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REVIEW: Kurt Schwitters in Britain at the Tate thru May 12 then Sprengel Museum Hanover this summer.

THIS IS YOUR LAST WEEK TO CATCH THE MAGNIFICENT KURT SCHWITTERS EXHIBITION AT TATE BRITAIN running through May 12, 2013 Before it moves on to the Sprengel Museum in Hanover scheduled for June 2, – August 25, 2013.

Photograph of the Tate Britain poster for Schwitters in Britain.

Photograph of the Tate Britain poster for Schwitters in Britain.

The name Kurt Schwitters isn’t on most people’s list of must-see artists, but when I heard about the Schwitters in Britain exhibition planned at The Tate this spring, I knew it would involve a minor pilgrimage for me. Indeed, I spent about 16 hours of budget-class travel to see the show and it was worth every cramped and smelly minute for me.

There are many controversies surrounding the life and death of this German-born artist, but this is not the place to discuss them.  Best known for his collages and “Merz” projects, Schwitters’ other works span a wide spectrum; from powerful portrait and landscape paintings to quirky poetry and enigmatic sculptures.

Unfortunately, photography of this exhibition was prohibited by The Tate so I will be referring to some works which I am unable to show here. While there are several rooms dedicated to his earlier time in Germany and Norway, this exhibition focuses sharply on the eight years Schwitters spent in Britain, from his arrival and internment in 1940, until his death on January 8, 1948, just one day after he received notification that his British citizenship had been approved.

– Pre-Britain

Kurt Schwitters was born in Hanover, Germany on June 20, 1887. He studied art in Dresden at the Royal Saxon Academy of Art and participated in several local exhibitions before serving in the German military for a short time in 1917-18.

Ja-was?-Bild  (Yes-what? Picture) by Kurt Schwitters 1920 - Oil, paper, cardboard and wood on cardboard. 89x69cm [Collection of Victor &Marianne Langen]

Ja-was?-Bild (Yes-what? Picture) by Kurt Schwitters  Germany 1920
Oil, paper, cardboard & wood on cardboard. 89x69cm
[Collection of Victor &Marianne Langen]

After withdrawing from military service to focus on his artwork, Schwitters came in contact with members of the German avant-garde and was influenced by Cubism, de Stijl, Futurism, the Dadaists, and members of the Bauhaus school. His work was included in several international exhibitions.

It was during these formative years of 1918-21, that Schwitters began his collage and assemblage work and also delved into the world of poetry. He also refined and explained his new artistic concept of “Merz;” “… the combination, for artistic purposes of all conceivable materials,” and after his first solo show in April 1921 at Galerie der Sturm, in Berlin, he started to publish a Merz periodical to document the development of the movement.

In the 1920s and 30s, Kurt Schwitters’ star rose sharply.  After starting his notorious “sound poem”  Ursonate, he exhibited and traveled throughout Europe and associated with many of the cutting-edge artistic minds of his time, including Max Ernst, Oskar Schlemmer, Hannah Höch, Raoul Hausmann, Hans Arp, Nelly and Theo van Doesburg, Tristan Tzara, El Lissitzky, André Breton, Piet Mondrian, Walter Gropius and Lázló Moholy-Nagy.

It was also during this time that he began a structural assemblage of Merz Columns that would eventually evolve into six whole rooms of his Hanover apartment, and later entire buildings of assembled and arranged items he called Merzbau. These structures became an underlying obsession for Schwitters throughout his life.

Kurt Schwitters, Merzbau Hanover - a partial view from 1933 (destroyed in 1943)  Photo from Sprengel Museum Hanover © Photographer: William Redemann

Kurt Schwitters, Merzbau Hanover – a partial view from 1933 (destroyed in 1943) Photo from Sprengel Museum Hanover
© Photographer: William Redemann

With his family in 1932, Schwitters visited the Norwegian island of Hjertøya and there he began a small Merzbau which he continued to develop through 1939.  Back home in Germany, the rising Nazi Party included Schwitters in their Degenerate Art exhibition touring the country. Today, the official Nazi list of Degenerate Artists reads like a Who’s Who of brilliant creatives, but at the time, it was a sign that Schwitters was becoming unwelcome in his own country.

