Merz Memories: Aspects of memorization in Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau

Term Paper 2011 36 Pages

Art - Miscellaneous



Merz Memories - spects of memorization in Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau

1. Introduction

2. The origination of Merz and the Merzbau
2.1 What is Merz ?
2.2 From the plane to the spatial composition
2.3 Dada and Merz

3. Merz and Memory: The concept of memory within the Merzbau
3.1 Schwitters’ urge to “merz” and its religious aspect
3.2 The age of memory crisis
3.3 Leah Dickerman’s notion of memory within the Merzbau
3.4 Dorothea Dietrich and the Merzbau’s columns as memorials
3.5 Memorizing the absent

4. Conclusion

5. List of illustrations

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Kurt Schwitters is one of the most original and eclectic German artists of the first half of the twentieth century. He was born in Hannover on June 20, 1887. In 1907 he enrolled in a college of Arts and Crafts in Hannover. After two years, he left that school and began his studies in painting at the Royal Saxonian Academy of Art in Dresden, where he learned the rather classic approach to art by learning the academic disciplines. In about 1918/1919, a turn took place. Schwitters’ revolution happened and he eventually turned to Merz (see Orchard 2009: 10-11).

With his wife Helma and his son Ernst, he used to live as a wealthy citizen in the house of his parents in Hannover, Germany (Fig.1), (Gamard 2000: 7). While his primary occupation was the Merz-collage, his work can be situated within Dadaist, expressionist and constructivist art.

This paper will deal with his most popular and probably biggest work, or like Gwendolen Webster once stated “one of the most unsaleable [sic?] objects in the history of art” (Webster 1997: 208), the Hannover Merzbau. In about 1920, he began constructing the Merzbau, a combination of collage, sculpture and architecture, which emerged in a corner of his studio (Fig.2) and eventually took over many parts of the house in Hannover. Schwitters slowly turned his Merz-works into a sculptural architectonic space that widened to almost all the rooms of the house and even the cellar and the balcony (Webster 1997: 209). This was the time, when he first called his whole art Merz, in order to separate it from anything else and to form a new idea of art. He collected everything he found and considered to be important or not and glued it together. His main occupation was the collage. Later on, Schwitters also referred to the entire Merzbau as the Kathedrale des erotischen Elends, or abbreviated KdeE1 (Cathedral of Erotic Misery). However this was the name of one of the columns or better sculptures, of which the Merzbau originated and grew (Webster 2997: 214).

The Merzbau was a complex formation of requisites linked to his bibliography but also to the contemporary world affairs as well as to German history, artists and thinkers, he considered to be worth getting a little memorial. A majority of the souvenir collection formed little niches, dedicated to his friends.

The Merzbau was a very intimate and private construction. It had to be very bound to himself and his memories, because he actually lived there. The construction is often described as “grottoesque”, impressive and full of little souvenirs. Over the years it was always changing and shifting, the different names that Schwitters gave it are very often mixed up with mere elements of the Merzbau but only because he himself never made clear which name referred to which piece. Another point is that there is much confusion in the today existing literature about the Merzbau’s exact location in the house in Hannover (see Webster 2007: 6).

The Merzbau is not completely documented. There are big voids in its story and history. Due to that, I have decided to find an approach that is not primarily hermeneutic, but still veers towards interpretation. This essay is primarily concerned with a deeper investigation of the various aspects of memory within the Merzbau, than has been made hitherto. It wants to point at the different concepts of memory, incorporated in Merz. In my research, I have recognized that only one article deals directly with the aspect of memory in Merz, witch’s author is Leah Dickerman. I will consult her notions of memory in the Merzbau but also show its limitations. One chapter of this paper concentrates on existing assumptions by Dickerman but with a critical eye and first and foremost, amends them.

Furthermore, I want to point to the several important concepts of memory, one can relate to the Merzbau, which are either produced by the construction itself or by people that deal with it. The Hannover Merzbau and the following Merzbauten provide a big challenge for Art Historians, because they do just not exist anymore. At least not physically, there is no real evidence, no real reference. What remains, is archive material, oral tradition, notes or journal entries by contemporary witnesses and photographs. In this paper will be argued that even the absence of the Merzbau creates memory. The Hannover Sprengel Museum did a recreation of the Merzbau (Fig.3) - but how much of it is fiction? The Merzbau has always been exposed to the wildest speculations. There also happened a number of translation errors and the reports are highly contradictory, which probably has increased the emergence of legends. Thus, I will also examine how the memories and documentation of the Merzbau have had an impact on its reception.

