KURT MERZ SCHWITTERS
by GWENDOLEN WEBSTER
published by the University of Wales Press in Cardiff
ISBN 07083 1438 4
Gwendolen Webster's homepage
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.