The Merzbau & Metalepsis

A lecture discussing the poetics of the Cathedral of Erotic Misery by Kurt Schwitters.

The Merzbau - by Kurt Scwitters: The Cathedral of Erotic Misery

The Merzbau - by Kurt Scwitters: The Cathedral of Erotic Misery

The Cathedral of Erotic Misery and the poetics of Metalepsis

The Cathedral of Erotic Misery, as the name suggests, is the work of a psychologically, theoretically, literary, culturally, socially & politically doomed designer/artist by the name of Kurt Schwitters. The Cathedral of Erotic Misery is an obscure work in the nebulous archive of interior design, but I believe it to be significant for three main reasons. The first is its use of the abject – that which must be discarded in order to be; second is the content and form of the Merzbau as conceived like memory- the powers of recalling and forgetting, of projection and introjection informed by the imagination; and thirdly, the metaleptic trope that weaves between the creator and the thing created. 

I’d like to start with a few biographical notes and some historical points about the time in which Schwitters was working as I believe these to be important toward grasping these.

Kurt Schwitters, born June 20th 1887, complains he was born too early, that he once lived as Rembrandt van Rijn, and that his initial aspiration was to become a coachman so he could drive his mother around. He studied at successive schools of art with varying degrees of success. In Hanover he was renowned for his ability to sleep, in Dresden he worked well, in Berlin he was thrown out in 4 weeks for being a lazy-good-for-nothing and returned to Dresden. World War One broke out and he served in an office during which time his attention was directed to architecture. 

After WWI, with much of Germany in ruin and experiencing economic poverty, Schwitters work went through rapid development moving successively through expressionism, dada and constructivism. In 1937 he was labeled a degenerate artist by the Nazi’s and he and his son Ernst had to flee Germany to Norway. It was to be the last time Schwitters saw his cathedral or his wife. It was not long before German troops invaded Norway and father and son escaped to England. As soon as they arrived they were placed in interment camps and remained there for over a year, until December 1941. Over the following 3 years, Kurt Schwitters experienced several personal tragedies. In 1944 he suffered a heart attack which left him partially paralysed, he learned that his wife died from cancer whilst attending the opening of his exhibition at the Modern Art Gallery in London, and that his Cathedral, his most important work, had been completely destroyed in an allied bombing of Hanover. He died at age 60. Schwitters had never been to London before his exile there, and therefore commanded the English language badly, however, as had done many German emigrants, refused to speak his native tongue and applied for British citizenship as soon as possible. This was granted the day after his death.   

Kurt Schwitters’  Merzbau: Die Kathedrale des erotischen Elends (the Cathedral of Erotic Misery) is both a prophetic document of the life and times of its creator, and a destroyed manuscript detailing the problematic mechanizations of modernity itself as conceived from the ruin of war. Through the notions of Abject and Memory I hope to reveal a vision beyond the imagination of a single man working in his home, out imaginatively toward the future of all men. The title of the work requires some elucidation: Erotic – from Eros- Greek God of erotic love. Born of Lack and Plentitude, Eros works to generate a desire within man to complete, to unify and universalize its subjects- it desires the common oneness but does so from a position that regards its subjects as missing something, as lacking in the first instance, and that its complete comprehension is only possible through the mediation of another that is consumed by it. The Misery refers to the human condition that can never seem to achieve this state, a condition which seemed to parallel both in the private and public spheres in his life. The Cathedral of Erotic Misery, a “model of a monument to humanity” is not a church cathedral, rather, it is, in Schwitters words “the veritable expression of spiritual intuition, an intuition which is elevated towards infinity: an absolute art.” (EGB Merzbau pg 76.) The definition of cathedral identifies a place of authority (generally the bishop) with a seat or thrown which the building houses and from which the bishop can issue his dominion his word. For Schwitters, as suggested in an early work titled Haus Merz, the cathedral has no place for its congregation, and instead of a biblical or church office authority, it is taken over by the turning machinery of modernity. There is a cultural critique here, and although the elevation towards infinity of spiritual intuition recalls the idealized anagogic perspective of Gothic cathedrals, the sublated religious revelation recognizes the blindness and dark void of the future. A future Scwitters attempts to reconcile with the past, he does this through the material of the abject and the form of memory.

