PRINT September 1973

Private Objects: The Sculpture of Kurt Schwitters


SCHWITTERS’ OUTPUT AS AN ARTIST was prodigious, but of all the arts he worked in, the one most objectlike in character—sculpture—seems somewhat peripheral to his main achievement. The eccentric Dadaist sculptures of the early years appear to be mere offshoots from the far more seriously motivated assemblages that spawned them. The small organic-looking works of wood or plaster and wire dating from the mid-’20s are largely monolithic in effect, and further from the principle of assemblage than any other aspect of his oeuvre. He did, we know, refer to the Hanover Merzbau—the labyrinthlike environmental construction that eventually came to occupy a large proportion of his own home—as being a sculpture; and its importance to his entire oeuvre is not in question. But sculpture as such—as freestanding objects—is not for what Schwitters is remembered.

Given his obsession with objects, and remembering also that “the object” was a central preoccupation for advanced sculpture when Schwitters developed his own art, this fact seems at first surprising. However, objects as such were for Schwitters but the raw material of his art. Time and again in his writings, he insisted that the physical components of an assemblage, collage, or whatever, were unimportant on their own behalf. “Essential is only the forming.”1 Committed to the autonomy of art, he sought to minimize the real power of the materials and objects he used, and said hardly anything about what this evocative detritus meant to him. It is hard to believe he chose it only on formal grounds, given his preference for things used, worn, and “already steeped in humanity.” While one can agree with Schwitters that it is not what these objects were that is important (they are not just objects on display), equally they are also far from being mere functional components “filling out” a given style. The expressive pull of each object against its pictorial containment, and the collective mood they create are essential to the character and quality of the art. It was Schwitters’ special complicity with objects that brought new feeling to the collection of secondhand styles in which they were used. On several occasions Schwitters almost admitted that it was the unfamiliarity and charged nature of the objects that gave to the known styles he employed their new power. “In the relationship of a known and unknown quality, the unknown varies and modifies the known,” he wrote in 1923.2 Three years later, when reviewing his artistic development, he wrote that his feelings had been “poured into the form,” and it was this that kept “forming” from mere decoration.3

By and large, when discussing the role of objects in his art he played down anything other than their formal role. Throughout his writings on this subject there run two related images.O ne is the inherent evocativeness of materials, pulling them out of art’s orbit, that must be held in check by forming (that is, by a rigorous abstractness of composition) lest it overwhelm any individual work, thus “loosening its ties to art.” The other, and far more guarded image is that the inclusion of objects into art shields their inherent and personal meaningfulness from public view. In sculpture, however (for reasons I will consider in a moment), objects cannot be included and concealed to the extent they can in a two-dimensional art. The objects that comprise Schwitters’ Dadaist sculptures seem more simply presented or displayed than in the low rei ief assemblages, their expressiveness hardly clouded. Given Schwitters’ formalist ambitions, this was undoubtedly a handicap; and he never developed an assemblage style for freestanding sculpture which used the same kind of evocative materials that appear elsewhere in his art. The later sculptures do sometimes employ weathered timbers, pieces of furniture, stones, and so on, but they are more regularized and finished—and their components more neutral in expressiveness—than the Dadaist sculptures. Most of them were made of plaster built up on an armature of found objects; objects are physically concealed beneath an artistic front.

The formal necessity of including objects in his art—basic to all Schwitters did—is highlighted by the problems he found in making freestanding sculpture. The sculpture brings to our attention, to a greater degree than any other aspect of his work, the sensitive and difficult topic of what these objects—included only with difficulty in sculpture—actually meant to him. Perhaps the most important question the sculpture poses is the nature of its expressiveness. Other features of the sculpture reinforce this aspect: the quite separate identity of the Dadaist assembled pieces and the monolithic plaster ones asserts the polarity in Schwitters’ work of urban and organic themes. The victory of the organic in his sculpture informs the rest of his activities. Moreover, sculpture in a special sense connected the visual arts Schwitters practiced, as the avenue along which objects had to pass to leave the confines of a painting-based activity and reach the spectacular Gesamtkunstwerk of his life’s ambition.


EXCEPTING SOME EARLY academic portrait busts,4 Schwitters’ first sculptural venture followed shortly after he established assemblage as the generative principle of his art. In 1919, he invented the word “Merz” to separate his art from previously existing categories. Once so established “Merz” was expanded from its original painting context into a variety of different directions: into drawings and poems that were comprised of distinct material units, and—if only in unrealized theories—into theater and architecture as well. “The reason for this,” Schwitters wrote, explaining his moves,

was not any urge to broaden the scope of my activity, it was my desire not to be a specialist in one branch of art, but an artist. My aim is the Merz composite art work, that embraces all branches of art in an artistic unit.5

It is far from surprising, therefore, that sculpture was included in this endeavor. And that Schwitters made sculpture not for its own sake—not to be a “specialist” in sculpture—but because it served to mediate between the modified paintings with which Merz began and the hoped-for “Merz composite art work” explains, in part, why the early Merz sculptures seem ill at ease in any conventional category of sculpture. They have the appearance, rather, of tableaux, or of models for as yet unrealized and larger constructions. Indeed, some were quite specifically created as plans for architecture.

