— O.M.

Kurt Schwitters: The immersive art of Merzbau

MerzbauFrom 1923 to 1937, the german dada prophet Kurt Schwitters worked on recreating his Hanover studio in to an environment commemorating his artistic direction – the MERZ. Everything Schwitters would do, would be connected with MERZ – a word that had no sense, but would be placed in front of everything that Scwitters created: MERZ-paintings, MERZ-drawings…. His studio, his house, would then become his MERZ-house – in a simple german translation MERZ-bau.

Merzbau was destroyed in the allied bombings in 1943, though many of those that visited Schwitters in his studio, talk about a unique immersive experience that can merely be reconstructed. The structure was created from countless three-dimensional objets – found, stolen or created by Schwitters and placed at his random, however he felt it would best fit and progress this environment. The whole concept passed through time and several dimensions, reflecting many external influences – politics, human emotions, memories, ethics and history: Merzbau (or the Cathedral of Erotic Misery) featured several different zones that would mirror these very influences: The Cave of Sexual Murderers, The Grottos of Love, Michelangelo’s Exhbition or the Cave of Deprecated Heroes and the Cave of Hero Worship.
They would appear and dissapear as Schwitters’s incredible dada/constructivist/expressionistic “man-cave” evolved.

The evolving atmosphere of the Merzbau was geniusly described by a german-american dada artist Kate Steinitz, that frequently visited Schwitters:

Merzabu "column"“One day something appeared in the studio which looked like a cross between a cylinder or wooden barrel and a table-high tree stump with the bark run wild. It had evlved from a chaotic heap of various materials: wood, cardboard, iron scraps, broken furniture, and picture frames. Soon, however, the object lost all relationship to anything made by man or nature. Kurt called it a ʻcolumn.ʼ The column-like structure was hollow. Later, when it began to rise like a tower, some irregular divisions or platforms divided it into stories. The inside walls were perforated with entrances to caves-more or less dark, depending upon whether or not the electricity was functioning. The cave entrances were on different levels and never directly one above another. If someone wanted to visit all the caves, he had to go all the way around the column. The very secret caves were probably never seen by anyone except Walden Giedion and Arp.
I remember the Goethe Cave, the Niebelungen Cave, and the Cave of the Murderers, where little plastic figures were bleeding with lipstick. It has all frequently been described-particularly the cave in which a bottle of urine was solemnly displayed so that the rays of light that fell on it turned the liquid into gold. In addition to the Cave of Deprecated Heroes, there were Caves of Hero Worship, Caves of Friendship, an Arp Cave, a Moholy-Nagy Cave, a Gabo Cave, and a Mondrian Cave. Hannah Hoech was allowed two caves for her photo-collages.
I did not work actively on the column, but I remember that Kurt built into it a lost
key of mine which I had been searching for desperately. He placed the key next to a medical prescription written by Dr. Steinitz and the box of pills Schwitters bought but never took. In each cave was a sediment of impressions and emotions, with significant literary and symbolistic allusions.
MerzbauActually the details did all disappear in the course of time. The caves were walled up so you couldnʼt get in anymore. They were either nailed shut with rectangular, colored wooden boards, or they simply disappeared into the depths of the column, which gradually became a cathedral. Some parts of the Cathedral of Erotic Misery were in this stage of transition when I last saw and photographed it. A little guinea pig was sitting on one of the protruding parts.
When I left Hanover in 1936 the construction had spread out so far horizontally that it almost filled up the entire ground-floor studio next to the apartment of Kurt Schwittersʼ parents. Growing steadily in the other direction, too, the Cathedral had broken through the ceiling, and, aspiring upward, had pushed into Kurtʼs and Helmaʼs apartment above, leaving one of the rooms with no floor.” – “If the column had not been entirely destroyed by a bomb, if it had only been buried, it might have been excavated after a few centuries. Then one would have found, as in a time capsule, hidden deep in the inside of the column, the hidden life of Schwittersʼ soul his struggle with all problems of life and art, language and literature, of human and unhuman relations. The Cathedral harbored much more than his erotic misery, which perhaps was rather complicated, but not as tragic as his struggle for pure form which finally conquered the chaos of the darkest erotic caves, the entanglements of the historical caves, and the complexities of the caves of friendship.”

Merzbau

As Brian O’Doherty states in Inside The White Cube, Schwitters’s Merzabu greatly manifested the transformative energy of an exhbition space – it was “the first example of a ‘gallery’ as a chamber of transformation, from which the world can be colonised by the converted eye.”
Merzbau 
was a true example of how space can effect us, and effect what is included in it. An important piece in understanding the conceptual and contextual principals that drove the modernistic insights into modern visual art.

In 1983, Dr. Harald Szeemann commissioned Peter Bissegger to reconstruct the Merzbau and subsequently exhibited it at the Sprengel Museum in Hannover, where it is permanently placed till this very day. A travelling version of Merzbau also exists, as well created by Bissegger, and has been exhibited in many respected museums worldwide.

Merzbau - 1983 reconstruction

 

above: Video of the travelling Merzbau reconstruction – assembled at Berkley Museum in 2011.

 

Bibliography:
THOMAS, Elisabeth. In Search of Lost Art: Kurt Schwitters Merzbau, 2012, MOMA Museum archives.
SCHMALENBACH, Werner. Kurt Schwitters. 1976, Harry N. Abrams.
MARTIN, Megan. Authors on Art: Kurt Schwitters expanding house. 2011, Burnaway.com.
O’Doherty, Brian. Inside The White Cube. 1999, University of California press.

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