Kurt Schwitters


published by the University of Wales Press in Cardiff October 1997
ISBN 07083 1438 4

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The artist's problem lies in a conflict - to present oneself, then to draw back, to be seen and to remain invisible.

Aaron Ronald Bodenheimer

In 1919 Kurt Schwitters' bourgeois self had lighted on an advertisement for the Kommerz- und Privatbank. His artistic self had selected a single syllable for an element in a picture and thus created Merz, an art of materials that moved in its own unmaterialistic world. In financial terms Merz was a disaster, yet parsimonious as he was, Schwitters remained faithful to his creation. The ultimate outcome of Merz was the now legendary Merzbau, one of the most unsaleable objects in the history of art.

Freud maintained that the goals of the artist (naturally understood to be male) are fame, money and the love of women. If that is the case, then the Merzbau is a wry monument to Schwitters' vain pursuit of all three. Although it was one of his greatest and most original works, it brought him neither fame - its existence was rarely made public - nor fortune - it was an expensive undertaking - nor, presumably, a satisfactory love life, one of its main components being christened The Cathedral of Erotic Misery.

The story of the Merzbau is one of paradox, misunderstanding and confusion. This cryptic masterpiece had no definite beginning and never came to an end. Its outer structure had plenty of precedents in the sculpture, architecture and fantastic film sets of the twenties but nevertheless it remains a unique and baffling composition. The Merzbau explored the gamut of the passions and preoccupations of Schwitters' age, everything from the crude relish for raw sex to the utopian yearnings for noble abstract forms.

Kurt maintained that Merzbau was started in 1923, although according to Ernst Schwitters it began in 1924, when a sculpture his father had exhibited at Sturm was returned to his studio to join other free-standing Dadaist works. Kurt continually added material to these to create columns which he later came to regard as elements of a framework, linking them first by strings, then by wooden structures which were eventually plastered over.

The idea of the room as a work of art was not new, and Dutch architectural experiments had given Kurt much food for thought. In fact the exploration of the three-dimensional environment was such a popular topic among artists and architects that it was difficult to avoid. Some of the inspiration for the Merzbau came from the theoretical and practical work of Kurt's colleagues: Doesburg, Lissitsky, Erich Mendelssohn, Erich Buchholz, Bruno Taut and many others. The Merzbau was, however, strikingly different in making the tangible its starting-point. It grew up not around visualisations of abstract concepts but around collections of ordered refuse. Whenever one part was connected to another, the intervening cavities would be filled with found material, then overlaid with more elementary structures. In the final stages of the Merzbau's construction much of the original content was encased in wood and plaster or enclosed behind glass panes.

In the thirties the Merzbau spawned subsidiaries, extending downwards, outwards and upwards to the basement, the balcony and the attic. But in spite of statements to the contrary, the Merzbau never spread throughout the whole house, no tenants were evicted from Waldhausenstrasse 5 on its account and no ceilings were broken through to accommodate its continually expanding structure.

The Merzbau was far more than a gigantic curiosity. If its architect stated that on principle it was never meant to be completed (in the sense that a cathedral can never be completed), he had a precise plan of the shape it was eventually to take. As John Elderfield stresses, the Merzbau '...was not the by-product of an amusingly eccentric way of life, but a visually and thematically remarkable, complex and ambitious work of art.'

That, in brief, sums up the development of the Merzbau. There is, however, no standard version of its history, which is so full of discrepancies that it is impossible to chart its growth with any certainty. For the first seven years there is no alternative but to rely on guesswork and on the (widely differing) reports of contemporaries, for neither Kurt nor Helma made reference to the Merzbau in the twenties.

Although Kurt ascribed the birth of the Merzbau to 1923, (the year Lissitskyintroduced his 'Proun' theory of environment to the Kestner society,) the core of the work was of much earlier date, perhaps as old as Merz itself. Early visitors to Kurt's studio were mystified less by the centrepiece, the Heilige Bekümmernis, than by a perplexing item that might - or might not - have been a work of art. At the end of 1919 Richard Huelsenbeck noticed a 'tower' that accommodated 'respectable and less respectable' objects. Kurt - unusually for him - was oddly reluctant to talk about it, merely mentioning that he kept photos and other keepsakes in the apertures. Max Ernst, who commented on the same object in 1920, was told that it consisted of superfluous refuse that had not been used for collages. If the tower started life as a handy repository, it soon developed into something of more substance, probably inspired by a grotesque column that Kurt saw at the Berlin Dada Fair.

