Kurt Schwitters, who was born in Germany in 1887, was a painter, a poet, and, most famously, a collagist. He loved to play with expressive or artistic systems of every type, whether they were alphabets, numbers, colors, languages, or music. He composed sonatas out of sounds (including a sneeze), poems out of letters and numerals, paintings out of Dutch tram tickets, farmyard illustrations out of type fonts.1 His poems made shapes trail across paper, while some of his paintings consisted of words pinned onto card or board. “A play with serious problems,” he wrote later, in his manifestly imperfect English, “that is art.”
Although Schwitters would come to be seen as among the most inventive visual and literary artists of the twentieth century, to his neighbors and contemporaries he was a local eccentric who lived on the periphery of the urban social world where avant-garde movements like Dada thrived; he invented his own medium and his own visual language, well before he produced the works for which he became known. Under his ministrations the walls of the house he lived in with his parents in the deeply provincial German town of Hanover developed strange plaster extrusions and stalactites and angular outgrowths in room after room, and turned into a sort of Expressionistic Caligari grotto. Somewhere in its windings was something he called the Cathedral of Erotic Misery, where a snail might scratch its back and appease an itch.
That was the original Merzbau. The word “Merz”—itself a neologism chiseled out of the name of a bank: the Kommerz und Privatbank—became synonymous with Schwitters. Sometimes he signed himself “Merz” or incorporated it into his name—even though, as the only son of well-heeled parents, he had five perfectly good ones of his own: Kurt Hermann Eduard Karl Julius Schwitters. (When his own son came to be born, he named him, with a straight face, Ernst.)
From 1919 on, everything he did was called Merz. Merz sculptures, Merz towers, Merz drawings, Merz poems. It was, you might say, a Merz life. The meaning of the word evolved through Schwitters’s various projects, but he did offer one definition—which gives an idea of what he meant by collages—in 1919 when he wrote:
The word Merz denotes essentially the combination, for artistic purposes, of all conceivable materials, and, technically, the principle of the equal distribution of the individual materials…. A perambulator in which wire-netting, string, and cotton wool are factors having equal rights with paint.
Schwitters is an instance of a primary…
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