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wikipedia on Kurt Schwitters

Kurt Schwitters (June 20, 1887 - January 8, 1948) was a German painter, who was born in Hanover, Germany. Schwitters participated in the Dada movement during and after World War I. His particular contribution to that group was his Merz works, art pieces built up of found objects into large constructions or even what would later in the 20th century have been called 'installations'. The Sprengel Museum in Hanover has a reconstruction of the most famous of these installations called 'Merzbau' which was a redesign of Schwitters own apartment in Hanover. The original Merzbau was destroyed in an air raid during WW II.

Schwitters started a second Merzbau in exile in Oslo, Norway in 1937 but was forced to abandon it when the Nazis invaded. This structure was also subsequently destroyed in a fire. He fled to England, initially being interned in Douglas Camp, Isle of Man. He spent time in London, then moved to the Lake District, where, in 1947, he began work on the last Merzbau, which he called the 'Merzbarn'. This last structure is now in the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle.

He composed and performed an early example of sound poetry, Ursonate (1922-32; the transliteration of the title is "Primordial Sonata"). His recording of this was later sampled by Brian Eno for "Kurt's rejoiner" on his album Before and After Science (1977).

'Merz' - according to Schwitters was part of the name of the Commerzbank.

He is also the author An Anna Blume.

In 1937 he was included in the Nazi exhibition of 'degenerate art' (Entartete Kunst) at Munich.

He died in Kendal, England, and was buried in Ambleside. His grave was unmarked until 1966 when a stone was erected with the inscription: "Kurt Schwitters – Creator of Merz". This stone remains as a memorial depite the fact that his body was later disinterred and reburied in Hannover,Germany, the grave being marked with a marble copy of his 1929 sculpture "Die Herbstzeitlose".

Kurt Schwitters, however, was never really involved in the Dada movement as such; though he was contemporary to it. In fact, he attempted to join the network of artists, largely based in Zurich but later present in Berlin, New York and so forth, only to be rejected by the leader of the Berlin movement, Richard Huelsenbeck on the premise that Schwitters was 'too bourgeois' for Dada... thus the emergence of his MERZ magazine.

Japanese musician Merzbow took his name from Schwitters. on Kurt Schwitters

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) Born in Hanover, Germany, his studies in art were interrupted by WWI. In 1917, he painted his first abstract pictures and in 1918 saw the birth of his famous collage technique "Merz."

During these turbulent years of cultural development, Schwitters met and collaborated with other leading Dadaists such as Arp, Tzara, Hausmann and others. On hearing Hausmann's sound poem "fmsbw"in 1921, he immediately recognized the great poetntial of Sound Poetry. With great logic and concentration, he built up a totally abstract piece, "Sonata in Urläten." Over the years, the Sonata grew in both size and variations, and realizing that some phonetic notation for the Sonata was essential if it was not to die with him, he finally published his notations as the last number of his Merz magazine in 1932.

In autumn 1921, Kurt Schwitters travelled to Prague, together with Raoul Hausmann, Hannah H6ch and his wife. On September 1, at the "Commodity Exchange Hall", Raoul Hausmann performed his phonetic poem beginning with the line "fmsbwtazdu", which served as an impetus for Schwitters' Ursonate. It was not until 1926 that the sonata achieved the form in which it was published in 1932. The final version, however, developed by way of innumerable performances given by Schwitters between 1926 and 1932.

Kurt Schwitters is generally acknowledged as the twentieth century's greatest master of collage. Just as collage is essentially the medium of irony, so Schwitters' life is characterized by paradox and enigma. Born in Hanover, the only child of affluent parents, he was a loner in his youth, plagued by epileptic attacks, introverted and insecure, and as a student at the Dresden Academy of Art he proved as apt as he was unimaginative. Although his contact with Expressionist artists in Hannover in 1916 gave him more confidence to develop his own style, even his most impressive works (such as Mountain Graveyard) were little more than imitations of his contemporaries.

A major challenge came in 1918 with the invitation to exhibit at Herwarth Walden's notorious Sturm gallery in Berlin, for Walden had contacts with most progressive European artists, including the Zurich Dada group. Schwitters found further stimulus in the activities of the revolutionary Berlin Dadaists. (The generally accepted story that Schwitters was rejected by Berlin Dada is, however, not true.) But it was Hans Arp, himself a pioneer of collage, who first persuaded Schwitters to abandon his sterile academic techniques. Schwitters' first known collage, Hansi, is strongly reminiscent of Arp's work, and soon afterwards he began making assemblages from scraps of refuse, including one he called the Merz picture. Subsequently he referred to all his work as Merz.