In the mid-twenties an indistinct photograph of Kurt's studio appeared in the magazine G and the Arp/Lissitsky book The -Isms. It showed a tall, slender column topped by a plaster bust of Helma, perhaps the one that Kurt had exhibited in 1917 entitled Leiden (Suffering). This first column was soon joined by a second in the vein of the Heilige Bekümmernis but more complex, with fewer political references and more obscurely personal material, less a collection of objets trouvés than a heap of chrysalises which marked the emergence of Schwitters the mature artist. This work consisted of two sections. The base was covered in cuttings on which some words stood out clearly - Bacteria, Merz, Dada. On top there was a tapering arrangement of Merz material, including a candlestick, dried flowers, a collage entitled Der erste Tag (The First Day), a phallus-like cow's horn and a figure clinging to a palm tree with the word 'artist' stuck to it. This tower was likewise crowned by a plaster head, this time the death mask of Gerd, the child who had died in infancy.

Kate Steinitz remembered the debut - but not the date - of a column that sounds like neither of these.

One day something appeared in the studio which looked like a cross between a cylinder or wooden barrel and a table-high tree stump with the bark run wild. It had evolved from a chaotic heap of various materials: wood, cardboard, iron scraps, broken furniture and picture frames...Kurt called it a column. The column-like structure was hollow. Later, when it began to rise like a tower, some irregular divisions of platforms divided into stories. The inside walls were perforated with entrances to caves - more or less dark, depending on whether the electricity was functioning...

The artificial lighting must have been of great importance from the beginning, for a picture taken in 1920 indicates that Kurt had not only covered the walls but also the two windows of his studio with Merz finds - an unusual step to take in the one room where an artist could be expected to need plenty of light. It was a new version of an old habit, for as a student in Dresden Kurt had also papered the walls and ceiling of his room with his pictures, as if surrounding himself with his art safeguarded him against the outside world. 'He regarded the thing as a kind of fetish,' wrote the great art historian Werner Haftmann of Schwitters; 'Here we encounter the dread of space which uses things as a defence.' This was more than just a personal foible; it was a projection of the spirit of the times. In 1920 Wilhelm Worringer's enquiry into Expressionist art had pinpointed the driving force behind that great artistic revolution of which Merz was now a part: the fear of the void.

Whether Kurt consciously feared the void or not, the age he lived in gave him some unnerving glimpses of the precipice. On each occasion he responded with a burst of creative activity. His contact with the German revolution in Berlin and Hannover had resulted in Merz. With the unfolding of the catastrophic events of 1923 - the French occupation of the Ruhr, Hitler's putsch, galloping inflation - was born an ambitious idea that began to take shape around a collection of studio miscellany.

Only one description of Kurt's studio dates explicitly to 1923, that of Sophie Küppers. Her account is vague, but differs little from that of Kate Steinitz: 'We gazed in astonishment at the first mysterious Merzbau. It was as yet only made up of material from rubbish boxes of the war years and it had indescribable secret compartments.' She confessed that 'for me the border between originality and nonsense in Schwitters' creations, whether artistic or literary, was not clear.' Kurt would certainly have taken this as a compliment.

Nina Kandinsky was another who saw what she called 'the famous Merz column' in its infancy.

At that time it hadn't yet reached the ceiling. Schwitters became extraordinarily talkative when it came to the column. He always had an anecdote, a story or some personal experience at his fingertips to explain the tiniest item that he kept in the niches of the column. We didn't dare to ask him any questions, for he behaved very enigmatically when it came to some of the items. Later, on the way home, Kandinsky said to me, "He has the innocence of a child that perceives a mystery in externals."

Hans Arp wrote - with a degree of artistic licence - of an 'appallingly beautiful' construction that he saw in Schwitters' studio in the twenties. It reached to the ceiling and was adorned with broken wheels, matchboxes, iron grilles, stubs of paintbrushes, rusty tyres and pocket mirrors stuck on cardboard boxes full of old rags. 'How often we played games in this room! What Schwitters called playing games actually meant working himself into a sweat.'

As photos show that there was more than one column by 1923, it is not definite that witnesses like Max Ernst and Nina Kandinsky are referring to the same object or combination of objects. The confusion continues, for it is not even sure where all these columns stood. Because of a housing shortage in Hannover, in 1921 Eduard Schwitters had to give up two furnished rooms on the ground floor of Waldhausenstrasse 5 in March to a family named Bötel. Kurt's studio was of course situated in his parents' flat, for it had once been their dining-room. Whether he had to surrender his studio is unclear. Technically it was not a furnished room, so he may have been allowed to keep it. Alternatively, he may have moved to the cellar or up to his living quarters, where the only space available was in his minute bedroom.

