Stunned is pleased to present an extract from Elizabeth Burns Gamard's




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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, " 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 1945.

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 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 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


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