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Images of the Merzbau

Updated: Oct 21, 2018

A wonderful selection of Merzbau pictures, the best I've seen, with explanatory text from the index section of Gwendolen Webster’s Doctoral thesis, by kind permission, "Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau", 2007

‘Heilige Bekümmernis’, [Holy Affliction] c. 1920.

This assemblage was never exhibited. According to Ernst Schwitters it was incorporated into the Merzbau. The assemblage was made from a tailor’s dummy belonging to Schwitters’ mother. Notice the old shelf containing miscellaneous objects that provide the bond between artist and work. The figure was used as a prop for Merz poetry recitals and a centrepiece for Merz parties. The picture on the wall is probably one of Schwitters’ Expressionist oil paintings of 1918

An early view of Kurt Schwitters' studio, c. 1924.

Photographed by Wilhelm Hoepfner. In the pan on the left, Schwitters is apparently heating up adhesive.

Merz column, c. 1925/6

This photo is undated and is assumed to have been taken in the cellar of Waldhausenstrasse 5 [the Schwitters family home in Hannover]; the CR dates it to about 1926. The photographer was Wilhelm Hoepfner from Garbsen. Art historians generally refer to this as the column with the boy’s head (Elderfield 1985) or the First Day column (Dietrich 1993); the latter name derives from a collage of 1922 entitled Der erste Tag [The First Day], CR 1040, affixed to the base…The column’s subsequent position in the Merzbau indicates that it was not part of the KdeE [the ‘Cathedral of Erotic Misery’, a substantial part of the earlier iterations of the Merzbau]. The head is a death mask of Kurt and Helma Schwitters’ first child Gerd, who died in 1916 shortly after birth. Possibly the column commemorates the tenth anniversary of his death. The picture behind is Überschwemmte Wiesen [Flooded Meadows] 1914, CR 97.

KdeE, 1928

This photo is inscribed ‘KdeE 1928’. The name occurs in two essays entitled ‘Ich und meine Ziele’ (1930) and ‘Das grosse E’ (undated, probably 1931) to describe a column that has been under construction for seven years. The photo shows a section of the sculptural assemblage described in ‘Ich und meine Ziele’. John Elderfield identifies the stair and the mother and child to the left of it with those mentioned in this text, and suggests that the picture of the Mona Lisa in the angle of wood below centre is that which Schwitters partly covered with a photo of Raoul Hausmann.

KdeE, c. 1929

In her memoirs, Kate Steinitz wrote: ‘As an eyewitness, I am able to describe [the column], for I saw the huge construction grow over a period of twelve to fourteen years. The caves [...] disappeared into the depths of the column, which gradually became a cathedral. Some parts of the Cathedral of Erotic Misery were in this stage of transition when I last saw and photographed it. A little guinea pig was sitting of one of the [...] parts.’

Kate Steinitz dated her photo to about 1929. The guinea pig was placed there as a joke, according to Ernst Schwitters, as animals were not allowed to run around this room. The collaged background consists mainly of tickets. The words ‘Theater Scala’, to the right of the handle, have been regarded as indicating a connection between the Hannover Merzbau and the Expressionist Scala restaurant in Berlin

Hannover Merzbau, 1933, entrance and column with the baby’s head.

This shows a detail of [the ‘Treppeneingang’]. The entrance to the Merzbau is on the right. Traces of what looks like collaging can be seen in the next room. The tall glazed grotto left is shown from another angle in [the photo below].

Hannover Merzbau, Die grosse Gruppe [The Big Group], 1933.

The Big Group was photographed by Wilhelm Redemann in 1933. Jutting out centre is the Hobelbank [joiner’s bench]. The descending shaft above the bench is an example of what Schwitters described as ‘the most important of my forms, the half-spiral’. To the right of it is a circular hatch with a sliding door, which gave a view of the whole room. The hatch was reached by steps leading up from the entrance on the right (see also [following photo]) to a sofa in a niche named The Nest, in the top right-hand corner on this picture. The ledge ran behind the constructions and ended in a stair behind the movable column on the left. The flat rectangular board behind was presumably designed to conceal this stair.

Hannover Merzbau, Treppeneingang [stairway entrance]. 1933

[An] enlargement of the entrance. This section was photographed by Wilhelm Redemann in 1933. The main entrance to the Merzbau in on the far right; the door was removed in the early 1930s. To the left of it stands the column with the baby’s head. High up between the two is a grotto with a doll strung up inside, and below is a picture of Wilhelm Busch’s anti- heroine ‘Fromme Helene’. On the left can be seen an entrance flanked by a curving spiral form, actually a long drive belt plastered over. Inside on the left, a stairway led to a corner niche with a sofa.

Hannover Merzbau, view of the Blue Window, 1933.

This photo of 1933 by Wilhelm Redemann shows part of the KdeE on the right, with the Hand Shaker below centre and the table for the guest book below right. One eyewitness stated that when visitors had signed the book, they were given tea and biscuits and asked to contribute 1.50 marks to the Merzbau. The entrance is just outside the photo, left. Visitors would enter this area, bathed in blue light from the coloured window, with the edge of the KdeE facing them, then walk beneath the arched vaulting into the main part of the room. On the left is a grotto containing a string of small lights. Mirrors affixed to the constructions reflect elements in other parts of the room. A picture (a Merz collage?) stands on a ledge on the left. Inside the grotto lower right can be seen a photo of Schwitters, printed matter, a broken wheel and a chess figure.

