On Kurt Schwitters: Research from Beinecke Collections

July 16, 2017

By Nancy Kuhl

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Scholar Gwendolen Webster conducted research in Beinecke Library collections on German artist Kurt Schwitters. Of her research at Beinecke Library, Webster writes:

“Many years ago I enjoyed the privilege of working in the Beinecke for a week when researching a biography of the artist Kurt Schwitters [Gwendolen Webster, Kurt Merz Schwitters, a Biographical Study, University of Wales Press, Cardiff 1997]. It was my very first trip to the US (I live in Germany), and I was bowled over by this magnificent library and the vast number of resources available.

My main aim was to study the Katherine Dreier Papers, and they revealed so much information that when I returned to Europe I published an article on Schwitters and Dreier for an academic journal [Gwendolen Webster, ‛Kurt Schwitters and Katherine Dreier’, in German Life and Letters vol. 52, no. 4, 443-456, October 1999] noting that virtually nothing had been written on this relationship, although for nearly thirty years Dreier was one of the most crucial influences in the artist’s life.

When, after several years of research, I came to write up my PhD on Kurt Schwitters’ pioneering Merzbau constructions (now regarded as one of the 20th century’s major sculptural achievements), it was with the determination to prove that far too much of what had been written on the subject over the last fifty years was either misleading or highly questionable or just plain inaccurate. This in turn involved drawing up an entirely new chronology of the Merzbauten, but as virtually nothing remains of the originals, I had little but documentary evidence to support my case. Here the correspondence with Dreier that I had discovered in the Beinecke provided one of the mainstays of my arguments. After I completed my PhD [Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, PhD diss., Milton Keynes, 2007] and published a further work on Schwitters in collaboration with Roger Cardinal [Roger Cardinal and Gwendolen Webster, Kurt Schwitters, Ostfildern 2011] it was rewarding to see that my work had (and still has) persuaded scholars to adopt an entirely new approach to Merzbau research.”

A detailed description of the collection consulted can be found online: Katherine S. Dreier Papers / Societe Anonyme Archive YCAL MSS 101. Additional related resources may be found by searching the Library’s Finding Aid Database.