2. The origination of Merz and the Merzbau

Schwitters has not always been occupied with Merz. Since he was trained in the academy, he painted rather realist while he was educated. . But Schwitters was not satisfied with only painting realistic subjects and turned away from the academic kind of art. During the time thereafter, he gave all the current artistic tendencies a trial: Post-Impressionism, Futurism, Cubism and Expressionism (Schmalenbach 1976). Later on, he got close to the Dada movement and eventually established a totally new kind of art, namely Merz. This chapter will deal with the emergence of Merz and how it led Schwitters to his Merzbau.

2.1 What is Merz ?

In 1918/1919, an incident happened that eventually led to the Merzbau. Kurt Schwitters found an advertisement of the “Kommerz- und Privatbank” and cut out the part “merz”. In his collages, he used to work quite often with those paper shavings out of magazines, newspapers or whatever he could find - so he did with this one and included it into the collage “L Merzbild L3”2. From then on, he would call his whole work “Merz”. While it means nothing special “Merz is Merz and nothing else”, he would say, he liked the idea that one could associate with März (march), the month of renewing and growth, Kommerz, the rhyme of Herz (heart) (see Orchard 2009: 12). Schwitters only used fragments, found chunks of forgotten objects, more precisely rubbish to build his collages. Later on, he described his idea in relation to the time after the First World War: “Everything was in ruins anyway,” [ǥȐ “and the challenge was to build something completely new from the rubble. But that’s Merz” (Orchard 2009: 12-13). Schwitters wanted to order everything form a new that fell victim to the chaos of the First World War. Merz was his own revolution, his new art, but also his life, everything became Merz for him, eventually he would even say: “Now I call myself Merz” (Schwitters 1927: 99- 100).

After the First World War, Schwitters felt free and relieved and he “gave vent to [hisȐ jubilation in a loud outburst. Not being wasteful, [he] took everything with [him] that [he] could find, for we were now an impoverished country” (Schwitters 1930: 88). And further on:

"Man kann auch mit Müllabfällen schreien, und das tat ich, indem ich sie zusammenleimte und -nagelte. Ich nannte es Merz, es war aber mein Gebet über den siegreichen Ausgang des Krieges, denn noch einmal hatte der Frieden wieder gesiegt. Kaputt war sowieso alles, und es galt aus den Scherben Neues zu bauen“ (Schwitters 1930: 3).

Here he states that one can also shout with pieces of rubbish and so he did, by nailing and gluing them together. He also mentions that he gave it the name Merz, and that this was a prayer concerning the end of the war and the victory of peace. While everything is broken, the new challenge is to build new things out of the shards. This sentence marks the beginning of Merz, his own “one-man-art-movement” (Orchard 2009: 11). The Weimarer Republik felt for many like a big, uncertain chaos but for Schwitters it meant deliberation. Just like Dada, Merz has the potential to create a new world in itself. In the beginning, he was working on assemblages, collages and even Merz Poetry3, but there came a point, when his work grew from two dimensional form to the three ]dimensional space.

2.2 From the plane to the spatial composition

Kurt Schwitters came from collages made from objects trouvées via collage-sculptures to his spatially integrated concept of the Merzbau which can well be seen as one of the first installations. This spatial construction contained many rooms, caves and grottoes dedicated to the most different topics like the Biedermeier Room, the Goethe Grotto, Luther’s Corner, and the Mies Cave (see Dickerman 2005: 114), but also some dedicated to his friends like Hannah Höch, Mies van der Rohe and El Lissitzky (see Orchard 2009: 16) . According to the report of Richard Huelsenbeck, a very early visitor in 1919, the grottoes can be described as “apertures, concavities, hollows in which Schwitters kept souvenirs, photos, birthdates, and other respectable and less respectable data” (Huelsenbeck 1974:66). They took on different forms. Either they are whole niches in which Schwitters collected a variety of objects, or corners, that he furnished with firm constructions so that they can hold things, little rooms within the room, or literally little boxes full of souvenirs (see Dickerman 2005: 109).

