Kurt Schwitters, London 1944 - ‘Nine Portraits’
Kurt Schwitters was rebuffed from joining the Berlin Klub-Dada, as he was considered insufficiently political. It was their loss, as Schwitters proved himself to be far more radical and original than anything produced by this political off-shoot of the avant-garde movement.
The rejection disappointed Schwitters, but he was in good company as neither Max Ernst or Jean (Hans) Arp—who had been central figures in the original Zurich Dada group—joined this new Dada political off-shoot. Instead, Hans Arp teamed-up with Schwitters, and the pair collaborated on various projects over the next decade.
In response to his rejection, Schwitters formed his own brand of Dada, which he called Merz—the name lifted from a Hannover bank, “Kommerz und Privat Bank.” Schwitters was influenced by many of Dada’s ideas, in particular he developed some of Arp’s theories about language and the written word.
Arp saw Dada as a constructive force, and defined it as:
“...the primal source of all art. Dada is for the ‘without sense’ of art, which is not to say non-sense. Dada is without sense like nature. Dada is for nature and against art. Dada is direct like nature and tries to find for each its real place.”
Hans Arp ‘Dada Sprüche.’
Arp produced a series of poems where words and phrases were placed together not for their semantic message, but for the possibility in creating sensation through their associate sounds.
the nightbirds carry burning lanterns in the beams of
their eyes. they steer delicate ghosts and ride on wagons
with delicate veins.
Like his paintings and drawings, Arp’s poetry developed organically. His intention was to restore a sense of wonder to the world through sound.
Schwitters, on the other hand, broke language down into individual words and letters, with which he created early examples of Concrete Poetry. His aim was to create a new form of expression.
[The last verse to be sung.]
As with his collages, where he used wood, wool, paper, plastics, material, and metals to cover the surface of a single image, Schwitters used language, words, letters, phrases, syllables, to produce poetry.
His most famous work is Ursonate (1932), which took ten years to write, and has been hailed as “the greatest sound poem of the 20th century.” This “sonata in primordial sounds” has intrigued, inspired and irritated audiences for over 90-years, and continues to be performed across the world.
Kurt Schwitters reads an extract from ‘Ursonate’
By the 1930s, Schwitters, along with many other artists (including Ernst and Arp), was considered “degenerate” by the Nazis and he fled Germany. He moved to Britain, where he spent the duration of the war at internment camps in Scotland and the Isle of Man. After the war, Schwitters moved to Kendal in the Lake District, where he continued to work as an artist, poet and performer until his death in 1948.
A novel take on Schwitters’ Ursonate has been created in this animation by Lisa Placet, where the sonata is seen as a conversation between two birds.