Exhibition review: Schwitters in Britain, Tate Britain, London, January 30 - May 12 2013
Quality Street wrappers, bits of old cardboard, bus tickets, fragments of fluff, chalk, newspaper and bone - it was all fair game for master of collage Kurt Schwitters, whose theory of Merz elevated such objects to the status of paint.
© Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris / DACS 2012
“In Merz pictures the box top, playing cards and newspaper clippings become surfaces," he wrote. "String, brushstroke and pencil become line; wire netting becomes over painting or pasted on greaseproof paper becomes varnish, cotton becomes softness.”
In 1919, when Schwitters published his theory, it was revolutionary. He used it to make collages, assemblages, sculptures, installations and even performances which crossed a lot of boundaries. Looking at the breadth of art on show here, it's still a pretty convincing argument.
Tate’s retrospective, which builds up to focus on his time in Britain, has a pacey feel to it. In the pre-war years Schwitters strode across the movements of Modernism, Futurism and Dada-ism, flitting from medium to medium, painting in oils but adding wood and tree bark and even sheet metal.
Against the bustling backdrop of Weimar Germany, he also plundered typefaces and published pamphlets.
Later, this magpie approach to making art was borne out of necessity. Following his inclusion in the Nazi's list of degenerate artists and the absurd yet sinister Nazi exhibition of “Degenerate Art”, Schwitters was hounded out of his native country, then forced to leave his haven in Norway when the Nazi army invaded.
Amidst these escapes he left behind two Merz houses – the Merzbau in Hanover and a similar creation installed in the garden of his house near Oslo. Both were crammed with sculptures and space-transforming interventions, but were lost to wartime bombing in Hanover and a fire in post-war Norway.
Having caught the last boat out of Norway in 1940, Schwitters landed in Scotland and was interned as an enemy alien in Hutchinson camp on the Isle of Man.
© Sprengal Museum, Hannover / DACS 2012
But nothing hindered his thirst for invention, and he produced more than 200 works during his internship, sometimes even using porridge to make sculptures.
In a corner, amidst Tate's dizzying selection of personal objects, collages and other artworks that tell this story, sits Schwitters’ travel trunk, expertly collaged by the artist-refugee.
Germany’s loss was our gain. Released in November 1941 after 16 months in the camp, Schwitters stayed on in Britain until his untimely death in Cumbria in 1948, just a month into the creation of a final Merz house near Elterwater.
But Schwitters was always a connected artist who, as a member of the international avant-garde, interacted energetically with British art and culture of the time.
In London, he hooked up with Ben Nicholson and art critic Hebert Read and scoured the streets for found objects to incorporate into his work.
Sweet wrappers, Liquorice Allsorts packaging and newspaper and magazine clippings of wartime Britain all went into vibrant collages that still bustle with typography, imagery, memories and historical narratives that anticipate 1960s pop art by a couple of decades.
Having already exhibited in Britain in the 1930s, he joined British abstract and surreal artists for the 1942 touring exhibition New Movements in Art, elements of which are shown here.
Paul Nash’s Landscape from a Dream and pieces by Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo accompany Schwitters classics such as Red Wire and Half Spoon and Isle of Man, together with a recording of his famous Dadaist sound poetry work, Ursonate, which floats across the gallery, recalling a gleeful performance at the opening of his show at London’s Modern Art Gallery in December 1944.
Another room reveals his “hand sculptures”; hand-sized, tactile shapes that combine a range of elements from bone and stone to plaster and wire - many of them made on the hoof between Germany, Norway and Britain.
There is also a chance to see elements of the unfinished Elterwater Merz Barn, via Richard Hamilton’s film of it prior to its removal and installation at Newcastle’s Hatton Gallery in 1965, and an in-depth exploration of his move to Ambleside in June 1945, including his formal portraiture and landscape works.
Here, when he lapsed into a kind of rural obscurity, his focus on the natural world encompassed organic forms, which replaced the brightly coloured ephemera of the thirties collages with the vertical logic of pine trees and the mountains of Lakeland.
Schwitters' motto at this time was: “Create connections, if possible between everything in the natural world.”
This absorbing show, which conlcudes with two Schwitters-inspired commissions by Adam Chodzko and Laure Prouvost, brings home these countless connections, as well as the many ideas and materials he introduced to contemporary art.
It has been said that there is scarcely any artist working beyond paint who hasn't been influenced by Schwitters. Tate Britain's show proves this point perfectly by reminding us of his many experiments and how they still resonate today.
© Sprengel Museum Hannover on loan from Sammlung NORD/LB in der Niedersächsischen Sparkassenstiftung, Hannover
© Sprengal Museum, Hannover / DACS 2012