In 1918, through the Kestner Society, an organization founded in Hannover in 1916 to promote the exhibition and discussion of modern art, Kurt Schwitters made contact with Herwarth Walden, whose Sturm Gallery and magazine in Berlin were devoted to promoting expressionism. Schwitters showed two abstract paintings at a group show at Sturm Gallery in June 1918. Over the winter of 1918–1919, Schwitters began making abstract assemblages and collages from materials he found or accumulated in his daily life—ration cards, string, paper doilies, newspaper fragments, streetcar tickets, and other bits of discarded refuse. Schwitters named his new pictures "Merz," after a fragment of the phrase "Kommerz-und Privatbank" that appeared in one of his first assemblages, and adopted the term to describe all of his artistic activities. Although influenced to make collages by Hans Arp, Schwitters' works far surpass Arp's in the sheer variety of stuff incorporated, borrowing the language and strategies of commercial culture in order to reevaluate the relationship between art and everyday life.
In July 1919 Schwitters first exhibited the Merz pictures at Sturm Gallery and published a programmatic statement on Merz painting in Der Sturm magazine. His affiliation with Sturm and the active adoption of his own brand name kept Schwitters from being accepted into the inner circle of Berlin dadaists, though he became good friends with Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Höch. He tirelessly promoted Merz, popularizing his poem, "An Anna Blume," by pasting it up in the streets of Hannover as a poster, and then publishing it in Der Sturm and as a separate edition. Anna Blume became a renowned figure. Schwitters included her character in other short stories and poems, and capitalized on her popularity to advertise Merz as the recognizable brand name of Hannover Dada. In 1923 Schwitters launched Merz magazine. The first issue was devoted to the De Stijl-Dada tour that Schwitters organized with the Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg, and subsequent issues featured contributions from Höch, Arp, and Tristan Tzara. In addition to being a medium for the exchange of ideas between dadaists, Merz also functioned as a juncture between Dada and international constructivism, as in the 1924 collaboration between Schwitters and El Lissitzky on Merz 8-9, "Nasci." Schwitters also used the magazine to further promote his poetry, which had developed after 1921 from parodies of expressionist sentimental lyrics like "An Anna Blume" to abstract sound poetry. In 1932 he published his most famous sound poem, the "Ursonate," as a twenty-nine page special issue of Merz. Remarkably, he also recorded his performance of the "Ursonate," which gains much of its appeal from his inimitable delivery.
One of Schwitters' goals with Merz was the achievement of a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art that would encompass painting, poetry, sculpture, theater, and architecture. Around 1923, he began work on the construction of what would become his Merzbau, an installation in his home in Hannover (formerly the nineteenth-century home of his parents) that gradually took over his studio and encroached onto the other rooms of the house. Constructed of a series of grottoes that Schwitters filled with borrowed and stolen objects from friends and family and then covered over with further construction, the Merzbau became a lifelong project of accumulation and memorialization.
In 1937, after his works were confiscated from German museums and shown in Entartete Kunst, the "Degenerate Art" exhibition, Schwitters emigrated to Norway, where he began a new Merzbau project. He remained in Norway until 1940 when the German invasion forced him to flee to England. After a seventeen-month internment on the Isle of Man, he moved to the English countryside, where he continued to make collages and assemblages. In 1943 Allied bombs hit Schwitters' house in Hannover, destroying the Merzbau. Shortly before he died, he began work on a new Merz construction in a barn near his home in England supported by a grant from the Museum of Modern Art in New York.