24 March 2013

Schwitters at Tate Britain

Schwitters in Britain at Tate Britain is comprehensive, chronological and, even better, turns out to be modestly titled. It is in fact a near-retrospective of Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), an artist who is not so popular as to guarantee that the show is unpleasantly crowded.

Although close to Dada and other avant-garde art movements in Europe after World War I, Schwitters, perhaps because of his relative isolation in Hanover, developed a movement of his own, MERZ. He alighted on these letters as a residue when cutting up a newspaper printed with the word COMMERZBANK and took them to mean art, sculptures or even buildings, Merzbauten, which could be assembled from anything. Perhaps not surprisingly many of the exhibits surviving from the years before he came to Britain are collages, often incorporating three-dimensional found objects. Inevitably, these do not reproduce well on the printed page (or LED screen) and have to be seen to fully appreciate the subtlety of their composition and colour - Merzbild 1a (The Psychiatrist) 1919, above.

Schwitters had decided to leave Germany for Norway in January 1937 before the exhibition in July that year of what Goebbels and others labelled degenerate art. He probably never wished to come to Britain but three years after arriving in Norway, the Nazi invasion meant that he, his son and daughter-in-law had to leave. The British authorities eventually interned Schwitters on the Isle of Man with many other mittel-European intellectual refugees until he was released in November 1941. After a brief sojourn in Paddington where he met his companion, Edith ‘Wantee’ Thomas, he spent the rest of the war in Barnes, SW London, at 39 Westmoreland Road, whose owners probably now have a good case for a Blue Plaque should they want one  (Relief in relief 1942-5 right).  During this period he made contact with old friends who were also refugees like Naum Gabo and encountered British artists like Ben Nicolson.

After the end of the war Schwitters moved to Ambleside in the Lake District where he started to construct the Merzbarn, the interior wall of which is now preserved in the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle. Its exterior was reproduced in the courtyard of the Royal Academy in 2011 as part of the exhibition Modern British Sculpture.

While happier making Merz collages and reliefs, Schwitters would turn his conventional artistic talent to more readily sold landscapes and portraits. Examples of the latter are Untitled (Portrait of Klaus Hinrichsen) 1941 (left), from his time on the Isle of Man, and Untitled (Portrait of Henry Pierce), painted in Ambleside in 1947, the same year as he made En Morn, detail in the Tate’s banner above.

Brian Sewell’s review of the exhibition is well worth reading and, among other things, draws attention to Schwitters as a link between Dadaism and the emergence of British Pop Art in the years after his death. Sewell suggests that the word MERZ to Schwitters was “irresistibly akin to the French merde, slang that he translated as rubbish or garbage, but that is better known as shit.” Certainly Schwitters served in the German infantry in the First World War and may well have picked up some French obscenities.

Schwitters in Britain continues until 12 May and will be at the Sprengel Museum Hannover from 2 June to 25 August.

1 comment:

  1. Searching some more info on Kurt Scwitters, I arrived at this blog: nicely written. Looking further, I discovered that Merzbarn is no longer at immediate threat to disintegrate. Must some time take a trip. As small token of respect to Kurt Schwitters, one photo of Merzbau is part of essay Assemblages: the entrails explained, this week published in Issue 9 of the Axon Journal.
    regards, Drager