While a vast majority of modern art and architecture endeavoured to create the master narrative, the gesamptkunstwerk or total work of art that has come up previously, in other words – the Erotic unified whole - Kurt Schwitters’ visual and literary artworks stand out in their resistance, their aversion to analysis, and their use of the contaminated refuse, the abject. Kurt employed found objects, bits and pieces, the broken unwanted and thrown out bits of the world around him to construct the Merzbau. And none of his constructions were exempt from being dismembered and repositioned in new ones, further, as the work grew and grew in size, much of his previous work became built into the new, built over, and built out of the perceptible Merzbau.

Kurt lived with his wife and son at Waldhauenstrasse 5 in Hanover. (his son Ernst is on the right). It was in this building that his cathedral was built. Since the war had ended, and Schwitters had seen the end of his allegiance with dadaism and the artistic doctrines of others like Hans Arp and Huelsenbeck, he launched into a new kind of freedom. Merz was about this freedom, not a lack of restraint, but a product of new artistic discipline. In the wake of the fall of the Weimar Republic he says:  

I felt myself freed and had to shout my jubilation out to the world. Out of parsimony I took whatever I found to do this, because we were now a poor country. One can even shout out through refuse, and this is what I did, nailing and gluing it together. I called it “Merz”, it was a prayer about the victorious end of the war, victorious as once again peace had won in the end; everything had broken down in any case and new things had to be made out of the fragments: and this is Merz.

According to Kristeva, the abject is what I must get rid of in order to be an ‘I’. It is the fantasmatic substance not only alien to the subject but intimate with it- too much so in fact. To abject, as an operation, is to reject, throw out, or push away. To do so, one must recognize the abject, the condition of the thing as that that must be expelled, as alien, as other to ‘I’. A feature of surrealist works is the transfer of value from use value to exhibition value. In the work of Schwitters, the use value is already exhausted, the purpose of the material is already used up, the transaction can not take place (though some publications make note of his surrealist aspects). The exhibition value is not the voice of meaning within the work of Merz, rather, Schwitters gives the abject, the alien, a purpose beyond its purpose, a new life, intact with a field of new relationships + possibilities, he gives a new voice to other, or better, he gives it a voice of its own, beyond the prescribed use for which it was intended and beyond its use-by-date, he gives it immortality. This divine act, to bestow immortality, the ability to give it an eternal time in which to discover the artistic possibility of the material, placed within the context of the cathedral, places the creator at home in a spiritually condensed atmosphere which draws to it its congregation of others or abjects. In other words, Kurt Scwitters did not see in his daily habit used or broken rubbish, he saw artistic possibility and through it salvation. 

Schwitters began constructing pictures from materials he had at hand, such as streetcar tickets, cloakroom checks, bits of wood, wire, twine, bent wheels, tissue paper, tin cans, chips of glass. These materials would lose their individual character, their Eigengift (special poison - purpose), by being evaluated against one another, by being dematerialised (entmaterialisiert) they become material for the picture. It was a kind of preservation of remnants, an artistic ethos that strove to maintain and affirm the future. The words to describe this process were Formung and Entformung. Entformung translates roughly as the ‘metamorphosis’ or ‘dissociation’ of forms from their original context. Together they referred to the transformation, or transubstantiation, of the old into the new- the making of a new art from the remains of a former culture.  Placing these pieces together, alongside one another, the images constitute a paratactical array that, in any number of combinations, operate as a performative field of inquiry. In this sense, Schwitters’ method not dissimilar to Walter Benjamin’s theory of ‘dialectical images’, an idea also known as ‘Dialectic at a Standstill.’ Theodor Adorno notes from Benjamin’s book Einbahnstrasse (One-way street):

The fragments of One-way street… are picture puzzles, attempts to conjure through parables that which cannot be expressed in words. They aim not as much to give check to conceptual thinking as to shock by way of their enigmatic form and thereby to set thinking in motion; for in its traditional conceptual form, thinking grows obdurate, appears conventional and antiquated.

