Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) was a prominent figure in European art history during the first half of the 20th century. He was loosely associated with the radical Dada movement from the end of the First World War, and he had great significance for Surrealism and for the experimental trends of later periods such as performance, happenings, fluxus, etc. His artistic production is pertinent even today and enjoys the interest of ever new generations of artists – in a Norwegian context one can for example point to an idiosyncratic and diversified artist such as Hilmar Fredriksen.
Schwitters is especially known for his so-called Merz pictures. Like “Dada”, the name is arbitrarily and originally chosen without any sense. It stems from a fragment of the name of the commercial firm ”Commerz- und Disconto-Bank” that Schwitter cut out of a printed brochure and used as a central element in one of his pictures. The Merz pictures are collages put together out of various materials and found objects such as bits of newspapers, postcards, wrapping paper, pieces of fabric, tram tickets, photographs, etc. Yet Merz represents something more and greater than the individual work. It can be perceived as a designation for Schwitters’entire artistic project, which encompasses countless modes of expression in addition to visual art; poetry, drama, music, art criticism, prose writing, architecture etc. For Schwitters there was hardly any separation between life and art, on the contrary, it was all part of a sweeping Gesamtkunstwerk where there was no distinction between high and low, meaningful and meaningless.
One might think it strange that an artist of Kurt Schwitters’ distinction would choose to live and work for long periods in a country as remote as Norway. It was almost by chance that he discovered the landscape of Western Norway while on a cruise to Spitsbergen in 1929, and in the following years he visited the countryside – and in particular Hjertøya outside of Molde – repeatedly. Due to the tense situation in Germany he fled to Norway with his family in 1937 and settled in Lysaker, outside of Oslo (it is a peculiar coincidence that this international avant-garde artist decided to settle here of all places, for the area had been the base for the highly national minded Lysaker Circle, with Erik Werenskiold and Gerhard Munthe as central figures). The family remained living here for three years before having to flee once again after the Germans invaded Norway. This time it was to England.
As an artist, Schwitters remained very isolated in Norway. His innovative works of the 1920s and 30s met with very little interest; the only exception seems to have been Olav Strømme who around 1935 conducted Merz-inspired experiments with collage. Not even the normally so progressive art collector Rolf Stenersen showed an interest, and today there are very few works by him in Norwegian museums or private collections. It wasn’t until many years later, when Schwitters had long since been canonised as a pioneer of modernism that anyone in Norway began to show an interest in his work.
During the years he lived in Norway Schwitters had a relatively large production. He worked continuously on collages, but partly inspired by the imposing landscapes of Western Norway and partly for economic reasons, he also created many conventional, relatively easy to sell landscape paintings and a good number of portraits. It is not without reason that these works have posthumously been evaluated as a less interesting element in Schwitters’ production, but they of course have inherent relevance and significance in a Norwegian context. In addition to these works, Schwitters built two of a total of four of his so-called Merzbau in Norway. He considered these constructions as the culmination of his vision of the absolute work of art that would encompass all art forms and all creative possibilities. Merzbau was a total transformation of common interiors and sitting rooms, and they were in a constant state of change. Little by little the rooms became covered in large quantities of various cuttings, materials, artefacts and objects. As a huge three-dimensional collage. Haus am Bakken in Lysaker burnt to the ground in 1951, and the stone cottage at Hjertøya deteriorated for many years, but parts of it are intact and will now be restored and preserved. This is a project that will be conducted as a collaboration between Henie Onstad Art Centre, Romsdal Museum and the DNB Savings Bank Foundation. The cottage at Hjertøya is moreover the only one of Schwitters’ four Merzbau constructions that has not been totally lost.
The painting collage Pariser Frühling is dated 1936 and can feasibly have been made in Norway. During the spring of this year Schwitters was in Paris, however, and considering the title it is most likely that it came into being there; it at least refers to his stay in the French capital. This relatively large collage appears as a three-dimensional painting (oil on pieces of wood mounted on a board). The composition is dominated by a circular shape contrasted to a number of vertical structures. The palette is subdued and sober, but is interspersed with vibrantly coloured accents. Together with two similar works from this period, it differs somewhat from the other works from these years. It has a simpler and more stringent style that both refers to earlier collages from the 20s, and can also be reminiscent of his abstract paintings from the end of the 30s. The work can be seen in connection with the elegant, amorphous sculptures by Jean Arp and works by the Surrealist Max Ernst – both active and major figures in Paris during the 30s, precisely when Schwitters was there. The formal execution of Pariser Frühling seems particularly related to Ernst’s visions of a petrified city or forest with a lunar shape, in which case there is probably also a connection leading to Olav Strømme (The City, 1937).
Schwitters was not interested in the “content” in art, but in the problems pertaining to form. It was first and foremost the unique characteristics of the materials and found objects that preoccupied him. By using objects, often refuse and trash, he wished to give life to art. He wanted in a concrete and metaphorical sense to transform reality into art. In the beginning of the 20s he described his working method as follows: “I use all kinds of materials… if the picture requires it. Material montage gives me an advantage over traditional oil painting, since in addition to placing colour against colour, line against line, form against form, etc. I can place material against material, wood against burlap, for example.” Somewhere else he elaborates on this: “The creative process does not have any aim. The work of art develops exclusively out of the means. And these means are unambiguous. Art is balance that has been created by placing all of the parts in relationship to each other.”
In addition to Pariser Frühling the smaller collage Ohne Titel (Apollo im Februar), 1930-31, is also in the possession of the DNB Savings Bank Foundation. They will be shown at the Henie Onstad Art Centre beginning 23 September in their newly opened room devoted to Kurt Schwitters.