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Interesting Hanoverians

Kurt Schwitters 1887-1948

The second of a series of articles about famous Hanoverians

  Garry Paton | 08.01.2019

The Persevering Artist

Kurt Schwitters (20 June 1887 – 8 January 1948)

Kurt Schwitters was born on 20th June 1887 in Hannover, the only child of Eduard and Henriette Schwitters. Schwitters life was initially financially sound, as his father sold his ladies clothes business to buy property around the city of Hannover which was subsequently rented out, ensuring a steady income for the family. As a young man Schwitters often suffered from epileptic seizures, which fortunately exempted him from national service during World War 1. Schwitters initially studied art at the Dresden Academy from 1909 to 1915, after which he returned to Hannover.

Schwitters initially worked in Expressionism, a form of art whereby the artist attempts to express emotional experience from surroundings. The latter stages of the first world war followed by German economic depression darkly influenced his expressionist work, using him to describe the cold, hard daily mechanism of persevering human spirit as machines in his paintings and drawings, which were often exhibited in a German art and literary magazine called Der Sturm.

Schwitters became active in Dadaism from probably late 1918, an art movement consisting of various artists, who rejected the cold, hard logic and reasoning of modern capitalism, making their protest in their art work by illustrating nonsense and irrationality. Schwitters high point in this art movement was the writing of An Anna Blume in 1919, in effect a love poem which also emphasises the utter economic chaos and helplessness of the post war years in Germany.

From about 1922, Schwitters began publishing a periodical called Merz, whereby each publication centred on a particular artist or theme in Modernism, a form of art that Schwitters becoming predominantly more involved. Modernism is a form of art which can be generalised as being geometrical, angular, aesthetic, sharp and defined. An example of his work from this time is Untitled in 1925.

Schwitters also consistently developed the modernist art method of internal geometric alteration, ultimately resulting in redistributing the interior space of his own private accommodation in Hannover at the family address of Waldhausen Straße 5 to create probably his most famous work, the Merzbau in 1923. The art can only be described as a manic spread of random geometry, that has the individual entrapped, the gaze captured, order and space radiating out in alternatively different directions.

With the help of a friend, Katherine Dreier, Schwitters work also became recognised outside Germany by being exhibited in the United States from 1920 onwards. He was also recognised as an excellent typographer, leading him to run a small advertising agency in Hannover from 1924 called the Merzwerbe. This led to lucrative contracts with such large companies as Pelikan inks and Bahlsen biscuits.

When the Nazis came to power in the 1930s, his work was included in the listing of Entartete Kunst, what the Nazis defined as ‚Degenerate Art’. Life became increasingly unpleasant for Schwitters, as his contracts with industry in Hannover were terminated and his art was entirely removed from all museums and ridiculed in public. In 1935 his close friends were arrested. When the Gestapo issued an arrest warrant in January 1937 fur Schwitters, he had no choice but to go into exile into Norway, where he joined his son Ernst who had already fled to Norway in 1936. Although in exile in a foreign country, Schwitters still managed to persevere with his form of modernist art, creating a second Merzbau at his residence on the Norwegian island of Hjertøya. He remained in Norway until it was invaded by Germany in 1940, to which he was interned by the Norwegian Authorities on the Lofoten Islands. Following his release, he fled with his son and his daughter-in-law over the North Sea to Leith, Scotland in June 1940.

There he was interned by the local authorities, finally arriving at an internment camp on the Isle of Man in July 1940. Ironically the camp, which composed entirely of German and Austrian internees, was known as the 'artist's camp', in that it consisted of a large number of artists, writers, university academics and other intellectuals who had managed to escape the regime in Germany. It appears that Schwitters flourished in this environment, continued with his art and producing over 200 works. He also provided teaching to many students and actively contributed to the camp newsletter, The Camp. Schwitters was finally released from the internment camp in November 1941. He then moved to London, where he made contact with a wide number of different artists and was able to exhibit his art.

While living in London, Schwitters visited the Lake District with his wife, Edith in September 1942. He moved there permanently in June 1945 for the rest of his life. He recreated his Merzbau in a farmer's barn in Elterwater, actually using a £1,000 grant from the Museum of Modern Art in New York city, which was originally intended to enable him to reconstruct his Merzbau in Germany!

Schwitters was awarded British citizenship on the 7th January 1948 and died on the following day. He was buried at St. Mary's Church, Ambleside, Lake District. HIs grave was officially recognized in 1996 when a stone was emplaced with the inscriptions, 'Kurt Schwitters - Creator of Merzbau'. Although the stone remains, his body was reburied in the Engesohde Cemetery in Hannover in 1970.

Without a doubt, Schwitter’s life is a sad story of artistic brilliance in a world consumed with violent ignorance. It is a perfect example of how intellect, buring bright, creative and inspiring, can be smothered and destroyed by a totalitarian regime. Schwitter can only be admired for his perseverance to his art, from escaping the Nazis in his home town of Hannover to finally arriving in a little village in the Lake District. How far he had come from his original home to such a small, remote location in Northen England to finally be in peace to continue his work.

Sadly, Schwitter's original Modernist work in Hannover, the Merzbau, was destroyed in a bombing raid during the Second Wold War in 1943. A replica can be viewed in the Sprengel Museum in Hannover.

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