Kurt Schwitters

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Kurt Schwitters was born in Hanover in 1887.
His parents were wealthy, but as a child he was described as a ‘loner’ who suffered attacks of epilepsy. On leaving school he studied art in Hanover and Dresden. It was in Dresden that he also developed a life long interest in writing poetry and music.
In 1915 he married his second cousin, Helma Fischer, and they shared a house with Schwitters’ father – the house that would later become home to his first, and most extensive, Merz construction.

In the early years of his marriage he struggled to establish himself at the cutting edge of the modern art movement, constantly experimenting with new art forms and mixing with avant-garde European artists.

Schwitters’ son, Ernst, was born in 1918 and the family began to enjoy family holidays in Lysaker, Norway, where they eventually bought a hut on the island of Hjertoya– it was the place which would one day provide Schwitters with a refuge from the advancing Nazis. He visited it frequently in the ensuing years and while he was there he worked on his second Merz building.

It was in 1937 that, hunted by the Gestapo, he finally left Hanover and emigrated to Norway with his son. His wife chose to stay behind to look after her family’s estate. In 1939 he saw his wife and his mother for the last time.

As German troops advanced towards Oslo in 1940 he was arrested briefly as a spy.
He then fled to Edinburgh, where he was arrested again before being interned on the Isle of Man.

It was here that he met many other artists and intellectuals, and he described the internment camp as ‘one of the best universities in Europe’.

He was released late in December 1941, and moved to London, where he lived with his son Ernst and his daughter-in-law Esther in a small two bed-roomed flat.

Here he met the woman who was to be his dearest friend, Edith Thomas, whom he nick-named ‘Wantee’ because of the way in which she would pop her head around his door and ask ‘do you want tea ?’

In 1944 Schwitters suffered a heart attack which left him partially paralysed. Soon afterwards, he learned that his wife had died of cancer in Hanover.
The following year he and Wantee move to Ambleside, where he made a living painting portraits and landscapes.

The couple met Harry Pierce of Cylinder Farm and they became good friends. In 1947, Harry offered Schwitters the use of an old barn, after the Museum of Modern Art, New York, sponsored him to commence a third Merz construction.

Despite serious illness, Schwitters, he devoted all his energy to his new project. However, the state of his health declined rapidly, and on the 8th January, 1948, he died in hospital in Kendal, with his son at his bedside.

(text: Hatton Gallery)

1. Kurt Schwitters and Helma Fisher

2. Kurt Schwitters and Hilde Goldschmidt, friend, also in exile, near the Merzbarn, 1947.