When we look at that change, it seems important to know that Schwitters also studied architecture for one year (1918/19)4 and always had a deep interest in the field (see Dietrich 1991: 88). The Merzbau began with the very first column, also called the First Day Column (Fig.4) in a corner of his studio and eventually took over half of the house (Dickerman 2005: 109). Like that, the Merzbau originated and became his Lebenswerk (see Webster 2007: 4) that he never gave up on.

He left the Hannover Merzbau unfinished when he had to flee in December 1936 because the Nazis decided that he should belong to the ostracized artists and from then on he was traced. In 1937, he was even labeled a designated artist (see Gamard 2000: 1). He went to Exile to Norway, because he has had always some connection to that country (see Webster 1997: 275-277). But even in Exile he did not stop “merzing”. Apparently he always needed a Merzbau in his life. When he still lived in Hannover but visited Norway for the summer holidays, he already worked on a Merzbau, called Hut in Hjertoya (Fig.7, 8), a village close to Oslo (Orchard 2009: 17). He went into exile to Norway, a country he visited during the summer holidays even while living in Hannover and where he worked on a Merzbau called Hut Hjertoya. In Exile, he a started to build a new one5, the Haus am Bakken in Lysaker (Fig.12) (284). That one burnt down when some children played with fire nearby (see Orchard 2009: 15-16). The fourth and last Merz monument of his life, he created in Elterwater, Little Langdale close to the Lake District in England (Fig.9, 10). He “merzed” only one of the walls but this is the only remainder of his Merzbauten (326- 327). By that it becomes obvious, how much he was occupied with the idea of changing an architectural space to a cathedral of souvenirs, or an altar of remembrance.

In 1943 an allied bombing raid destroyed the Hannover Merzbau completely, which was a big shock for Schwitters (see Gamard 2000: Verso). Over time he has always been struggling to preserve the remains of his first Merzbau from afar. He tried to get funds from the United States to rebuild it. And he was successful. But when he finally got the award from the Museum of Modern Art New York he was in such a bad state of health that he could not travel back to Germany anymore and died the same year, in 1948 (see Orchard 2009:19).

However just the Merzbau’s “not being there” anymore creates that intense longing for remembrance. So, the writers of history just take what they can get hold of and out of it form an idea of the Merzbau that is strongly incoherent.

The only reliable evidence we have, are comments by Schwitters himself (if authentically transmitted) and photographs. However because the project was never finished, it has always been in progress, always underlying change. The pictures that document it are always just details out of something bigger, which makes it even more difficult to get an idea of its state to a certain time. There have apparently been times, when the little niches and grottos have been exposed and could been retrieved quite easily, but then Schwitters continued putting different things in front of them hiding the previous state. Later on he even linked all the columns with wood and plaster, so that the open character of it, where a visitor could have easy access to all the little details must have been changed (see Dickerman 2005: 113).

In his Merzbau, he unites collage, sculpture and architecture, which probably lead him to its notion as a Gesamtkunstwerk (see Dickerman 2005: 108). For Odo Marquardt, a Gesamtkunstwerk always has the tendency to wipe away the boundary between aesthetic construction and reality (see Marquardt 1983: 40-49). In my opinion, this assumption also applies for the Merzbau. Its aesthetically valuable framework preserved and gave shelter to all the fragments of reality. Even though, according to most sources, Schwitters began with his Merzbau around 1920, in 1931 he mentioned and described it for the first time in one of his publications, the first issue of Merz 21 Erstes Veilchenheft:


1 Here it is to mention that Schwitters said, the name has no hold on the object itself. (Schmalenbach 1976). 2

2 This collage was later called “degenerate” by the Nazis and never appeared again.

3 His most popular poem is “An Anna Blume” (Orchard 2009: 14).

4 This is only one year before he started to build his first Merzbau.

5 He had commenced to build the frameworks back home.


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University of Toronto – Fine Arts
Merz Merzbau merzbarn Kurt Schwitters memory Dada Hannover Exile grottos Schwitters



Title: Merz Memories: Aspects of memorization in Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau