even), the Merzbau has been described by John Elderfield
as a "phantasmagoria and dream grotto." Besides Elderfield's
and Schmalenbach's brief analyses of the Merzbau, Dietmar Elger's
Werkmonographie and Dorothea Dietrich's writings on Schwitters'
work have shed considerable light on the project 12.
With her 1997 biography on Kurt "Merz" Schwitters, Gwendolyn
Webster relied on her conversations with Schwitters' son, Ernst,
who elaborated on his own experience playing and living in the
project 13. Literary
critic and scholar Ute Brandes' commentary on the Merzbau is
indispensable in situating the project in terms of German cultural
history and, alternately, in terms of Schwitters complex and
multi-faceted relationship to women 14.
Particular note must be made of the more specialized material
developed by Janice Schall 15
and Annegreth Nill 16,
both of whom have attempted to place Schwitters' works in light
of recent scholarship on Dada. Even more recently, Marc Dachy
has suggested that Schwitters' impulse to create a vast Merzkunstwerk
("Merz work of art") 17, one
in which the spectator would be immersed in both time and space,
parallels the various architectonic works by El Lissitzky ("Cabinet
abstrait," "Prounenraum"), the De Stijl complex known as
l'Aubette à Strasbourg (1926-1928), a collaborative effort
by Hans Arp, Sophie Taüber, and Theo van Doesburg; and the constructions
of Dada-Constructivist Tomoyoshi Murayama, a Japanese national
who lived in Berlin during the late-teens and early-twenties
18. In this sense,
Schwitters' construction could also be compared to Jose Plecnik's
extensive architectural ruminations for the city of Ljubljana
and even Max Ernst's enigmatic murals installed in Max and Gala
Eluard's house in the Paris suburb of Eaubonne as well, though
Dachy does not mention these projects specifically. The sum
of this material has provided considerable groundwork and insight
into the form, method, and contents of the Merzbau.
While the Merzbau can indeed be viewed as a latent critique
of the alienating conditions of modern technological culture
(both Elger's and Dietrich's work fall into this category) its
alternative title, Die Kathedrale des erotischen Elends (The
Cathedral of Erotic Misery) or KdeE, suggests the
possibility of additional interpretations. Schwitters' own pronouncements
on the project were relatively few and far between, and the
various anecdotes of individuals who saw the construction over
the course of its development are not only fragmentary, but
are often times based on the imperfect recall of distant memory.
Attempts to unveil the numerous themes which underscore the
Merzbau must therefore take into account not only Schwitters'
statements and the multiple fragments of visitors to the project,
but the literary and visual works that parallel its development.
While these literary and visual works do not in themselves contain
the necessary evidence for a definitive interpretation of Schwitters'
specific intentions with regards to the Merzbau, selected components
of his extensive literary and visual productions, as well as
those of his contemporaries, do lend a significant amount of
insight into the ideas he was working with from the point of
the project's inception (sometime between 1919-1923) until his
abrupt abandonment of the project at the time of his forced
emigration to Norway on the second of January, 1937.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of Schwitters' approach to
his art was the fact that the work was both developmental and
incorporative. He did not operate according to a fixed stratagem,
but rather forged his material from events and circumstances
as they presented themselves. Accordingly, there is no obvious
fixed point or referent from which his overall approach might
be apprehended. Rather, Schwitters' approach required a seamless
interplay between his life and his art. To this end, he was
not exclusive, but resolutely inclusive, preferring the accumulation
of affects and effects to critical speculation. This is not
to say that the work he produced was not subject to critical
insight and refinement; he was clearly capable of adjusting
and readjusting an initial idea for the sake of the work's efficacy.
Yet he did not approach the work of art with a preconceived
notion of what should be, but instead worked through the nature
and use of materials and artifacts in terms of their intrinsic
relationships. In this sense, Schwitters' artwork was never
about the object itself, but the dynamic of relations that appeared
in the course of their making. This approach became more and
more refined to the point where nothing he created was not subjected
to the possibility of further revision at a later date. As he
stated in an article from 1931 entitled "Ich und meine Ziele
(Me and my work)," an article that appears as part of his self-published
anthology, Das erstes Veilchenheft (the twenty-first
issue of his self-published journal, Merz, which bore the subtitle
"first Violet notebook") the work was, "in principle, always
in flux. 19"
While the vast majority of writing on modern art and architecture
has extended the Enlightenment project of formulating a master
narrative, Kurt Schwitters' literary and visual artworks stand
out in their resistance to claims of totality and consolidation.
The "modern project to rigor" implicitly exiles artists like
Schwitters.20 In art and architecture,
significant recognition is afforded only to those whose works
exhibit the necessary transparency - figuratively and methodologically
- for analysis. Schwitters' art disputes this imperative and
hence remain largely peripheral to the artistic and critical
imagination. Taken together, the peculiarities of his personal
circumstances, as well as the opaque nature of his artistic
project, have effectively worked in concert to deny Schwitters
a significant place in the history of art and literature. Even
today, one of the most critical problems in approaching Schwitters'
project lay not with the work itself, but with the terms that
have been used to discuss the work. Until recently, nearly all
art criticism has relied on formal categories. This is particularly
true in the case of modern art criticism, which has conformed
almost entirely to the language and ideology of formalist analysis.
Hence, most, though not all, attempts to comprehend Schwitters'
oeuvre have relied almost entirely on the art-historical context
in which he worked, a context which has been developed and refined
in such a way as to promote exclusive rather than inclusive
categories. The institutional bias present in art museums and
the academy resists alternative or exceptional cases. This is
clearly the case with Schwitters, who, despite highly publicized
exhibitions and the appropriation of his works in support of
various movements and individuals, remains marginal to the recognized
project of modernism. The art historian Rudi Fuchs, in his short
book entitled Conflicts with Modernism or the Absence of Kurt
Schwitters, renders the following observations on the position
of Kurt Schwitters as a 'modern' artist:
Unlike Mondrian (and unlike many contemporary abstract artists
who reflect Mondrian's attitude), Kurt Schwitters was never
fanatic about purity. He was a very "impure" artist. And, when
I speak of Schwitters' absence, I also mean to say that the
very idea of impurity (or the idea of compromise and aesthetic
contamination as a source of inspiration) is largely absent
from Modernist artistic consciousness. Modernism's insistence
on abstraction and on the way to arrive at it, by stripping
the medium of its unnecessary or impure elements, had to result
in a very rarified idea of an artwork as a thing of extreme
clarity, physical elegance, balance, intelligence and perfection...a
juggler like Schwitters is seen as a renegade...there was little
single-mindedness in his career; there were too many things
he wanted to do at the same time. That easily raises the suspicions
of amateurism. He had no great interest in the finely chiseled
ultimate artwork. He was the practical and poetic magician.21
In Decoding Merz, Annegreth Nill also confronts this
problem, stating that most of Schwitters' work has been almost
universally interpreted from a formalist-modernist stance. Among
scholars and critics of Schwitters' work there remains, according
to Nill, "a veritable conspiracy of denial of ("literary") content,"
that is, questions of