Tag Archives: Dada

Kurt Schwitters: ‘The Profoundest of Nonsense’


Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), a key figure in European Dada, originally lived in Hanover, Germany, but after being labelled as ‘degenerate’ by Hitler, fled first to Norway in 1937 and then to Ambleside, UK, where he died (unaccountably) unknown and in penury in 1948. His art, like his life, was bizarre and epic – he did everything and often, it seemed, at the same time: he made deft collages; wrote Dada poetry, ‘anxiety plays’ and bizarre stories; published a periodical; gave exuberant Dada performances; painted bad portraits which he ripped apart to make materials for his collages; and constructed the ‘Schwitters Column’, a huge, interior, fantastical sculptural form that, in its first, Hanover incarnation, eventually took over six rooms of his house. Schwitters is best known for his ‘Merz’, skilful collages made from found and thrown-away materials – feathers, tram-tickets, skittles, cut-out words from magazines, shoe-laces, feathers, dish-cloths, stones – which he affectionately returned to a place in life through his art. Although Schwitters’s accomplishments weren’t recognised in his lifetime, his collages were subsequently a revered influence on British art from Richard Hamilton to Damien Hirst. Like many Dadaists he saw art as a form of protest: “One can even shout out through refuse, and this is what I did, nailing and gluing it together”.

schwitters merz 1920

(Merz from 1920)

Schwitters was often known for his liveliness, uninhibited nature and wit – “with his incessant magical gesticulations, he seemed about to break free of the fetters of reason”, as historian of Dada, Hans Richter, observed – but some of his art, especially the Column, with its grottoes dedicated, among other things, to his dead child, hint at a darker side to his personality. No one could give Dada performances like him, though, whether he was barking wildly like a dog on stage or loudly declaiming his sound poems like Ursonate or more naturalistic poems like Anna Blume:

“….Blue is the colour of your yellow hair
Red is the cooing of your green bird
You simple girl in a simple dress, you dear
Green beast, I love your! You ye you your,
I your, you my. – We?”


Schwitters began work on the first Column, the Merzbau, in his house Hanover in 1923 and finished it around 1933, a project that grew and grew, threatening to take over the entire building – he once joked it would eventually reach Berlin. It was destroyed in a bomb raid during the war but the photos that remain show a massive, angular, white construction, bizarre and disorienting, comprised of a series of grottoes, shelves and columns with many inserted objects – collages, found things, personal items, artworks. The grottoes were dedicated to fellow painters (eg Arp, Mondrian), themes (eg war, love), writers (eg Goethe), and family members. The Merzbau was more a living, changing document of his and his friends’ lives than a sculpture, which he constantly added to – a lock of hair, half-smoked cigarette or child’s watering can here, a china egg, lump of string or artwork there. The Merzbau was part folly, part temple, part modernist fantasia. In exile in Norway he began another Column and finally a third, the Merz Barn, in a barn in Ambleside, UK. Some of the strangest works of art ever constructed, the Columns marked him out as someone with a truly original vision, a man who may have courted apparent ‘nonsense’ but did so in the profoundest way, and a quintessentially artists’ artist – Herbert Read, the famous UK critic, described Schwitters as “a parallel to James Joyce”. His work on the Ambleside Merz Barn only lasted a few months as by then his health was rapidly declining and he was only kept alive by the emotional and financial assistance of his new partner Edith Thomas. He was dedicated to creating the Merz Barn until the end: “We must keep on playing,” he said, “until death confines us.”

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Graduated Mystery: A Dada Poem


By Whimsylph (generated, in large part, through random techniques)

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Filed under Arts, Dada, Surrealism