Kurt Schwitters (German, 1887–1948) was an important early 20th century painter, sculptor, designer, and writer. Born in Hannover, Germany, he studied at the School of Arts and Crafts there and continued on to the Dresden Academy. At his first exhibition in 1911, his work showed strong Post-Impressionist tendencies. However, as World War I engulfed Europe, his work shifted dramatically, incorporating a darker Expressionist style, as well as elements of Dada. He began showing works at Der Sturm, a famed Berlin gallery, and contributed to their eponymous magazine. He befriended Berlin avant-garde artists Raoul Hausmann (Austrian, 1886–1971), Hannah Höch (German, 1889–1978), and Hans Arp (French/German, 1886–1966). Though never officially part of Berlin Dada, he was heavily influenced by these artists and the emerging Dada style. Schwitters began making collages called Merz, which were made from found objects and would become his most well-known works. In these works, Scwhitters used magazine clippings, waste material, and other recycled items in an attempt to make sense of the rapidly changing and fragmenting post-war world. In 1919, Schwitters fame began to rise; he had his first one man show at Galerie Der Sturm, and published An Anna Blume (1919), a Dadaist mock-romantic poem. As Germany stabilized during the intra-war period, Schwitters began to travel, hosting lectures and discussions about his work. In Hannover, he transformed parts of his home into a network of interconnected grottos and secret compartments filled with clothing, human hair, and other collected objects. He called this Merzbau, an installation reminiscent of his Merz collages. During this period, Schwitters also founded and directed a successful advertising and design agency.

With the rise of the Nazi party in Germany, Schwitters fled to Norway in 1937. There, he built a second Merzbau that was soon destroyed by a fire. When the Nazis invaded Norway in 1940, he left for England, where he would remain for the rest of his life. He was interned on the Isle and Man with many other German intellectuals and artists, but he continued to perform and create art with the limited supplies available. Following his internment, Schwitters lived in London for a brief period, and eventually settled in the Lake District in the northwest of England. He painted realist landscapes and portraits late in his life to support himself, while continuing to produce collages. In 1947, he received funding from the MoMA in New York and began work on the Merzbarn, an installation in an old barn that was left unfinished upon his death. Many artists have cited Schwitters as highly influential, including Robert Rauschenberg (American, 1925–2008), Damien Hirst (British, b.1965), and Ed Ruscha (American, b.1937), among others. Critics also point to his wide-ranging work as prefiguring Pop Art, Happenings, Multimedia Art and Postmodernism.

Timeline

1887
Born in Hannover, Germany
1908–1914
Studied art at the Dresden Academy
1917
Worked as a technical draftsman
1920
Became a well-known typographer
1927
Arranged together with Cesar Domela, Lazlo Moholy Nagy and Friedrich Vordemberge-Gildewart the 'ring neuer werbegestelater'
1934
Joined the 'Deutscher Werkbund'
1948
Died in Ambleside/Westmorland

Exhibitions

2003
Kurt Schwitters: Collages, Paintings, Drawings, Objects, Ephemera, Ubu Gallery
1918
Hanover Secession