If Ernst Schwitters' statement that serious work on the Merzbau began in 1924 is correct, then most of its basic structures must have been assembled in one place in that year. Where this was is not recorded. In 1920, according to a journalist who visited Waldhausenstrasse, the Dada sculptures were on the second floor. So was the column Nina Kandinsky and Hans Richter saw in the early twenties, if their memories served them right. (Richter described it as standing in the middle of the room and taking up about a quarter of the space.) From photos, it is evident that the column with the woman's head was on a lower floor. A friend from Hannover noted a visit to Kurt 's 'Dada Museum', with the Heilige Bekümmernis as its focal point, which was in the cellar.

Kurt may or may not have used some interim solution for a studio in the early twenties. If so, he soon found a pretext to move back to the ground floor again. But even if he entertained hopeful visions of a unified room-sculpture from 1923 onwards, he had so many commitments in 1924 and 1925 that he can only have worked intermittently on his tower or towers during those years. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to imagine that by the mid-twenties his studio - directly adjacent to his parents' parlour - was fast becoming a source of irritation to Eduard, whose behaviour in 1926 was described by Helma as tyrannical. When at the end of the year the Bötel family found new accommodation, the rooms on the ground floor could at last be reorganized. Eduard and Henriette claimed the studio as their bedroom (which must have caused some upset) and Kurt had to move to another room. In a letter to Dreier in May 1927 he explained that 'I have had to move my studio to a back room, because my parents are using my former studio as a bedroom.'

The new room proved a good choice. It was slightly smaller that the first studio, measuring approximately 4.4 x 5.4 m, but it was very high, about 4 m. It was neither sunny nor warm, but these were advantages when it came to making and storing collages and assemblages. It was quiet and not overlooked and there was plenty of light from two large windows which gave on to the Eilenriede park. Here at last was an opportunity to make a coherent design of existing constructions. If, as Ernst Schwitters says, a network of wire, wood and plaster was set up around the studio this would have involved a good deal of banging and thumping over a long period of time, which was less likely to be heard at the back of the house. Ernst, born in the same year as Merz, describes how he was allowed to 'help' his father by hammering nails into the Merzbau; 'most of them went in crooked, but at least it was a start.' And both Helma and Ernst confirmed that Kurt kept no regular working hours.

He could work at any time of the night or day and had even developed a method whereby he could drive nails into the Merzbau in the middle of the night without arousing the hostility of the other tenants of our house in Waldhausenstrasse. The method was simple; you put the nail in place and hammer it once with an almighty blow. That results in a single, enormous crash, which naturally wakes everyone up. But because people never actually know what has woken them up, they finally go back to sleep again. At least, that was the theory. You wait ten minutes, until everyone - you hope - has fallen asleep again and then you deliver a second hefty blow to the nail, with the same result as before; everyone wakes up, no-one knows why. You repeat this and so you can hammer in the nail; slowly, to be sure, but nevertheless in the middle of the night...

Kurt worked very rapidly on laying out this new studio, because when Rudolf Jahns visited it in March 1927 there was already a complex construction that he could walk into, not, like the column Richter saw, in the middle of the room, but set in a corner opposite the door. Before entering the room, Jahns attention was attracted by a peculiar cage-like object in the darkened corridor.

Two strange creatures with big, dirty white bodies were lying inside on hay. Each of them had only one thick, S-shaped, bent black leg. The chest was filled with a mysterious half-light, which meant that one sensed rather than saw these creatures. They were two large porcelain insulators.

The studio itself, said Jahns, was largely empty apart from the column, which was enclosed in wood or plaster. He was instructed to enter it alone through a narrow door, walk round to a central space and write a comment in a book in the middle.

I then experienced a strange, enrapturing feeling. The room had a very special life of its own. The sound of my footsteps faded away and there was absolute silence...I saw the column again soon afterwards and it had changed once more. Many of the grottoes were covered up and my impression was more of a unified whole.

This first elaborate column came to be known as the Kathedrale des erotischen Elends (Cathedral of Erotic Misery), normally shortened by Kurt to KdeE. Two photographs taken of the KdeE in 1928 show it to be firmly in the tradition of Dada-Merz, although the pictures are not good and it is impossible to unscramble all the details of the contents.

From 1927, then, Kurt was able to develop concrete plans for his new studio, and by the end of 1930 the KdeE was finished. It was covered with paper as a protection against dust while Kurt and Katherine Dreier toyed with plans to transport it to the USA for exhibition. Two new columns were also under construction, one centred around a piece which in spite of its erotic connotations had not been included in the KdeE - the column topped by the plaster head of Kurt and Helma's first child. In the following year Kurt published a description of his studio in the Merz magazine. Although he optimistically refers to ten columns, this is a wild exaggeration. Only the KdeE is described, the one Jahns had seen in 1927. There is no mention of the other two columns, which were still very much in the making.

© Gwendolen Webster

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