It is impossible to know how many of these sculptures were made. None now exist, though six are known through photographs. Of these the best known are Der Lustgalgen (Pleasure Gallows) and Die Kultpumpe (Cult Pump), made presumably in 19196 and reproduced as postcards by the Hanover publisher Paul Steegemann in 1920. Schwitters referred to these when first writing about his theory of Merz: “Now I am doing Merz sculptures: Pleasure Gallows and Cult Pump. Like Merz pictures, the Merz sculptures are composed of various materials. They are conceived as sculptures in the round and present any desired number of views.”7 They are certainly close to the contemporary assembled pictures in the materials they use—wheels and disks, narrow planks and boards, burlap, printed matter, and so on—but whereas in the pictures these materials work as analogues of conventional formal elements, the greater literal presence of sculpture prevents this happening to the same degree.

Within his pictures, objects underwent what Schwitters called Entformung (a neologism which has the implication of metamorphosis) as they were absorbed into the context of two-dimensional art. just as in any art a physical pencil stroke becomes a line, a length of string or wire does so equally for Schwitters. A rectangle of newsprint becomes a plane; wire mesh or burlap becomes overpainting; and transparent papers become varnish. The existing pictorial context of painting—its limited space—separates objects from the outside world and renders them the stuff of art: “The work of art is distinguished from nature by being composed within a limited space, for only within a limited space is it possible to assign compositional values to every part in relation to other parts. . . .”8 In sculpture, therefore, the Entformung is far more difficult to accomplish. The materials and objects keep their “personality poison.” Their “ties to art” are looser.

In this respect, Schwitters’ early sculptures are among the most overtly Dadaist of all his works, giving a definite “nonart” impression similar to that of Marcel Janco’s Construction 3 of 191 7, which Schwitters is almost certain to have seen in reproduction and which perhaps motivated his own pieces.9 Yet, the actual configurations Schwitters used are far from those of the Zürich construction, closer to forms appearing in the Dadaist drawings and watercolors he made in 1919. These, like the sculptures, were part of Schwitters’ expansion of the Merz concept from the formal context of painting, and their more private nature allows far more literary allusions than do the Merz pictures. In both drawings and sculpture, metaphor triumphs over forming; and the connection between these two fringe activities seems confirmed by their occasional sharing of a related imagery. The sculpture Haus Merz, 1920, is remarkably close to the small, naively drawn churches that appear in the drawings. Schwitters is also recorded as having made a windmill sculpture,10 another familiar motif of the drawings. They share also the impression of a mechanical world gone askew—into a Chagall-like fantasy world in the drawings and, in the sculptures, into rubble. Der Lustgalgen and Die Kultpumpe both look like derelict industrial buildings.

Merz, Schwitters once wrote, “was a prayer about the victorious end of the war, victorious as once again peace had won in the end; everything had broken down in any case and new things had to be made out of fragments: and this is Merz.”11 Like Schwitters’ largescale Merz pictures of 1919, his Dadaist sculptures epitomize that feeling of a new beginning out of a past decimated by war and internal revolution, a feeling common to the German avant-garde at this period. This was perhaps most evident in advanced architectural circles—for obvious reasons, given the condition of cities like Berlin, ravaged by street fighting—and it fostered the creation of organizations like the Novembergruppe and the Arbeitsrat für Kunst, its architectural inner cell. Although Schwitters never joined any of these organizations (having his own one-man movement to promote), and though his work seems at first sight diametrically opposed to their ideas, there are some significant parallels and connections that deserve investigation.

Schwitters studied architecture for two semesters in 1918, immediately preceding his invention of Merz. The sculpture Haus Merz, 1920, is very evidently of architectural inspiration. A model church with a spinning top for a spire, a trouser button for the clock face, and its nave filled with cog wheels (probably the mechanism of a watch), Schwitters called it “my first piece of Merz architecture” and quoted, obviously with approval, what his friend Christof Spengemann had to say about it:

In Haus Merz I see the cathedral: the cathedral. Not as a church, no, this is art as a truly spiritual expression of the force that raises us up to the unthinkable: absolute art. This cathedral cannot be used. Its interior is so filled with wheels that there is no room for people . . . that is absolute architecture, it has artistic meaning and no other.12

In one way, this reads as a tongue-in-cheek parody of contemporary architectural writing, such as produced by the Arbeitsrat für Kunst; and the mock seriousness of tone is far more pronounced if we turn to Spengemann’s longer original text.13 Yet Schwitters does quote it as a serious explanation of this sculpture. If this only raises the further question (and one only too familiar when considering Schwitters’ work) of how seriously should one take his more fanciful writings, it should be remembered that despite his predilection for nonsense he was unswervingly committed to pure art. While his Dadaist sculpture is unconvincing as sculpture, it becomes more feasible when thought of as constituting models for an environmental Gesamtkunstwerk. The tableaulike Lustgalgen and Kultpumpe presage the intimate grottoes of Schwitters’ Merzbau, into which they were eventually built. Spengemann’s reference to “the cathedral” becomes explicable when we remember that the Merzbau was to be called Kathedrale des erotischen Elends (Cathedral of Erotic Misery), and that Schwitters did compare its forms to those of Gothic architecture.14

To advanced architectural thought in the Germany of this period, the cathedral was certainly the dominant symbol, for its Expressionist ideals, and for the unity of the arts, recalling as it did a spiritual monument in an imagined Gothic utopia when preindustrial man existed in close harmony with nature, and in social equilibrium. A visionary Expressionist architect, such as Walter Gropius in 1919, wrote that “art’s ultimate goal . . . [was] the creative idea of the Cathedral of the Future (Zukunftskathedrale) which will once more encompass everything in one form, architecture and sculpture and painting.”15 Gropius’ message to practitioners of the fine arts was loud and clear, and almost Dadaist in its iconoclasm:

You should smash the frames of “Salon Art” that are around your paintings; go into the buildings, endow them with fairy tales of color, engrave your ideas onto their naked walls—and build in fantasy without regard for technical difficulties.

