Kurt Schwitters was one of the most engaging mavericks of the art of the 20th century. His art is invariably grouped with Dada, although personal clashes prevented him from being admitted formally to membership, and by nature he would never be fully committed to any collective movement, even one of protest: his lack of interest in politics set him apart from the main group of German Dadas, as did his residence in Hanover rather than Berlin. Yet paradoxically Schwitters was intrinsically a Dada: the Dada poet Tristan Tzara wrote that Schwitters was "one of those personalities whose inner structure was always Dada by nature. He would still have been Dada even if the Dada call had not been sounded." By 1918, at the age of 31, he had discovered that he was not at heart a painter, but that for him the essence of art lay in the combination of existing materials. In 1919 he named his personal form of collage "Merz," to signal that his pictures were distinct from Cubism, Expressionism, or even Dada, and over time he extended the name to all his activities, including poetry and performance.
Schwitters was a thoroughly conceptual artist: his goals were synthetic, and specifically intended to violate disciplinary boundaries. Thus he wrote in 1921:
To busy myself with various branches of art was for me an artistic need...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 unity.
Merz stands for freedom from all fetters, for the sake of artistic creation.
Schwitters left Germany in 1937, after his work as condemned by the Nazi government as "degenerate." He spent three years in Norway, then left for England when the Germans invaded Norway. After being interned for a year as an "enemy alien," he lived in London for the next four years, then moved to the English Lake District, where he lived until his death in 1948.
When Schwitters died, he was poor and largely forgotten by the art world. But the rise of assemblage and neo-Dada in the 1950s and '60s brought a renewed interest in earlier forms of radical conceptual innovation, including a new appreciation for Schwitters and Merz. So for example in the catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art's 1968 exhibition, Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage, William Rubin described Schwitters' three-dimensional Merzbau as a prototype for environmental sculpture, and Schwitters as a prophet who anticipated Robert Rauschenberg's goal of working in the gap between art and life.
Schwitters' difficult last years are the subject of Tate Britain's current exhibition, Schwitters in Britain. Although he spent these years in poverty, struggling against illness, he continued to make art, redeeming his time as much as the discarded scraps that provided the material for his work. One untitled work of 1942 included a small piece of cardboard with the text, "National Salvage Campaign. Your country needs paper. Save your empty cartons with your other waste paper." The campaign could hardly have hoped for Schwitters. Used London bus tickets appear time and again in his collages, transformed into works of art that would become worth far more than their weight in gold.
Schwitters' art was highly personal, in content as well as form. His works reflect his environment and activities: not only the ubiquitous bus tickets, but laundry receipts, newspaper clippings, envelopes from correspondence with friends, and food labels from care packages sent by an American friend. British Made (1940-45) contains a label with that phrase, next to - of course - London bus tickets, and fragment of a German shipping timetable, to make a chronicle of his travels. A 1947 collage includes a newspaper title, "Mr. Churchill is 71." Schwitters used his art to enact his motto: "Create connections, if possible, between everything in the world."
Ironically, Schwitters in Britain is a celebration of Kurt Schwitters' art by an institution that conspicuously failed to support that art during his lifetime. And the exhibition's narrative is a sad one, of a difficult time. Yet the experience of seeing the show is not sad, but inspiring, for its demonstration of Schwitters' complete commitment to his idealistic and unconventional art. After Schwitters' death, a friend, the sculptor Naum Gabo, recalled that Schwitters would stop suddenly in the midst of conversation, looking intently at the ground:
Then he would pick up something which would turn out to be an old scrap of paper...He would carefully and lovingly clean it up and then triumphantly show it to you. Only then would one realize what an exquisite piece of color was contained in the ragged scrap. It needs a poet like Schwitters to show us that unobserved elements of beauty are strewn and spread all around us and we can find them everywhere...if only we care to look, to choose and to fit them into a comely order.