kurt schwitters installation
Schwitters’ art was more than just the collage object itself. It was a whole process, philosophy, and lifestyle, which he called merzвЂ”a nonsense word that became his kind of personal brand. He was a merz-artist who made merz-paintings and merz-drawings, and naturally, the place where he merzedвЂ”his studio and family homeвЂ”was his merz-building, or Merzbau. Over the years, thisВ Merzbau developed into a kind of abstract walk-in collage composed of grottoes and columns and found objects, ever-shifting and ever-expanding. It was more than just a studio; it was itself a work of art.
But these photographs only capture what the Merzbau looked like in one particular instant. For many artworks, that would be enoughвЂ”but the Merzbau was not just a static painting or a sculpture, but a whole environment, and one that was in constant flux. One day the Merzbau could have a new column of debris stacked in the corner, the next day a new grotto dedicated to an artist friend. Photographs can’t quite capture theВ Merzbau‘s expanding and shifting nature.
Merzbau 1933, reconstruction by Peter Bissegger 1981–3
393 x 580 x 460 cm
Sprengel Museum Hannover © DACS 2007
One of the most important art works and myths in modern art, the inspiration for many installation artists, and still one of the most well known and published works by Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948), the Merzbau, in fact, no longer exists. It was destroyed in a British air raid in October 1943 in Hannover. By 1937, when Schwitters left his hometown to follow his son into exile in Oslo, the Merzbau comprised a total of eight rooms in his house at 5 Waldhausenstraße in Hannover. Most of the surviving photographs seem to have been taken in the space of the ‘Merzbau proper’ (‘eigentlicher Merzbau’), in which Schwitters is known to have begun working at the beginning of 1927. Three photographs taken by Wilhelm Redemann in 1933 show the most detailed and complete overview of this main room.
Though not a direct participant in Berlin Dada’s activities, Schwitters employed Dadaist ideas in his work, used the word itself on the cover of An Anna Blume, and would later give Dada recitals throughout Europe on the subject with Theo van Doesburg, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp and Raoul Hausmann. In many ways his work was more in tune with Zürich Dada’s championing of performance and abstract art than Berlin Dada’s agit-prop approach, and indeed examples of his work were published in the last Zürich Dada publication, Der Zeltweg,  November 1919, alongside the work of Arp and Sophie Tauber. Whilst his work was far less political than key figures in Berlin Dada, such as George Grosz and John Heartfield, he would remain close friends with various members, including Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, for the rest of his career.
After studying art at the Dresden Academy alongside Otto Dix and George Grosz, (although Schwitters seems to have been unaware of their work, or indeed of contemporary Dresden artists Die Brücke  ), 1909–1915, Schwitters returned to Hanover and started his artistic career as a post-impressionist. In 1911 he took part in his first exhibition, in Hanover. As the First World War progressed his work became darker, gradually developing a distinctive expressionist tone.
R elatively little remains of any of the Merzbau structures. The original Merzbau in Hanover was lost in the bombing of the city and exists only in the three magnificent photographs that Kurt Schwitters commissioned in 1933. The Lysaker Merzbau burned to the ground in 1950, leaving only a sketch or two behind. The Schwittershytta in Norway, which had remained relatively intact despite its dilapidation, has recently (2015) been dismantled and removed to a museum.
The Hjertoya Schwittershytta, near Molde
To maintain some sense of a known reality, and perhaps even a sense of whimsy, he includes an easily recognizable object here: the enameled tin butterfly. There is indication that Schwitters originally intended to include other everyday objects as well (a broken piece of china and two wooden balls that would project directly into the viewer’s space) in order to ground the work in the viewer’s world. Maraak encapsulates Schwitters’ attempt to negotiate between the viewer’s world and that presented within the constrictive space of the work itself, commenting on their overlapping yet ever distinct essence.
The focal point of the image is a white flashcard featuring a printed cluster of cherries and the German and French words for “cherry” upon which he has scribbled an ungrammatical phrase “Ich liebe dir!” (“I love she!”). He essentially takes a standard educational tool and destroys its utility with blatantly incorrect language. Like other Dada artists, Schwitters manipulated words and images in order to highlight the irrationality and arbitrariness of conventional systems, in this case, language.