Hannover Merzbau, details

CR 1199/22-24 AC 1933. Three close-ups by an unknown photographer of parts of the Big Group (25a), the stairway entrance (25b) and the Blue Window (25c). The Catalogue Raisonné dates these photos to circa 1932. In 25a, first published in abstraction-création in 1933, untitled, a picture frame can be seen in the lower left hand corner. This may be part of the E- Collection, pictures which Schwitters had received from Arp, Klee, Feininger, Kandinsky and other friends (Schulz 2006a).

25d. Ernst’s photo taken ‘from the Nest through the window over to the Romantic Arch’, c. 1936. (Letter to Kurt Schwitters, 18.6.37, KSF)

Hannover Merzbau, Madonna and KdeE.

‘The Madonna stands in front of the balcony window in my studio.’ [1] Neither this nor the following photo of the Madonna sculpture bear title or date, and the photographer is not known. This photo shows the Madonna and its reflection. On the far right is a reflection of the upper part of column known as Cathedral of Erotic Misery (KdeE). It is known that many mirrors and reflective surfaces (including the glazing of the grottos) were built into the Merzbau in its later stages, and many seem to have been precisely positioned to provide alternative views of the structures or a view of the park outside. The Madonna was a characteristic Merz object in that it was made of refuse; it consisted of the arm of a chair set on end and painted white. Schwitters offered this sculpture for sale in 1937 at a price of 300 Swiss francs.[2]

[1] [Die Madonna steht vor dem Balkonfenster in meinem Atelier.] Letter from Kurt Schwitters to Susanna Freudenthal, 15.7.37, KSA 9, 38. [2] Letter to Edith Tschichold, 3.7.1937, Getty Research Institute, Jan und Edith Tschichold papers.

Hannover Merzbau, 'Madonna'.

‘The first Madonna was created in the so-called Blue Grotto, about 2 metres from the entrance to the main Merz room, and directly next to the door to the [...] balcony. The grotto was so named because [...] it was bathed in a blue light, and in the centre in front of this grotto stood the Madonna. It wasn’t really planned as a Madonna at first, but simply as an abstract form, but when it was finished, you couldn’t avoid the impression that this was a ‘very devout’ stylized Madonna. That’s how she got her name, which therefore came from my father himself. The first Madonna was an integral part [of the Merzbau] and was about 60-65 cm. high, made of wood and plaster and painted white, more or less like the overall style of the Merzbau at this time. My father must have been very fond of this sculpture, for soon afterwards he made a second Madonna, very similar to the first but this time free- standing, and this one stood in our home in Waldhausen- strasse 5 for years, and stayed there till we finally emigrated to Norway [...] The first two Madonnas were made between 1930 and 1934.’[1] Schwitters also worked on a Madonna in England: cf Nündel 1986, 171.

Hannover Merzbau, Schlanke Plastik [Slender Sculpture], c. 1935.

In 1964, Ernst Schwitters wrote: ‘I was only 16 when I took [this photo]! [...] The Slender Sculpture was not made until 1935 and was permanently installed in the Merzbau. It stood immediately right of the entrance to the main room [...] only it was added so late that it can’t be seen on the [1933] photos. It was about 35 cm. high.’

Hannover Merzbau, Grotte mit Puppenkopf [Grotto with Doll’s Head].

In this photo by Ernst Schwitters, the head visible in [the photo above] has apparently disappeared and been replaced by a light bulb. This photo (untitled) was published in abstraction-création in 1933 and dated to the same year. In 1936 it was exhibited in New York, mistakenly dated to 1925. Inge Bergmann-Deppe, who as a child lived next to the Merzbau from 1931-37 remembered Schwitters rescuing parts of her broken porcelain doll as a child (“Die Scherben nicht wegwerfen! Das ist alles für die Kunst!!!” [Don’t throw the pieces away! They can all be used for Art!!!])

Hannover Merzbau, details of column with baby’s head.

These untitled photos were dated 1925 by Schwitters himself and show the column at a later stage, with much of the structure sheathed in plaster. [The photo directly above] was taken by Ernst Schwitters. If the 1925 dating is correct, it is difficult to reconcile the appearance of the column with photos of other sections of the Merzbau taken in 1928, which give no indication of plaster casing. As it is unlikely that Ernst could have taken this photo at the age of six, it must be assumed that either the dating is erroneous or that the photo was taken at a later time and was backdated by Kurt. The latter theory is given credence by the catalogue of an exhibition in New York in 1936 in which both photos are labelled 1925-32. From this it may be assumed that Schwitters dated the original column to 1925, while the photos show its aspect in 1932. The details are not identical with those of the 1933 photos.

Hannover Merzbau, two views of the stairway entrance (?), c. 1932?

These two photos show a detail of the Merzbau under different lighting conditions. They were evidently taken from inside the constructions. The CR dates both to c. 1932.

Enlarged view

This enlarged view shows a collaged version of Paul Schuitema's poster in the background. He was a member of Schwitters' Circle of New Advertising Designers, which also included Piet Zwart, László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer and Jan Tschichold

Hannover Merzbau, Grotte in Erinnerung an Molde [Grotto in Memory of Molde].

This photo is dated 17.9.35 and was taken by Ernst Schwitters. It is possibly identical with the Tiefseegrotte [deep-sea grotto] mentioned by Ernst in 1937. It is not known where in the Merzbau this grotto was situated.

Merzbau reconstruction, entrance.

This is taken from the entrance to the Merzbau reconstruction by Peter Bissegger, 1981-83. To the left is the Blue Window. The Hand Shaker (CR 1767?) is the angular construction at the front on the floor. Behind that is the KdeE with the table for the guest book in front. Right of the main window stands the Movable Column. Behind it, a stair led to a ledge that ran along the wall to the far corner. The exit was through the stairway entrance.

Wide shot of the reconstruction of the Merzbau 1981-1983 by Peter Bissegger.

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