The absolute architecture that Schwitters aspired to create was to become an Erotic Misery, in the sense that it could never be finished, Eros must remain miserable, unsatisfied, there is no complete answer, unity or end. Debris will always be generated, the other will always be abundant and discarded, and the lack will always reveal itself in any and all modernist artworks that aspire to be a total work of art for there is no place for humanity in them, for the human must have space in which to expel the abject. Schwitters was a humanist; he understood the identity of lack as synonymous with the identity of the other whose life possibility is inextricably bound with our own. The frailty of modern man, after the age of enlightenment and French instrumental reason, was his inability to see the possibility of the future in the ruin of the past. Schwitters attempted to respond to this frailty by showing that it is only in and through the fragments of the past that projections of and into the future can be made in a meaningful way.  

The Cathedral grew initially from a column collage Kurt had built in 1919. Dorothea Dietrich suggests that this column, not looking like a traditional column, acts as the ‘first column’ and would have represented to Schwitters the Ur-column (primary or original column- the primordial column). The column is the most primitive enunciation of the impulse for the creation of a vertical vestige which condenses meaning: a ‘memorial’ column. This reading of the column is supported by the first day of the book of Genesis where a vertical marker extends itself toward the heavens, perhaps alluding to its function as a conductor of spiritual forces. His son Ernst remembers that the column moved around the house occasionally. His father then started to tie strings from the pictures on the walls to other pictures and to the column itself.

He produced further columns, and often Merzed elements of the existing columns into the new. It is problematic to date many of these later columns, of which he states in an article that there are 10, because he referred to them all as a or the column, even the cathedral itself as a whole was sometimes referred to as a column. 

The Merzbau consisted of numerous grottoes, holes and caves and small rooms. Starting with the rooms, there was the Biedermeir Room and the De Stijl room- recognising Theo Van Doesburg’s movement, Luther’s Corner- a reference to Martin Luther, Das Ruhrgebiet (The Ruhr Region- an industrial region in Germany), The Nibelungen Hoard which referred to the Nidelungenlied- the ‘great German Iliad’ for which some of you might recall Wagners famous symphony, and the Kyffhauser- a site governed by the great mythological kings of Germany that included a stone table. The rooms related generally to aspects of German history and culture, but also stood as metaphors of history desiring or designing a place in the future.

The holes and caves, hohlen in German, were most often related to individual people and thus acted as kinds of shrines. There were caves devoted to the architects Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius, artists Jean Arp, El Lissitzky, Hans Richter and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Raoul Hausmann, Herwarth Walden, Theo Van Doesburg, Sophie Tauber-Arp, Piet Mondrian, Hannah Hoch- who had two caves, and writer Kate Steinitz who also had the honour of two caves. Goethe, the principle voice of the Early Romantics also had a cave. Schwitters actually extended an invitation for people to donate things to their caves. Some took him up on his offer and even helped create their caves, this included Hannah Hoch and Kate Steinitz, other times he would simply steal things from them.

Hans Richter noted his experience with Schwitters’ means and methods: 

            He cut off a lock of my hair, and put it in my hole. A thick pencil, filched from Mies van der Rohe’s drawing board, lay in his cavity. In others there were a piece of a shoelace, a half-smoked cigarette, a nail-paring, a piece of Doesburg’s tie, a broken pen. There were also some odd things such as a dental bridge with several teeth on it, and even a little bottle of urine bearing the donor’s name. All these were placed in separate holes reserved for the individual entries.

