Schwitters was an innovator in many art forms, but it is possibly through his architectural scale installations, the Merzbauten (Merz buildings), that he exerted his greatest influence on modern art and architecture.
The first, the Hanover Merzbau is the most widely known. The installation evolved gradually over the ten years from 1923 to 1933, and was essentially an extension of Schwitters’ studio, built in the heart of his parents’ middle class house in Waldhausenstrasse. The Merzbau itself, along with the house, was destroyed during a bombing raid on Hanover in 1943, but Schwitters had commissioned photographs of it from three different viewpoints in 1933, and these have had a profound influence on architects, designers and artists ever since.
A reconstruction of the main room was made in 1983 by the Swiss designer Peter Bissegger working from photographs of the original and with advice from Schwitters’ son Ernst. This installation is now on permanent display at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover.
After fleeing from Hanover in 1937 to escape the Nazi régime, Schwitters travelled to Norway where he and his wife Helma had enjoyed many happy summer months on the island of Hjertøya, near the fjord town of Molde. He began work on a new Merzbau in the garden of the apartment he rented in Lysaker, near Oslo, that he called the Haus am Bakken (house on the slope). This work was unfinished, and was destroyed by a fire during the 1950s. All that remains are some plans of the exterior drawn up by Ernst Schwitters for the benefit of the municipal planning authorities. There are no known visual records of its interior, though according to Ernst Schwitters its structure was very similar to that of the Hanover Merzbau.
The Hjertoya Schwittershytta, near Molde
In the summer of 1934 Schwitters rented a section of a small stone hut (the other half was a potato store) on the island of Hjertoya, using it as a summer studio and also as accommodation. Over time he began to create an interior of Constructivist sculptural forms similar to those of the Hanover Merzbau. This is not technically a Merzbau, but the ‘hut’ is so close in size and form to the Elterwater Merz Barn that it forms a useful halfway stage.
Although left exposed to the harsh fjord winters for more than 60 years, the entrance lobby and central room of the Schwittershytta remained endowed with a rich collection of fragments of collaged surfaces and 2D assemblages; pieces from other damaged art works still littered the floor and shelves until 2015 when the hut was disassembled and removed to museum keeping. The Hjertoya Merzbau contains clues to the construction and stylistic development of the Elterwater Merz Barn, to which it is closely related.
During his time on the island Schwitters also produced one of his most successful large-scale outdoor sculptures, the Hjertøya Merzsäule (Merz pillar), constructed in part from the keel of a clinker-bult boat, and evoking a wave-like upthrust of water.
Relatively little remains of any of the Merzbau structures. The original Merzbau in Hanover was lost in the bombing of the city and exists only in the three magnificent photographs that Kurt Schwitters commissioned in 1933. The Lysaker Merzbau burned to the ground in 1950, leaving only a sketch or two behind. The Schwittershytta in Norway, which had remained relatively intact despite its dilapidation, has recently (2015) been dismantled and removed to a museum.
The Elterwater Merz Barn exists however as a sizeable fragment in the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, where it is shortly to undergo comprehensive, and long overdue, conservation work.
And in Elterwater the Merz Barn lives on, emptied of the artwork that for a time gave it its meaning, but still capable of providing inspiration to the many people who visit it, artists, students, academics, children,and the general public, n search of the great questing spirit of the artist, Kurt Schwitters.
The Merz Barn today: 17.01.2016