Construction for Noble Ladies, 1919
In 1919 Schwitters first used the term Merz to describe his own artistic contributions and attitude of openness towards artistic styles and media. He stated that it was Merz’s nature to be a way in which to observe connections within the world. The term Merz, which comes from a collaged fragment of the word “Kommerz” (commerce) in his work Merzbild 1 (now lost), described Schwitters’ method of careful assemblage, which could be applied to a variety of media. Schwitters himself described Merz as an approach that gave the artist power to apply his methods of collection and construction to components that extended beyond traditional artistic materials and into the realm of ordinary, mundane objects, with the artist dictating the objects’ transformation. When oil on canvas began to feel limited to Schwitters, he began to work by juxtaposing different forms, lines, colors, and, as a result of found items, materials against each other. For example, in his 1919 Merzbild 10A: Konstruktion für edle Frauen (Merzpicture 10A; Construction for Noble Ladies), Schwitters employs wood, metal, leather, cork, paper, oil, gouache on paper on wood, and a tin funnel to create the piece, which, with its diverse forms and dynamic diagonals, looks much like an early abstract painting that has begun to emerge from the canvas into the three-dimensional world. With this work, Schwitters fully abandoned the depiction of anything from the natural world, and instead employed sharp diagonals against simplified colors and forms in order to create an expressive work.
The metamorphic nature of Merz reflected Schwitters’ interest in art that expressed his sentiments surrounding the war and the need for revitalization in its wake. Schwitters worked by collecting discarded materials from sidewalks, dust bins, waste baskets, and trash heaps and then assembling them into new creations, and by doing so did more than merely document the tattered remains of his environment: he allowed the pieces to take on a new meaning by forming them into a new creation. Schwitters saw all of these basic units that comprised his works as pieces that were unique and meaningful, and felt that it was the duty of the artist to reveal this. Additionally, as is stated by Janis and Blesh in their book Collage: Personalities, Concepts, Techniques, "Schwitters made no strong distinctions between his various media--collage, painting, sculpture, constructions, architecture--and his literary efforts: All were Merz.” Schwitters indicated in his essay Merz that the word Merz itself is an example of the process by which he works: a scrap component of language that had no meaning until he, the artist, gave it meaning.
Schwitters’ ultimate Merz project was his Merzbau, a work which he began in 1923 and continued to work on until 1937. This work demonstrates Schwitters’ thorough devotion to his Merz ideas, revealing Merz to be more to Schwitters than an artistic pursuit; it became for him both a way of living and an identity. It began as a series of Merz sculptures in his studio space, and grew into a construction that eventually overtook much of his living space. The Merzbau changed as Schwitters interacted with other artists and artistic movements, and reflected his reaction to the environment. As with Merz, the Merzbau remained a work unfinished, always open to alteration upon the introduction of new inspiration.