Authors on Art: Kurt Schwitters’s expanding house

Kurt Schwitters, Merzbau, 1923-37. © DACS 2007. Photo by Wilhelm Redemann, 1933.

Today BURNAWAY welcomes Megan Martin for this month’s Authors on Art, a series of creative responses by poets, novelists, and experimental writers curated by Blake Butler.

When allied bombs destroyed Kurt Schwitters’s home and studio in Hanover Germany in 1937, he and his family (wife, son, parents, several guinea pigs) had been living inside a work of art for over a decade. Schwitters’s Merzbau, or The Cathedral of Erotic Misery, was a seemingly haphazard, perpetually expanding trove of sculpture, abstract architecture, shrines, collage, painting, cultural records, and found/stolen objects.

Acquaintances suggest that the project originated from a single, shrine-like column in Schwitters’s studio, which his friend Richard Huelsenbeck described as a “tower or tree or house” with “hollows” that held photographs, souvenirs, friends’ birth dates. Atop the column was the plaster head of a small baby: the death mask of the artist’s first son. The actual Merzbau, which would eventually span eight rooms of Schwitters’ residence, took form when he began connecting paintings and sculptures scattered throughout his home by building a series of wooden structures between the works. Schwitters’s son, Ernst, described the project’s evolution: “This structure grew and grew and eventually filled several rooms on various floors of our home, resembling a huge abstract grotto.”

The Merzbau’s exterior was abstract: three-dimensional shapes jutted from the ceilings and walls. Beneath it was a series of tunnels and caves, whose details are known only through a few photographs and friends’ descriptions. Schwitters was a compulsive collector of fragments, and inside the tunnels were assemblages of stamps, newspaper clippings, bus tickets, dolls’ heads, signs stolen from trolleys. Other fragments he stole from friends’ homes: a key from Hannah Höch, a pencil from Mies van der Rohe’s drafting table.

Later, friends found their lost objects imbedded in caves, holes, and grottoes of the Merzbau — sometimes an entire hole or cave was dedicated to a single friend. Hans Richter recalled, “He cut off a lock of my hair, and put it in my hole.” Scraps of shoelace, a dental bridge with teeth, a slice of Theo van Doesburg’s tie, and the bra of Sophie Taeuber-Arp were among the stolen objects found inside. One hole was dedicated to his son; another to his wife; a cave to Goethe.

Still other spaces were devoted to current happenings in German culture: There was a Cave of the Deprecated Heroes (devoted to World War II veterans suffering psychological disturbances) and a Cave of the Sex Murders (there had been an increase in sex crimes in Hanover). Schwitters himself also existed within the nooks and crevices: Alongside lids from cheese boxes, buttons, streetcar tickets, and light switches, he placed his own hair, fingernail clippings, and pieces of clothing.

To live inside your own artwork — inside the “erotic cathedral” of your own mind — is, to me, a beautiful but frightening act of devotion. But this was Schwitters’s intention: “the union of art and non-art.” As he collected more fragments, he carved new holes and covered those devoted to old artist-friends in plaster. (“They are deep down inside,” he said.) The meaning of the Merzbau changed daily as Schwitters reinvented it, as its exterior became interior.

To an outsider, the Merzbau could be seen as madness, disaster, simple fetishism, or as the work of a dilettante who lacked the discipline required to master one artistic form. But being a fan of messes, what thrills me about Schwitters is his disdain for perfection, balance, order, and elegance — virtues so often praised in traditional art and literature — his belief in flux and process and the chaos, collisions, and odd juxtapositions that frequently accompany hybrid forms in art or in literature. Schwitters had long incorporated text into drawings and driven nails into pictures to, in his words, “efface the boundaries between the arts.”

The Merzbau could not be defined in terms of any one movement or form. It was a constant, messy, incomplete performance that he described as being “unfinished out of principle.”  He defined his goal as “the total work of art” that could “create relationships, ideally between all things in the world.” I imagine that to enter the Merzbau — to stand gazing into clean, abstract planes and then find yourself drawn into a dark recess filled with “shiny and fissured objects,” an embracing couple, a “big twisted-around child’s head,” scraps of newspaper stories, flowers floating in a bottle of Schwitters’ urine, a spiral staircase leading to yet another level beneath — was to be reminded of the boundlessness of life and of art.

As much as I believe in embracing chaos, process, and rogue forms, and as much as I like to consider myself a brave artist, I’m a coward compared to Schwitters. I’ve started many a project with the grand idea of connecting “all things in the world” and experienced the thrill of a project spiraling outward into the unknown, but, at a certain point, chaos and messiness start to make me uneasy: What is this?  A story, or a poem?  What does it mean?  What will it become?

I feel the world contract as I begin to shape, narrow, categorize, and reign in. While having a “finished piece” can be satisfying, more often than not I’m left with the feeling that logic and polishing got in the way of what I had intended to do: to create my own, indefinable Merzbau, to watch it spread out from the page into my cellar and attic, spill out the windows onto the balcony, into the side yard and beyond, as his did.

Megan Martin’s first book of prose oddities, Sparrow & Other Eulogies, was recently released by Gold Wake Press. She lives in Cincinnati for now.

Check BURNAWAY for Authors on Art curated by Blake Butler on the second Friday of every month!

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