A Sturm exhibition of his new style in mid-1919, which showed his abstract Merz works and some whimsical 'Dada drawings' (such as The Heart goes from Sugar to Coffee) caused a furore among the critics, as did his 'Anna Blume' poem published in the same year. Schwitters thrived on public opposition, and from 1919 to 1923 he created a succession of Merz pictures which are now seen as his greatest contribution to twentieth century art. These pictures carry an inner tension that derives from the sensitive juxtaposition of abstraction and realism, aesthetics and rubbish, art and life, and their innate dynamism is one of the characteristics of Merz. Schwitters stands alone in the consummate mastery of colour, the delicate balance of content and form and the intricate interplay of coarse and filigree displayed in Merzbild Rossfett; the almost minimalist Revolving, using the barest of materials, conveys a mysterious shadowy rotating cosmos extending far beyond the bounds of the frame: in Construction for Noble Ladies, the precarious equilibrium of the disparate elements is stabilised only by the side-on portrait of Schwitters' angelic and long-suffering wife Helma.

Schwitters' revolution came late - he was 32 at the time of the first Merz exhibition - but Merz changed his life radically. He suddenly found himself at the forefront of contemporary art and quickly allied himself with the avant-garde, including various European Dada groups, the Bauhaus (Schlemmer, Klee, Kandinsky, Feininger, Gropius) and the new generation of Contructivists from Eastern Europe and the Netherlands (Lissitsky, Moholy-Nagy, Theo van Doesburg). By now his fantasy knew no bounds and over the next decade he undertook radical experiments in such fields as abstract drama and poetry, cabaret, typography, multimedia art, body painting, music, photography and architecture. He published a Merz magazine which appeared irregularly from 1923-32 and founded what was to become a successful advertising agency in 1924.

Schwitters was a master of subtle colour and precarious balance, and during the twenties the influence of Constructivism, with its clinical reliance on primary colour and clear geometrical forms, was not always advantageous to his work. Although a quasi-minimalist approach came naturally to him (he experimented with it early, in pictures like Coloured Squares), he introduced Constructivist ideas more rigorously into his work after 1924. The composition of the Merz pictures becomes more clear-cut, the textures more uniform, the individual elements larger and simpler. But luckily he never abandoned the principles of Merz, as can be seen from the splendid Relief with Cross and Sphere and Cicero, where the effects of stark Constructivist colours and tight composition are brilliantly offset by sharp curves and shadows and Schwitters' beloved scraps of battered Merz refuse. An equally startling example is Small Seaman's Home (made in Holland, where Schwitters would comb the beaches for Merz finds during his summer holidays).

For thirteen years (1923-36) he also worked on an extraordinary construction that came to be known as the Merzbau; it was what we would now call an Environment and eventually spread to eight rooms of his house in Hannover. Its original name was the 'Cathedral of Erotic Misery' and its contents were as shocking as anything produced by radical young artists today.

With the rise of National Socialism in Germany after 1929, Schwitters found himself in serious difficulties. As the artistic community emigrated or went into hiding, so Schwitters was robbed of much of the impetus that was crucial to his art. The death of his father and of Theo van Doesburg in 1931 mark the start of a new phase of his work, as Schwitters himself makes clear in 'New Merz Picture', with its contemplative mood and coarse dabs of colour. The sombre restraint of Pino Antoni is likewise in sharp contrast to the works of the exuberant early Merz period.

Schwitters kept a low profile during the Third Reich and emigrated to Norway in January 1937, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained. But the Gestapo were certainly on his trail, and in summer 1937 his pictures were displayed at the infamous 'Entartete Kunst' exhibition in Munich. Clearly his return to Germany was blocked for ever.

Depressed at abandoning the Hannover Merzbau to an uncertain fate, Schwitters completed a similar construction in Oslo, but in 1940 Nazi troops invaded Norway and he was forced to flee for his life. He finally landed in England, where he was interned until November 1941. Yet the Merz pictures of this turbulent period give little indication of the fact that Schwitters suffered from poor health and time and again found himself in life-threatening situations. Merzbild Alf is often cited as an example of his brief interest in Surrealism: it is difficult to imagine that Spring Door, the superb Glass Flower and Merzbild with Rainbow, with their sparks of light and swinging rhythms, were created at a time of increasing isolation and despair for the artist.