Although Gropius and his colleagues at the Arbeitsrat were thinking of public and collaboratively created monuments, and Schwitters of private individualistic ones, their sentiments are not so very different. The “protest” of Expressionist architecture was for a return to the Urbegriff—to the primeval origins of forms—which, though a reaction to contemporary society, existed autonomously with respect to its real social conditions. This same disinterested, and therefore apolitical rebellion was shared by Schwitters whose art was grounded in Expressionism and who remained a member of the Sturm group though it alienated him from Dadaists in Berlin.

The confrontation of Dada and Expressionism in postwar Berlin was not as clear cut as it sometimes appears. All the Dadaists emerged out of an Expressionist past, and when Club Dada showed signs of collapse some of its members renewed their Expressionist affiliations. Hausmann, Richter, and Eggeling joined the Novembergruppe and Golysheff was an active member of the Arbeitsrat itself. Conversely, there were certain Dadaist elements within Expressionist architecture. Carl Krayl’s Haus eines Dada was illustrated in Bruno Taut’s first Frühlicht publication in 1920; and the Dada character of his work was commented on within his circle—Hans Luckhardt associating it with “the primordial and the primitive” side of their activity.16 A further work by Krayl was illustrated in Frühlicht when it reappeared in Magdeburg in 1921/22; beside it a sculpture by Schwitters, an assembly of weather-beaten timber identified in an accompanying text as Schloss und Kathe drale mit Hofbrunnen (Castle and Cathedral with Courtyard Well). This is the single sure connection between Schwitters and the architectural utopians.

Interestingly, this sculpture (or model) is the only one of Schwitters’ early constructions which approximates to a unity of materials; perhaps for this reason it met with Taut’s editorial approval. Although almost inconceivable as architecture, it is no less so than most of the other designs Taut published. Indeed, in its organic interpretation of the cathedral theme it has a resemblance to some of the “form-fantasies” by the Luckhardt brothers; just as the Hanover Merzbau looks back to the alliance of the organic and the crystalline that characterized much work produced within Taut’s circle. Although the cathedral concept and that of an organic architecture were not peculiar to the Arbeitsrat architects (they merely codified themes already current at that time), to look at Schwitters in this context is to be reminded that the Merzbau, and the models that preceded it, are not only eccentricities comparable to the works of Ferdinand Cheval and Simone Rod iII a, but bizarre offshoots from the Gaudi-Zukunftskathedrale tradition.

What the Expressionist connection reinforces is that Schwitters’ insistence on “forming” conceals an essentially spiritual and primitivist understanding of the nature of art as a “primordial concept,”17 “a spiritual function of man, which aims at freeing him from life’s chaos.”18 And despite the “urban” nature of Schwitters’ materials (and the assertive geometry of his pictorial style), he saw the autonomy of art as analogous to that Of a natural Organism, like nature, a special kind.”19 This primitivist and organicist understanding of art explains, in part, why—despite all the concern for forming—the confessional and mythical poetry of the bricoleur speaks through the materials Schwitters used. Primitive feelings had been “poured into the form,” the art contained their “inner drive,” and it became as one with nature. However, this “fossilized evidence of the history of the individual,” when displayed outside the limited space of pictorial art, often appeared with an embarrassing clarity. Der Lustgalgen is a mechanical scaffold, and Haus Merz a mechanical cathedral, irrational, fantastic toys, but ones with private and somehow very specific meanings.


TO ASK—AS I BELIEVE we are bound to do—what did these objects mean to Schwitters is not to imply that they were inherently meaningful to him in their raw state. Rarely are they only presented objects; to interpret them as evidence on display is simplistic. Schwitters’ talk of the origins of Merz as a building from past fragments may admit some social connotations to the early work, but the social situation of postwar Germany can hardly explain his unswerving commitment to the use of ephemera over some 30 years of subsequent activity. Obviously, Schwitters’ objects do have some external relationship to the world—despite all his denials. It is far more fruitful, however—and more consistent with Schwitters’ explanations—to think of them as possessing an internal and personal significance largely irrespective of their original functions.

In most of Schwitters’ work, the meaningfulness of individual fragments hardly arises. Objects and materials contribute to a whole variety of complex and evocative moods, far broader than those painting alone could create. Sometimes, in the collages, a whimsical iconographical play takes place, with materials of a similar source or character built up around a specific theme, as with the early Anna Blume imagery.20 Mostly, however, texture and colors create moods to which individual materials—and their “personalities”—are sublimated. To create these moods, Schwitters depended on the inclusion of objects within a rigorously abstract process of forming. In the sculpture, where, as we have seen, the difficulties of “inclusion” are extreme, abstraction turns out to be a disadvantage. Objects seem placed merely as curiosities lacking the coherence and interdependence which, say, Picasso’s fashioning of diverse objects into still-life configurations assured. But even in these sculptures, it is not the outward reference of the objects that is most striking. It is, rather, that they have become Schwitters’ objects, uniquely his, and possessed, therefore, by his identity.