In addition to these caves devoted to particular people, there were caves that recognised groups or entities. These included the Cave of Murderers, the Cave of Deprecated Heroes, the Caves of Hero Worship, Cave of the Sex Murderers, and the Doll or Puppet Hole. These caves or holes were indicative of the underlying pathologies of German culture, pathologies reflected in the disturbing events that occurred in or near Hannover in the years surrounding the First World War, or his personal critique of pathologies in German culture in general. For Schwitters, Merz was an artistic process that could plumb and reveal the modes or strategies society used to repress its trauma and anxiety. For him art is a spiritual function of man with the purpose of delivering him from the chaos of life’s tragedy. Artistically exploring these social pathologies gave Schwitters insight into the repressed social unconscious, an unconscious which, much like our personal dreams, could offer up new poemogogic images and visions to analyse. Schwitters, polemic in writing and revising, attempted to propose possible social enlightenment through artistic group psychology of these pathologies.

There is one grotto of particular significance for it is the only one devoted to a material, the gold grotto. It appears to have two transparent boxes that contain a number of small and medium-sized objects, many of which appear to be parts of children’s toys. The doll like child’s head is probably the relocated death mask of Schwitters’ first son, Gerd. The gold grotto is thought to signify death, life, and love whilst also recognising the material associated with alchemical process where lead, the basest of all metals, is transmuted into gold. 

In Goethe’s Grotto there was actually one of Goethe’s legs as a relic (Schwitters desecrated his grave) and a lot of pencils worn down to stubs. In the Sex Murderers Cave there was an abominable mutilated corpse of an unfortunate young girl, painted tomato-red, with many shattered shards of sparkling offerings. Overall, there were over 40 different rooms, caves and grottoes.  

The largest of all grottoes was the Grosse Grotto der Liebe- the Great Grotto of Love. In Schwitters’ words: 

            The Grotto of Love alone takes up approximately one quarter of the base of the column; a wide outside stair leads to it, underneath stands the Klosettfrau des Lebens (Female Lavatory Attendant of Life) in a long narrow corridor with scattered camel dung. Two children greet us and step into life; owing to damage only part of mother and child remain. Shiny and fissured objects set the mood. In the middle is a couple embracing: he has no head, she no arms; between his legs he is holding a huge blank cartridge. The big twisted-round child’s head with syphilitic eyes is warning the embracing couple to be careful. This is disturbing, but there is reassurance in the little bottle of my own urine in which everlasting flowers are suspended.

This particular grotto has strong links to an autobiographical account to Schwitters’ difficulty with questions involving sexuality, procreation, and women. He and Helma, his wife, went through many problems at the time of their betrothal, and the tragic death of their first son both find a possible allegorical manifestation in this space. The reference to two children who step into life, of whom due to some catastrophe, only a part of mother and child remain, alludes to the experience of loss, a lack felt by both mother and child. 

The column, or Cathedral as I shall refer it, grew. Kurt added more and more spaces, reformed and rearranged existing ones, and even built right over them. Luthers cave was completely enclosed and no longer available to the eye, others were so built in that only small slits between the facade let your gaze enter. As Schwitters’ moved further into his work, the more he coveted it. These images, taken in 1930, belie a more purist material composition that started to tie the multitude of caves, grottoes and rooms into a dynamic cohesion. By this time, the Merzbau had nearly taken over the whole apartment. As he kept building, less and less space was available to its inhabitants, and yet the apartment became a store of spaces. An organic organism that kept growing, Merzing as Schwitters would say, and even broke though one of the walls to meet with the outside. Schwitters had found a well that had been covered over during the construction of the house. He unearthed it and found water still sat in it. His cathedral now had a source of material nourishment and another allegorical link to the organic-life nature of his Merz. Further to this, the water acted as a mirror that reflected the sky. His column therefore metaphorically reached the heavens fed by the earth, and could act as a conduit for his artistic forces. An external internal reflection that continually returns the changing stars, winds, and morphing clouds…

Kurt Schwitters’ aim artistically and architecturally, which he refers to as Merzkunstwerk, was to facilitate the development of neue Gestaltung (‘new methods of forming’, or simply ‘new forms’). His work effaced the boundaries between the arts and transformed them to a new total art, but an art that could never end, eternally in flux and contingent to life, an art that would be like life itself.

