Guide to Schwitters

  • 31 January 2013

Got the jitters about Schwitters? Read our guide to the influential Modernist before you head to the Tate Britain show.

First up, listen to Dr Jenny Powell, Assistant Curator, Modern British Art introduce the Schwitters in Britain exhibition:

Who is Schwitters?

Kurt Schwitters was born in Hanover, Germany in 1887 and was a significant figure in European Dadism (although his application to join Berlin Dada was rejected) and one of the major artists of European Modernism. 

What kind of art did he produce?

Schwitters was incredibly resourceful and intrigued by new mediums and forms and as such experimented widely. We know him best for his surrealist Merz collages, but he also painted excellent portraits, landscapes, created soundscapes, sculptures and installations, wrote poetry and transformed buildings into living, breathing works of art.  

What is Merz?

Merz is the term created and used by Schwitters to describe his main artistic practice which relied on found objects to assemble his works. He believed found objects such as magazine cuttings, pram wheels and string were as important to creating works of art as paint. He was so driven by this unique concept that he published a journal called Merz, set up a successful advertising agency called Merz Werbe and transformed buildings into works of art through Merz. The most famous of these is his great sculpture, the Merz Barn in Cumbria.

Kurt Schwitters, Untitled Relief within Relief, 1942–1945

Kurt Schwitters, Untitled Relief within Relief, 1942–1945

Why he did live in Britain?

Schwitters was deemed a degenerate by the Nazi government and was forced to flee Germany in 1937. The British surrealist Roland Penrose helped secure him safe passage and he arrived in Scotland from Norway in 1940. He met many other artists and intellectuals in a camp on the Isle of Man where he participated in group exhibitions and poetry readings. In 1945 Schwitters moved to the Lake District in Cumbria where he began his final phase of his life's work, inspired by the stunning rural landscape of the area he started using natural objects in his art.

Why is Schwitters important?

Schwitters was one of the most influential European avant-garde artists of the twentieth century. He pioneered the concept of using found objects in art as well as creating a visual language which preempted the Pop art movement. He has influenced artists such as Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi right through to contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst.

Schwitters in Britain is at Tate Britain until 12 May and is 50% off with a National Art Pass.