It is no mere figure of speech to say that Schwitters identified with these objects. They (and not the styles he borrowed) are what personalize his work. (The styles subordinated the objects to art, and with them Schwitters’ own personality, for expression as such was for him “injurious to art.”)21 Objects, for Schwitters, were far more than containers for association; they became extensions.of the self, objects which guaranteed him identity. “I myself am now called Merz,” he once wrote;22 and dressed a fictional alter-ego (the artist-hero of his story, Revolution in Revon) in a costume of planks and wire, to become “a perambulating Merzplastik.”23 In Schwitters’ art, as in the Expressionist I-drama, the personality of the artist-hero is expressed through the “characters” with whom he is in contact. They have no personality of their own, being merely what was called die Ausstrahlungen seiner Innerlichkeit (“the radiations of the hero’s inner nature”). Hence Schwitters’ Expressionist background is of crucial importance to an understanding of his uses of objects: their “personality poison” is effaced not only for art’s sake, but because they are no less than existentials of the self within the context of art.

How much Schwitters identified with his objects may be gauged by his need to keep them constantly around him. He transformed nearly his whole house in Hanover to accommodate them; while his most grandiose scheme for a Merzgesamtkunstwerk, the “Merz-Stage,” comprised not actors, but objects given life and performing with each other. The Merz-Stage and the Hanover Merzbau raise issues that can hardly be explored here; yet the beginnings of the Merzbau deserve notice in showing how Schwitters’ Dadaist sculpture metamorphosed into an environmental art form. Moreover, the subsequent development of this eccentric architectural fantasy into a geometricized labyrinth, behind which were hidden “grottoes” containing found objects, epitomizes far more than any other aspect of Schwitters’ work, that paralleling of formal “inclusion” and masking of personality at the core of his art.

Photographs of Schwitters’ studio around 1920 show a room literally overflowing with the collected objects, its walls “merzed” over with collages and pictures. One photograph, printed in the Berlin Börsenkurier on October 31, 1924, reveals Schwitters standing beside a construction very different in character to the Dada models previously described: a dressmaker’s dummy carrying a collaged box with a crank-handle on one side and a lighted candle on top. Entitled, apparently, Die heilige Bekümmernis (The Holy Affliction), it was described by the Börsenkurier as a “psychoanalytical composition” though Hans Richter has referred to it more simply as Schwitters’ Christmas tree.24 It does in fact bear the inscription, “Wahnsinn! Fröhliche Weihnachten!” (“Insanity! A Merry Christmas!”), which seems to support both interpretations. Clearly, this is far more ephemeral a work than even the architectural models. The humanoid format parallels the topicality of pseudo-personages, especially with machinist connotations, in contemporary Dada art, while the dummy itself comfortably relates to the fashion imagery in a significant group of Schwitters’ early collages. This weird construction has disappeared, like all the other Dada objects. Schwitters wrote that the Merzbau had “little Christmas candles in the dark corners . . . (which) when lit make the whole thing one big unreal Christmas tree.”25 This is perhaps where Die heilige Bekümmernis went.

The fate of another columnlike construction (of which at least two separate photographs exist)26 is clearer. It consisted of a tall rectangular and collaged base surmounted by a wood and plaster column, decorated with tiny figurines and other such ephemera, capped by a doll’s head. Later photographs of the Merzbau show what appears to be the same piece protruding above a geometric arrangement of wooden planes.27 The doll’s head is there, though now moved slightly behind the column, which shorn of its decoration reveals itself to be vaguely human in shape, headless, and with a penis prominently attached. We cannot tell what lies behind and beneath the geometric scaffolding. However, this configuration may be a fragment of what Schwitters called “the big Grotto of Love” in his most comprehensive account of the Merzbau’s symbolism:

Shiny broken objects set the mood. In the middle a couple embracing: he has no head, she has no arms; he is holding a huge blank cartridge between his legs. The child with syphilitic eyes in its big twisted-around head is telling the embracing couple to be careful. This is disturbing but there is reassurance in the little round bottle of my own urine in which immortelles are suspended. This is just a tiny part of the column’s literary content.28

Schwitters’ description of the Merzbau (of which this is only a fragment) is a curious and somewhat baffling narrative, not for its illogicalities and fantasies (these we expect), but for its fixation with human object-parts and with the theme of sexual violence and desecration. Grottoes and incidents with names like “the brothel,” “the disabled war veteran,” “the sex-crime cave” (with “one abominably mutilated corpse of an unfortunate young girl”), and the eccentric sexual encounter described above, populate Schwitters’ Cathedral of Erotic Misery. Stories tell of his collecting from friends items such as fingernail parings, a broken denture, a necktie, a bottle of urine, and so on. Many of the grottoes were also frankly whimsical (“an exhibition of paintings and sculptures by Michelangelo and myself being viewed by one dog on a leash”) or were simply dedicated to friends, present or past (“the Goethe grotto has one of his legs and a lot of pencils worn down to stubs”). Even so, the mood of the grottoes seems to have been that of a rather black humor, far from the exuberant and clownish side of Schwitters’ character most often reported. These claustrophobic fetishlined caves point in a different direction. Kate Steinitz recognized this when she asked Schwitters: “You call the Expressionists painters of their own sour souls, but aren’t you emptying your own sour soul into the caves?”29