After release from internment, Schwitters lived until 1945 in bombed-out London, where the unfamiliar surroundings gave him fresh inspiration for Merz pictures. He made light of his heap of problems in Difficult, echoed the dismal fabric of wartime Britain and the blows of fate in the ironically-named Heavy Relief, reworked the great masters in inimitable tongue-in-cheek Merz fashion in Die heilige Nacht and recalled the dark days of the Nazi regime in the sinister black shapes and blood-red background of Hitler Gang (named after a film). He was fascinated by the comics sent in letters from compatriots in the USA and used them in his famous For Kate, a collage now regarded as a forerunner of Pop Art.

In 1945 he moved with his young companion, Edith Thomas, to Ambleside in the English Lake District, where, financed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he started on a new Merzbau that came to be known as the Merz barn. At his death he had completed only one wall, now to be found in Newcastle University. Sadly, no other of Schwitters extraordinary Merzbau constructions have survived. He died at the age of sixty, poverty-stricken and neglected, but in the knowledge that his work would one day be recognized as that of a genius. As he saw, the language of Merz now finds common acceptance and today there is scarcely an artist working with materials other than paint who does not refer to Schwitters in some way. In his bold and wide-ranging experiments he can be seen as the grandfather of Pop Art, Happenings, Concept Art, Fluxus, multimedia art and post-modernism.

Through all the tribulations of his life, Schwitters stood his ground with his undogmatic, non-élitist and democratic creation of Merz, which conjured up its own magic from the rejected and the discarded: small wonder that the Nazis found Schwitters' art subversive and tried to eradicate it. And in our own age of increasing extremism, his message is as valid as it ever was.

Ursonate (or: Sonate in Urlauten)

see the full "notation" at:

The sonata consists of a written organization of phonetics, with notations in German. No notes, tempi, or formal dynamics are given, allowing the performer a bit of freedom. Schwitters' own comments:

"The Sonata consists of four movements, of an overture and a finale, and seventhly, of a cadenza in the fourth movement. The first movement is a rondo with four main themes, designated as such in the text of the Sonata. You yourself will certainly feel the rhythm, slack or strong, high or low, taut or loose. To explain in detail the variations and compositions of the themes would be tiresome in the end and detrimental to the pleasure of reading and listening, and after all I'm not a professor." "In the first movement I draw your attention to the word for word repeats of the themes before each variation, to the explosive beginning of the first movement, to the pure lyricism of the sung "Jüü-Kaa," to the military severity of the rhythm of the quite masculine third theme next to the fourth theme which is tremulous and mild as a lamb, and lastly to the accusing finale of the first movement, with the question "tää?"..." The fourth movement, long-running and quick, comes as a good exercise for the reader's lungs, in particular because the endless repeats, if they are not to seem too uniform, require the voice to be seriously raised most of the time. In the finale I draw your attention to the deliberate return of the alphabet up to a. You feel it coming and expect the a impatiently. But twice over it stops painfully on the b..." "I do no more than offer a possibility for a solo voice with maybe not much imagination. I myself give a different cadenza each time and, since I recite it entirely by heart, I thereby get the cadenza to produce a very lively effect, forming a sharp contrast with the rest of the Sonata which is quite rigid. There." "The letters applied are to be pronounced as in German. A single vowel sound is short... Letters, of course, give only a rather incomplete score of the spoken sonata. As with any printed music, many interpretations are possible. As with any other reading, correct reading requires the use of imagination. The reader himself has to work seriously to becomew a genuine reader. Thus, it is work rather than questions or mindless criticism which will improve the reader's receptive capacities. The right of criticism is reserved to those who have achieved a full understanding. Listening to the sonata is better than reading it. This is why I like to perform my sonata in public."

Comments on my Ursonate

The sonata consists of four movements, an introduction, an end, and a cadence in the fourth movement. The first movement is a rondo with four motifs, which are especially indicated in this text of the sonata. It is rhythm, strong and weak, loud and silent, dense and spacious, etc. I do not want to explain the delicate variations and compositions of the themes ...

Signs in my Ursonate

The letters applied are to be pronounced as in German. A single vocal sound is short ...

Letters, of course, give only a rather incomplete score of the spoken sonata. As with any printed music, many interpretations are possible * As with any other reading, correct reading requires the use of imagination.

The reader himself has to work seriously to become a genuine reader. Thus, it is work rather than questions or mindless criticism which will improve the reader's receptive capacities. The right of criticism is reserved to those who have achieved a full understanding. Listening to the sonata is better than reading it. This is why I like to perform my sonata in public. But since it is not possible to give performances everywhere, I intend to make a gramophone recording of the sonata ...


-- HiazHhzz - 18 Jan 2004
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