The art and architecture of Merz, an idea exemplified by Schwitters’ Kathedrale, resists representation. As Hal Foster asks in ‘Return of the Real’, can an abject be represented? No, and so Schwitters art does not represent something, his art is. An absolute art and architecture of objective forms, Merz, like nature, is conceptually transparent and therefore non-representational. From this point of view any attempt at a linguistic analysis of architecture, an analysis that would imply a consistent grammar and thus ‘proper use’, would be absurd. Accordingly, the citation or speculation of an artwork proffered from outside the limits of its material and dimensional context also wrong. As Wittgenstein has shown, even language is not a fixed condition but a mutable form of life that ‘means’ only in the sense of communicative discourse: ‘meaning’ is conditioned through use. Meaning rises through the discourse enacted by the inoculators, between the speakers/listeners.  For both Wittgenstein and Schwitters, the reason (‘meaning’) of art and architecture is formulated according to the Ur-phanomen supporting its coming into being, a process that occurs through what Schwitters’ specifically defines as forming and deforming (Formung and Entformung). Thus the reason of the object is inseparable from the object’s appearance and any language used to describe a thing (whether an art work, tree, or animal) denies the complex development and play of actions, interaction, and reactions that condition its being born. Exemplified by his Kathedrale, ‘meaning’ in art and architecture resides for Schwitters in a project’s discursivity, aspects of which include the project’s impulse, processes of construction (Aufbau), and the inscription and effects of use and time (Rhythmus). Basically this means that Merz embraces and includes any and all interpretations of it, including those that conflict with it or other interpretations. Humanity can, and often does, exhibit the same contradictions and conflicts, and these he was able to formally translate into his art.

Art, language, and human sexuality, are all articulate dimensions of human existence and activity, the reason of any one of these does not lie outside its activity. Through our memories the reasons change and we often devise or interpret new ones in relation to more current experiences. However, through repetitive change, key metaphors return again and again and reveal the vital meanings of our lives. Schwitters sadly recognized that his life, driven by his artistic desire, was to be inevitably tragic. That his salvation, the immortalized artistic discipline of Merz in which he could bestow the meaning of his life, would force him to surrender the very place and culture that gave birth to him and it – his home. In the end it was the space of ‘I’, the time and place in which he found a meaning or identity for himself, which abjected him, and which for many years forgot him. He became an abject, an other, an alien; but it is through Merz, as both an artistic and life process, that the darkness of the future, the void or lack, was faced with success. For Kurt Schwitters, now regarded in Hanover as one of their greatest artists, has created a space for the other, a home for the abject within art and life. He revealed the flaw in the modern project, that it would expel that which is essential to humanity… the very essence of Merz, the stuff and the space of possibility.

The Cathedral of Erotic Misery, with its labyrinthine collection of allegorical and personal grottoes and columns hidden within the inner recesses of its precinct, its temporal complexity, reflects Schwitters’ lifelong spiritual journey. It reflects the complicity of revelation and redemption, suffering and loss, desire and play, and mediates a bridge from the unwanted and forgotten to the immortal, a metaleptic bridge built for the possibility of future. 


As a humorous anecdote to this lecture, there were a few occasions where my research fell on Merzed resources. The first is the Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama built in 1919, by Kurt Schwitters? Or Johannes Baader?- it’s Baaders’. And the second was Schwitters’ Das Kreisen- here translated as the circle- note the orientation. Here it was translated as the revolving- and it has revolved 180 degree’s. In my German dictionary das Kreisen means spin, or cycle.

 by Megg Evans

lecture given at RMIT University Wednesday 26th April, 2006.


 Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading,

 Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, An October Book, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001.

Elizabeth Gamard, Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau: the Cathedral of Erotic Misery, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2000.

Will Desmond, Being and the Between, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1995.