Unfortunately we have to rely on published and verbal reports to judge the effect of t he Merzbau, especially since Schwitters only showed the grottoes to his intimate friends. By and large, the sliding doors, movable compartments, and secret panels were opened only for those already sympathetic to his character. It is useful, therefore, to remind ourselves of the impact of the secret grottoes on someone less prepared. They astounded Alexander Dorner, whose encouragement for advanced art through the ’20s needs no defense, and who personally did much to advance Schwitters’ career.30 He admired the Merz pictures as “positive pioneering experiments.” Confronted with the Merzbau, however, he felt that the “free expression of the socially uncontrolled self had here bridged the gap between sanity and madness.” It was “a kind of fecal smearing—a sick and sickening relapse into the social irresponsibility of the infant who plays withtrash and filth.” Of course, Dorner’s sympathies lay primarily with Constructivist-type art (puritan in its looks, and assumed to possess a social justification). Nevertheless, the strong revulsion he evidently felt should serve to temper more publicized responses to the Merzbau, such as Carola Giedion-Welcker’s, who wrote of it as being “a little world of branching and building where the imagination is free to climb at will.”31 It hardly seems possible they were talking about the same work.

More than likely the Merzbau was a puzzling experience, even for Schwitters’ supporters, as is testified by the widely differing and often erroneous reports as to what it actually comprised. These cannot be corrected here. It suffices for the present purpose to emphasize two basic properties the Merzbau possessed. First, its imagery was essentially erotic and autobiographical, tempered sometimes by humor but often of a disturbingly sadistic character. Second, this imagery was increasingly hidden behind the geometric surfaces that Schwitters applied throughout the ’20s.

A strong element of the grotesque runs through much of Schwitters’ prose writing, which becomes at times nearly macabre despite its persistently absurd humor. This, however, may be seen as belonging to interests in a specifically German tradition of the introspectively uncanny which affected very many members of the Expressionist generation—and Schwitters’ special brand of sadism-tinged fantasy, in the Merzbau imagery and elsewhere, does look back in some interesting respects to that 19th-century Hanoverian, the illustrator Wilhelm Busch. This does not explain just why Schwitters used so erotic an imagery for the most private area of all his work. Kate Steinitz has called each grotto “a time capsule,” containing a “sediment of impressions and emotions, with significant literary and symbolistic allusions” to the nature and events of Schwitters’ personal life.32 Elucidation of Schwitters’ work, however, (as distinct from his personality) gains more from considering the place and function of the imagery than from delving into his private character to discover motivation. What makes the Merzbau so important is that it was, as Schwitters recognized, “the development into pure form” of all the confessional elements of his autobiography.33

In 1923, when Schwitters began to consciously form the Merzbau from the already assembled detritus in his studio, his art was moving toward the geometric. But to see the development of the Merzbau as symbolizing the victory of the geometric over Schwitters’ personalized Dadaism is misleading. The geometric pictures are disappointing. Whether Schwitters knew this or not, it is reasonable to assume that he missed the opportunity to personalize his work through objects. There was certainly a crisis in Schwitters’ art of the ’20s, especially in his large-scale work. The Merzbau became important as a way of keeping contact with the classes of objects withheld from his pictures. The significance he attached to it seems to testify that it was the single work which completely satisfied his ambitions, and which carried his full stamp of identity. Through its development we see Schwitters working out the problems of his new geometricist alignment.

The relative severity of forms which the Merzbau eventually contained are not entirely those of the neue Sachlichkeit: they grew, quite literally, from the “darkest erotic caves“ of the project’s beginning. If, as is so often claimed (and rightly so), the “struggle for pure form . . . finally conquered the chaos” of these caves,34 equally the new geometry is in no sense a second start effacing the original conception. The new surfaces not merely concealed the images beneath (they are not an applied geometry separate to what they contain), but were the means by which images underwent “dissolution” within the context of “pure form.” Although the images (those ’’injurious” expressions) were “downgraded” by being covered over, their covering grew—“like some jungle vegetation,” as Hans Richter put it35—from the first-planted seeds of Schwitters’ Dada-Expressionist years, and developed its character from this source as well. Hence, although the Merzbau has been described as resembling early sculptures by Domela and Vantongerloo, it looks back to Expressionist architecture, to the crystalline projects of the Arbeitsrat group mentioned earlier, and to the zigzag splintery settings that Schwitters’ fellow Sturm members devised for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. In one important sense it is a primitivist or organicist architecture of mood. Seen under Schwitters’ controlled illumination it must have appeared more mysterious—sinister even—than photographs reveal. In this sense although an environment—a place of atmospheres—it was not merely a setting. Like Schwitters’ Dadaist models “its interior is so filled . . . that there is no room for people.” And like the scenery of Expressionist films, these “facades and rooms were not merely backgrounds, but hieroglyphs. . . .”36 With the ribs and columns that swallowed up the original grottoes Schwitters seems to have been trying to create an amalgam of fabricated objects, each with the same force and potency as the found objects with which he identified. This, of course, was the general problem of Schwitters’ geometricist work: to personalize the austerity of his new style. With the Merzbau he let the configuration of the entire work take its form from his collection of found objects. The exuberant growths that remained visible were quite literally the stylized radiations of an inner core.

