Kurt Schwitters the Master of Merz

Kurt Schwitters, from the Armitt Museum Collection 'Wood on Wood' 1946 by Kurt Schwitters 'Smithy Brow' by Kurt Schwitters (Armitt Collection) 'Dr Johnson' by Kurt Schwitters (Armitt Collection) 'Ambleside Bridge House' by Kurt Schwitters (Armitt Collection) 'Old Mill Ambleside' 1945 by Kurt Schwitters (Armitt Collection)

The Armitt Museum Collection in Ambleside, near Windermere in the Lake District, has an impressive collection of 23 diverse works by the artist Kurt Schwitters, including the fine portraits of Dr Johnston, Harry Pierce and his wife, his son Bill, and many others.

Schwitters’ artistic approach is associated with numerous art movements, including Dadaism, Constructivism and Surrealism, but he was most notably influential in the development of 20th Century art when he took two dimensional collage and made it three dimensional – creating a new art form that he entitled ‘Merz’.

My name is Kurt Schwitters… I am a painter and I nail my pictures together…

The Armitt Museum collection, in the Lake District, includes landscapes and a Merz assemblage entitled ‘Wood on Wood’. There are also some pencil sketches, alongside an oil painting of ‘The Bridge House in Ambleside’ and ‘The Old Mill, Ambleside’ and ‘Untitled’ (Vase of Flowers).

Born in Hanover in 1887, Kurt Schwitters studied art at Dresden, but it was not until the Dada movement of 1916 that he finally liberated himself from conventional art. Schwitters took from Dada the freedom to use a diversity of materials in his pictorial compositions: bits of rubbish, bits society throws away. By incorporating this unwanted, unvalued detritus of human society into his artworks, he challenged the viewer to re-evaluate value systems and view society differently.

Undisputedly a man with extraordinary imagination Schwitters drew on the Dada philosophy, yet rejected its basic negativity. It is an accepted belief that, after his death in 1948, Merz went on to inspire the Pop Art movement of the 1950s and1960s.

I know for sure that a great day will come for myself and for other important individuals of the abstract movement when we shall influence a whole generation, only I fear that I personally will not live to see the day – Kurt Schwitters

One of Schwitters’ most important works of art was a sculpture titled ‘The Cathedral of Erotic Misery’, or his Merzbau. This sculptural artwork with its phallic column constantly evolved and remained unfinished because it was unfinishable; it was environmental and engulfing in scope, but its significance was that it marked the birth of installation or conceptual art that we see today. The Hanover Merzbau was destroyed by bombs in 1943.

Alongside his Merz collages and sculptures, Schwitters also wrote and performed popular abstract poems and his enthusiasm for typography led to him setting up his own advertising agency which proved financially successful.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, many artists, Jews and non Jews fled Germany. In 1937 for a variety of compelling reasons Schwitters left Hanover for Norway, never to return to his home again. The Norwegian experience was mixed, but while there he started his second Merzbau. In 1940 Schwitters and his son fled to Britain where they were both interned on the Isle of Man. Afterwards Schwitters lived in London until the end of the war in 1945, when he moved to Ambleside where he remained until his death in poverty and obscurity in 1948.

Schwitters never received the recognition in Britain he had enjoyed in Europe, and his art did not sell. However, in 1947 he was fortunate enough to start his third Merzbau in a barn in Elterwater. Regrettably only a fragment was completed before his death, and this small monument to his genius can now be seen in the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle.

Today the Armitt Museum Collection in the Lake District, along with the 23 original artworks, also has the most extensive collection of books, biographies, catalogues and newspaper cuttings on the life of Kurt Schwitters – a fascinating resource for any students or enthusiasts of this inspiring artist.

The Armitt, in Ambleside in the Lake District, is one of Britain’s rarest small museums, discover more here

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