Kurt Schwitters

Hanover – Kendal
1887 – 1948

Kurt’s Early Life

Kurt Schwitters was born in Hanover in 1887, the only child of wealthy middle class parents. He was a talented artist from a young age and his family supported him in his studies in Hanover and Dresden. His career as an artist flourished and he became an early post-impressionist.

Kurt married Helma Fischer in 1915. The couple’s first son, Gerd, was born a year later, but tragically died within a week. Their second son, Ernst, was born soon after.

“My name is Kurt Schwitters… I am an artist and I nail my pictures together.”

Part of the Der Sturm group and associated with the Constructivists and the Dadaists, Kurt was interested in challenging traditional modes of artistic representation and production. In 1919, he announced his own, one-man art movement that he called ‘Merz’. Its aim was to combine all forms of creative endeavour and blur traditional boundaries. He produced prose, poetry, typography, painting, sculpture, collage, assemblage and installation.

In the early-1930s, Kurt transformed the interiors of the family home in Hanover into a living work of art – an epic undertaking called ‘Merzbau’.

Ursonate

Listen to Kurt Schwitters perform an excerpt from his 1932 poem, Ursonate. He would later perform this in various internment camps.

“I could see no reason why used tram tickets, bits of driftwood, buttons and old junk from attics and rubbish heaps should not serve well as materials for paintings. They suited the purpose just as well as factory-made paints.”

Kurt’s Journey

The interwar period had seen a host of solo and joint exhibitions for Kurt, but things were to change when Hitler came to power. From 1933, Kurt’s work had begun to be included in a touring exhibition, ‘Entartete Kunst’, organised by the Nazi party. The aim was to isolate and ridicule a number of contemporary German artists by declaring their work ‘degenerate’ and eliminating them for public exhibition and collection.

Now an outcast, Kurt’s situation both professionally and personally was growing perilous. In 1937, fearing for his life, he fled with his son Ernst to Norway, leaving Helma behind to look after the rest of the family. When the Nazis invaded Norway, Kurt narrowly escaped by boarding the icebreaker,  Fridtjof Nansen, bound for Scotland.

Kurt’s Internment

Kurt arrived in Britain to find a country preparing for invasion. He was arrested and interned at a makeshift holding centre at York Race Course before being transferred to Warth Mills.

Kurt was at Warth Mills for four weeks, along with his son Ernst. There is little known written testimony from father or son, but Ernst appears to have been a victim of the commandant’s embezzlement of internees. In April 1941, he gave evidence at Major Braybrook’s trial, describing how his typewriter had been stolen.

In July 1940, Kurt was transferred to the Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man. Hutchinson was known as the “artists camp” and Kurt was very popular. He was provided with studio space and took on many students, some of whom went on to become noted artists (Peter Midgley, for example). He contributed portraits and landscapes to the camp art exhibitions and poetry to the newsletter.

Kurt was released from internment in November 1941.

Life After the War

After his release, Kurt lived with his son in London where he exhibited in various galleries. It was in London that Kurt met his future companion, Edith Thomas. The two had enjoyed holidaying in the Lake District and, following the death of Helma Schwitters in 1944, they decided to move there permanently.

Kurt travelled throughout the North of England making a living by painting commissioned portraits. One of these portraits was of Harry Pierce, the owner of Cylinders Farm between Elterwater and Chapel Stile. Pierce offered Kurt the use of his barn to produce artwork and, in 1947, Kurt started work on a new Merzbau. This would be called Merz Barn.

Kurt suffered a stroke in the mid-1940s and eventually developed pneumonia. He was granted British citizenship on 7 January 1948, but died the next day.

“When Schwitters made the first collage by literally picking up a piece of rubbish, a sweet wrapper, a bus ticket and a piece of wood, that was pure invention.” - Sir Peter Blake

After Kurt’s death, there were attempts by Harry Pearce, Edith Thomas and Gwyneth Alban Davis (a local printmaker) to promote Kurt’s Merz Barn, but it gradually fell into disrepair. In 1965, the main wall of the Merz Barn was moved to the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle where it remains today.

Heather Ross presents her talk, ‘Kurt Schwitters in Bury’, at Bury Art Museum on Saturday 21 July, 2018. For more information, visit the Events page.

Next Internee

Peter Gellhorn

Breslau — London

Read more