Much of Schwitters’ sculpture from the mid-’20s onward was specifically designed to occupy a place in the Merzbau, and its derivation from this most personal of his works does seem important.A s the Merzbau grew it became far more curvilinear in appearance, more organic in its feeling—as if growing itself was manifested in the nature of the forms created. The sculptures that survive often have this character. Searching for a vocabulary of forms with the same charge that found objects possessed, Schwitters turned to analogizing the life-imbued appearance of natural organisms. This development in Schwitters’ art culminated in the decidedly “rural” emphasis of his late style. It began, however, within the context of geometric formalism.


SCHWITTERS’ EARLY UNDERSTANDING OF ART as something organic and spiritual in character readily transferred to his new geometric style, because the machine esthetic of the ’20s posited a crucial correspondence between the functional efficiency of nature and that of the machine.37 Nature, the machine—and art—all partook of organic principles: their construction was “economical,” their intentions “formative,” and they all involved a functional processing of materials. Schwitters wrote in favor of a machine esthetic, and yet seemed far more attracted to the organicist theory attached to the machine than to the machine itself. It is appropriate, therefore, that his allegiance to geometric ism was declared in a 1924 issue of the Merz magazine called “Nasci” (“Nature”). Here, he compared the structure of modern architecture to that of natural forms, and spoke of Merz as a “new naturalistic work of art [which] grows as nature itself . . . more internally related to nature than an imitation possibly could be.” To look at Schwitters’ sculpture through the ’20s, however, is to see that he espoused not merely an internal or functional organicism but the very look of natural organisms as well. Here there is a direct formal analogy between a work of art and a work of nature—whereas a true machinist would analogize only the principles of natural growth, and never its appearance. Although nominally working within the machinist ethos of international geometricism, Schwitters’ art in fact represents a reaction against it.H is empathy with nature favored the primitive over the technological, and this fusion of organicist conception and what is best called soft geometricism places Schwitters’ sculpture within that cross-stylistic category known as “vitalist.”

Since much of Schwitters’ sculpture of the ’20s and ’30s perished with the Merzbau, it is difficult to trace with any precision his development through geometricism, into the curvilinear, and the “rural” forms of his later style. An orthodox (De Stijl-like) geometric work of 1923 survives; and the angular gedrehte kleine Plastik (Small twisted sculpture) of 1937/38, as well as photographs of the Merzbau interior, suggest that he practiced a fairly tightly contoured style through the Merzbau period. But with the 1923 sculpture the angles and contours soften and swell away from the geometric to produce a feeling of internal growth. Significantly, both sculptures are columnlike in form, and Schwitters tended to preserve a relatively more angular structure and clean-cut precision of look in the taller pieces—which relates them to the columnar formations in the Merzbau. A tall white pillar, made in Switzerland in 1936, is likewise very close to forms visible in photographs of the Merzbau. Given the private and sexual meanings of Schwitters’ Cathedral of Erotic Misery, it is tempting to see his various sculptural columns as constituting phallic images.

Only in a pair of related sculptures from the early ’40s does this phallic association become explicit and unmistakable.38 An untitled assemblage of painted wood fragments from 1941/42, now known usually (and appropriately) as Cathedral, and an even more blatant phallus from 1944, inscribed with the word Fant (Norwegian for “Devil”), consist of strong verticals attended by blockier forms at the base. Seen together they cannot but appear as an organic and an angularist interpretation of the same theme: the aspirative form of the cathedral image given sexual connotations. If the angular piece, without its added title, is not quite supportive of this interpretation, that Schwitters did see the cathedral in phallic terms is confirmed by his writings on the Merzbau and by a unique and curious drawing made on the notepaper of a Yri’s Hotel at Olden in Norway in 1939. Here, Schwitters revives the cave and cathedral theme central to the Merzbau, while his obsessively realistic rendering of the impaled eye leaves little to the imagination.

These are anomalous works: the majority of Schwitters’ sculptures quite clearly relate to structures in nature, sometimes in a general sense and often specifically to plant forms, stones, and occasionally animals. This became more pronounced when Schwitters left Germany for Norway and later England—when his collages and constructions too took on a “rural” look—although this was also evident through the period of his geometric alignment. Die Herbstzeitlose (Autumn Crocus) of 1926/28 is close to representing a specific natural form, while a group of relief constructions of around this same date used weathered timbers in their raw state. These constructions, however, belong more to the picture-making side of Schwitters’ activity than to the sculptural, in which he made only limited use of the assemblage principle. This concern was with creating fabricated equivalents for natural forms and not generally with using natural forms themselves. When timbers, branches, or pebbles are used (instead of the customary plaster), they are disguised by paint. Their natural surfaces are covered up in a way analogous to putting plaster on an armature of found objects.

