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Kurt Schwitters' Merzbau

Webster, Gwendolen

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Abstract

Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, which took shape in Hannover, Germany, between 1923 and 1936, is one of the most problematical artworks of the 20th century. This dissertation examines numerous original sources relating to the Hannover Merzbau and its successors in Norway and England and concludes that the Merzbauten were, in effect, all works of exile.

The Hannover Merzbau and its lesser-known successors in Norway and England present an unusual challenge to art historians because so little remains of them. The first was destroyed in 1943, nothing survives of the second, constructed in Oslo, and the last, in Elterwater, England, was never completed. Despite the painstaking investigations of Werner Schmalenbach, Dietmar Elger and John Elderfield between the 1960s and 1980s, the Hannover Merzbau in particular has amassed so many myths and legends since Schwitters’ death in 1948 that the reception of the work may be said to have established a dynamic of its own. The combination of the lack of originals and a plethora of misunderstandings about the evolution of the Merzbauten has meant that these sculptural interiors are frequently misconstrued as essentially ludicrous, macabre or regressive works that are hardly to be taken seriously within the framework of the 20th century avant-garde. The main aim of this dissertation is to relocate the Merzbauten in their historical context by building on the often forgotten work of early researchers. It includes an examination and assessment of a selection of scholarly studies, a review of the evidence that draws on new archival discoveries, critical analyses of key sources such as Schwitters’ few published statements on his constructions, his personal correspondence and the visual material, and a revised chronology that not only calls into question many of the numerous anecdotes, legends surrounding the Merzbauten, but also most of the accepted art-historical theories. The concluding chapter examines various aspects of the complex interweaving of the public and private facets of the Merzbauten and suggests ways in which the revised chronology can alter our understanding of these works and in addition, redefine them as works of exile.

(It should be noted that since this was written, the interior of Schwitters’ hut on Hjertøya has been transferred to the Romsdal Museum on the mainland.)

Document type: Dissertation
Date: 2007
Supervisor: Dr. Jason Gaiger
Version: Secondary publication
Date Deposited: 05 Sep 2018 12:51
Faculties / Institutes: Research Project, Working Group > Individuals
DDC-classification: Architecture
Controlled Subjects: Schwitters, Kurt, Merzbau <Hannover>
Subject (classification): Architecture
Artists, Architects
Countries/Regions: Germany, Switzerland, Austria
Additional Information: A dissertation presented to the Open University, Milton Keynes. - Date of submission: 31 December 2007