As someone who for years dreamt of creating his own movement, I’ve looked up to Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) as a hero. He had the strength to say, Screw it, I I’m doing my own thing, and never look back. In the end, he became the epitome of what those who rejected him represented.
Schwitters aspired to join the Dadas and start his own chapter in Hanover, Germany. For those who need a refresher, Dada was an avant-garde movement of the early 20th century. Basically it was a bunch of weirdos who loved nonsense, paradox, and hijinks while opposing the art and thought of the bourgeoisie. Marcel Duchamp’s (1887- 1968) famous piece “Fountain”—an upside down urinal—is a perfect example of this.
Though he is now considered Dada, Schwitters was rejected by the Dadas in Berlin who held the First International Dada Fair there in 1920. It may have been his dedication to his art that turned off the other Dadas. Whatever the case, he started his own movement, which he called “Merz.” A name taken from a sign that read COMMERZBANK.
The irony in this is sweet. By being rejected by people who oppose convention, it made Schwitters even more Dada than the others. As famous Dadaist poet Tristan Tzara (1896-1963) said, “The true Dadas have always been separate from Dada.”
Schwitters began work on a massive collage sculpture called the Merzbau (or Merz building) in his apartment that would take him years to complete. Filmmaker Hans Richter (1888-1976) recorded the movement in his book Dada: Art and Anti-Art and visited Schwitters’ apartment:
When I first saw [the sculpture] about 1925, it filled half the room and reached the ceiling … it was a living, daily-changing document on Schwitters and his friends …
The sculpture was full of holes, each dedicated to an individual. Schwitters would place very personal objects from that individual in each: a lock of hair, a pencil from their drawing board, false teeth, even a bottle of urine.
The Merzbau evolved over the years as Schwitters added new holes and new people. It changed shape and color and eventually grew so large that he had to take over the upstairs apartment. He made many of these over the years, most of which were destroyed in World War II—a fitting end, you might say, for Dada art, which was all about impermanence.
Schwitters has left his mark on the world even if the Merz movement has faded into obscurity. He is considered the father of installation art as well as one of the first to use abstraction in collage. For me, he is an important part of the pantheon of Dadas and Surrealists that I worship. And one bizarre dude that I hope you’ll remember.
If you want more bizarre history, let me know.