To paint a pile of three small pebbles (untitled work of 1946/47) fused them as objects and personalized them in mood. Schwitters added touches and areas of color to his simple plaster pieces probably for the same reason: it keeps them from belonging solely to the natural world. The work of 1943/44 known as Opening Blossom is very evidently plantlike in character (a soft version of Die Herbstzeitlose). Its colored-in upper surface and roughened texture is not, however, that of an organic thing but of something man-made. In some respects, Schwitters’ vitalist esthetic relates to his friend Arp. Both artists conceived of their forms as primordial, talked of art as growth, and sought to express this in their sculpture. Whereas Arp’s meticulous finish gives the impression that the forms have grown (and only just grown) somehow independently of an external forming agent, with Schwitters surface looks handled. He never fully embraced any kind of purist esthetic. In consequence, if Arp’s surfaces appear to have been generated from inside, the plaster of Schwitters’ sculpture never quite escapes from seeming to be a skin containing an armature of objects beneath.

The use of plaster is at first surprising, given the assemblage structure of most other of Schwitters’ activities, and it is not entirely explained either by the cheapness of the method or its traditional obviousness. Yet, its ability to contain objects I inks it with Schwitters’ other techniques.39 The method of the late sculptures was that of the Merzbau, which stands between them and the early Dada pieces, mediating their transition. The curious small pyramid surmounted by a loop of wire, made between 1942 and 1945, is an organic version of the Lustgalgen of over 20 years earlier, just as the late assemblages Fant and Cathedral relate back to the Kultpumpe and the Haus Merz. The Expressionist Urbegriff of Schwitters’ beginnings finds its resolution in the truly primitive ethos of his last sculptures when the forms of nature itself were possessed by Schwitters’ art.

But plaster also means modeling, and in many of the late sculptures the armature of found objects becomes only a beginning for independent and invented growths. The plaster and bamboo pieces of 1945–48 are like this—the armature is neutral and purely utilitarian—while the small unitary objects made through the ’ 40s do not appear to use an armature at all. Perhaps the cumulative act of modeling in a single material felt closer to organic creation than construction—as if Schwitters saw in this method a way of literally identifying art and growth. (His last Merzbau, built in Elterwater in the English Lake District, depends on modeling for its structure, certainly in imitation of natural growth.)40 If this is true, then one cannot but feel that Schwitters misread his talent, which was in formalizing the already created. The further from construction, the weaker his art becomes. Though little of his sculpture is openly constructional, the best of it (Die Herbstzeitlose, the Swiss column, a few of the small plaster and wire or wood pieces, and some others) take their form from an evidently fabricated core: the armature appears close to the surface, and comprises the surface itself, or it breaks through and shows itself. When continually modeled—when form is created on and by the surface—his art tends to lose contact with its sources. The invented forms are somehow naive. The modeling is usually as anomalous as the painting Schwitters added to his last pictures. And especially when the forms themselves are unitary, small and completely self-contained, they seem to be closed off to the viewer: a private soliloquy with nature from which we are barred access.

None of Schwitters’ sculpture is of major quality. Excepting the Merzbau, it is rarely ambitious enough to be so, appearing but the by-product of a talent whose real fruits were elsewhere. These personal objects of Schwitters’ affection shelter in their own private world away from the world of art—away from the context of esthetic forming. In Schwitters’ pictures, objects enlarge the art; as sculpture they are raw, unformal ized, and not readily separated from the literal world of objects at large—lacking that “limited space” by which “the work of art is distinguished from nature.” As keys to Schwitters’ personality, and to his feelings for his material environment, they are strangely evocative, and occasionally poignant in their naivete and primitivism. Finally, however, a turn to the primitive was for Schwitters a turn against the tradition that nurtured him. The collages and constructions have all the charge of these sculptures, but far more besides because they hold their place in the modernist tradition, pass on that tradition through Schwitters’ personality, and gain in their quality by acknowledging it. The sculptures escape from it almost entirely, as if their utterly personal character has pulled them out of art’s orbit.

To call an art personal, and to say that it claims understanding in personal terms, is not necessarily to seek its justification in biography. Often, the more deeply personal an art, the more irrelevant becomes the artist’s background—or, better, personal details are less needed to understand the art. Schwitters has so frequently suffered under those emphasizing the personal nature of the materials and objects he used that to even begin to discuss such matters risks grave misinterpretation. Yet the character of his art forces such a discussion. These objects can never be neutral, no matter how much they are formed. One senses in Schwitters’ artistic character a basic ambivalence in his attitude to objects: a pull between his attachment to them for their own sake and his constant recognition that they must be formed and made abstract—made impersonal, devalued, included in the art—and this tension is absolutely central to his art’s structure. To suggest—as I am doing here—that Schwitters felt a division between what held personal meaning and what was artistic, might seem belied by the closeness of his art to his daily life. The objects of daily life were his artistic materials. The immensity of his output speaks of a continuing and constant absorption of his art in the day-to-day patterns of his life. His unremitting insistence on “forming”—that “injurious” expressions be, if not censured, at least contained—suggests some kind of conflict between his respect for tradition—for the purity of art—and for the objects which carried his identity.

In Schwitters’ collages—the works closest to his day-to-day living—the conflict seems resolved: his identity is absorbed; the works personalized without loss in form. But when pure art came to mean the dogmatic geometric ism of the ’20s, into which Schwitters let himself be drawn, the delicate balance was disturbed; and he seemed to require an escape valve for the feeling cold paint kept out of his pictures. The Merzbau offered such an escape. Begun as a deliberate enterprise in the very year of his geometric alignment, it became a depository for the private and the personal; and from it emerged a way of making sculpture that could not be more in reaction to what geometricism stood for. Escaping the dogmatic and the urban, he retreated to the permissive and the primitive. In the urgency of his flight he left behind the discipline that was not dogmatic, but on which the quality of his art depended. Here are purely private objects, possessed by Schwitters’ personality but not by his art as we wish to remember it.

John Elderfield



1. “Merz” (1920), Der Ararat, II, 1, January, 1921.

2. Merz, I, January, 1923.

3. “Mein Merz und meine Monstre Merz Muster Messe im Sturm,” Der Sturm, XVII, 7, October, 1926.

4. None have survived. The photograph of Schwitters’ Dada sculpture, Die Heilige Bekümmernis, shows one in the background.

5. “Merz” (1920).

6. They were shown at Schwitters’ April, 1919, exhibition at the Berlin Sturm Gallery.

7. “Merz” (1920).

8. “Merz,” an unpublished note of Aprill 10,1938, cited in Werner Schmalenbach, Kurt Schwitters, Cologne, 1967.

9. It was reproduced in the Zürich periodical Dada, 1, July, 1917. Schwitters met Arp in Berlin in 1918 and remained in contact with him when he returned to Zürich. Schwitters was also in correspondence with Tzara in 1919 over his contributions to the Zürich magazine Der Zeltweg, and it is known that Tzara sent Schwitters publications of the Zürich group.

10. Bernhard Gröttrup mentions a windmill and a broomstick sculpture in an account of his meeting with Schwitters: Die Pille, 7, October 13, 1920.

11. Heinz and Bodo Rasch, eds., Gefesselter Blick, Stuttgart, 1930.

12. “Merz” (1920).

13. Der Zweemann, I, 4, February, 1920.

14. Merz, 21, “erstes Veilchenheft,” 1931.

15. Pamphlet for the Ausstellung für Unbekannte Architekten, Berlin, April, 1919; and for the following quotation.

16. Letter of July 15, 1920, cited in Ulrich Conrads and Hans G. Sperlich, Fantastic Architecture, London, 1963.

17. “Merz” (1920).

18. Merz, 2, “i,” 1923.

19. “Merz” (1920).

20. For which (and for further discussion of issues relevant to Schwitters’ “meanings” structure), see my “The early work of Kurt Schwitters,” Artforum, November, 1971.

21. “Merz” (1920).

22. Merz, 20, “Katalog,” 1927.

23. “Ursachen und Beginn der grossen glorreichen Revolution in Revon,” Der Sturm, XIII, 11, November, 1922.

24. Hans Richter, Dada: Art and anti-art, New York, 1965.

25. Merz, 21, 1931.

26. One is a widely reproduced photograph from the Schwitters estate (see Schmalenbach, illus. 160); the other appeared in El Lissitzky and Hans Arp, Die Kunstismen, Zürich, 1925.

27. See Schmalenbach, illus. 163 and 165.

28. Merz, 21,1931.

29. Kate Steinitz, Kurt Schwitters, a portrait from life, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1968.

30. See Samuel Cauman, The Living Museum. Experiences of an art historian and museum director—Alexander Domer, New York, 1958.

31. Carola Giedion-Welcker, Contemporary Sculpture, New York, 1961.

32. Steinitz.

33. Merz, 21, 1931.

34. Steinitz.

35. Hans Richter, Dada Profile, Zürich, 1961.

36. Siegfried Kracauer, From Caligari to Hitler, Princeton, 1947.

37. See, for example, Moholy-Nagy’s “biotechnic” principles formulated in Von Material zu Architektur (Munich, 1928), and El Lissitzky’s attitudes to the natural world as expressed in the “Nasci” issue of Schwitters’ Merz magazine (8-9, 1924), which he co-edited.

38. Several of Schwitters’ upright sculptures are capped with broadened whorls which may appear to be phallic, but which could equally be said to represent buds, flower heads or the like. Only an untitled work of 1943/45 (Catalogue of the Marlborough Fine Art Schwitters exhibition, 1973, no. 77) can readily be seen as a companion (curvilinear) piece to Fant and Cathedral.

39. If Schwitters did care about his materials—which I think is self-evident—then the proliferation of estate casts of his sculptures (which, to my knowledge, were first made from works shown at the 1958 lords Gallery, london, Schwitters exhibition, and which are continuing to be made) does raise some problems at this point. It may seem pedantic to complain that whereas Schwitters’ original plasters contain found objects, plaster casts of these sculptures do not; but if Schwitters’ principle of containment is important (as I think it is), then these copies must be recognized as essentially different from the originals. However, if the originals remain available for inspection, and plaster casts are made of only plaster sculptures, then little disservice has been done. But when castings in plaster are made from pebble or wood sculptures, or when bronze (itself a material that seems alien to Schwitters’ sensibility) is used to copy works originally in plaster and wood, serious doubts must be raised as to their value—their esthetic value, that is—regardless of how skillfully they are made.

40. For discussiqn of this work (and for further details of Schwitters’ “rural” style) see my “The last work of Kurt Schwitters,” Artforum, October, 1969.