In 1937, Schwitters took the opportunity to emigrate to Norway and moved in with his son Ernst. During this time, his wife Helma was able to transfer some of his major artworks to Norway from Germany, where the Nazis had confiscated a number of his pieces from museums. The natural beauty of Western Norway prompted Schwitters to paint many landscapes there and these naturally evolved into landscape-inspired abstracts and assemblages. In the 1937 oil on plywood painting “Mz. Oslo Fjord” (on display), Schwitters captured the spirit of the unique Norwegian coastline in a maelstrom of sharp strokes and reflective hues. He also completed several portraits there before his German countrymen finally invaded in April of 1940 and Schwitters made passage to Scotland on an ice-breaker with his son and daughter-in-law.

– The British Years

As were thousands of Germans and Austrians fleeing the war, Schwitters was deemed an “enemy alien” upon arrival, and was set for internment. The Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man came to be known as The Artist’s Camp because, in addition to Schwitters, there were a significant number of other talented souls held there, from virtually every branch of the arts .

Kurt Schwitters, Untitled 1941 (Roofs of Houses in Douglas, Isle of Man) Oil on Linoleum 38.7x43.7cm Kurt and Ernst Schwitters Stiftnung on loan to Sprengel Museum Hanover

Kurt Schwitters, Untitled 1941 (Roofs of Houses in Douglas, Isle of Man)
Oil on Linoleum 38.7×43.7cm
Kurt and Ernst Schwitters Stiftnung on loan to Sprengel Museum Hanover

It has been proven time and again that restrictions breed creativity and this was also true for Schwitters. During his 16 months of captivity, he used the meager supplies provided to capture the camp’s surroundings in stark detail. He also took the opportunity to paint striking portraits of some of his fellow artist friends at the camp.

Kurt Schwitters Untitled (Portrait of Fred Uhlman), 1940 Oil on wood 1000 x 730 mm Hatton Gallery: Great North Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne

Kurt Schwitters Untitled (Portrait of Fred Uhlman) 1940
Oil on wood 1000 x 730 mm
Hatton Gallery: Great North Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne

Additionally, as he so often had, Schwitters continued to collect the bits and pieces of life discarded by others and assembled them into poignant works of art. These pieces seem even more meaningful when we learn they were the remnants of an internment camp, a necessary evil in the greater, unnecessary evil of war. In his Untitled 1940 piece (glass flower), Schwitters transformed a sharp, jagged-edged shard of broken glass, into an etherial, translucent blossom, standing strong against it’s unnatural surroundings. Not unlike the artist himself.

Kurt Schwitters Untitled assemblage 1940 (Glass Flower) 77.5 x 67.5 x 25.5 cm Ludwig Collection

Kurt Schwitters Untitled assemblage 1940 (Glass Flower) 77.5 x 67.5 x 25.5 cm Ludwig Collection

Upon his release in 1941, Schwitters settled in London where he met Edith Thomas who would later become his companion. His work was immediately influenced by these new surroundings. No longer restricted to the items found in the confines of the camp, the everyday minutiae of life in a world metropolis found their way into his art.

Kurt Schwitters  Untitled (This is to Certify that) 1942 Kunsthalle Mannheim

Kurt Schwitters Untitled (This is to Certify that) 1942
Kunsthalle Mannheim

Despite his newfound enthusiasm and new friendships with British artists such as Ben Nicholson and Herbert Read, Schwitters’ fame and recognition would slowly but steadily decline during his years in Britain. This was certainly not due to a lack of production or innovation.

After numerous international exhibitions that included his paintings, assemblages and live poetry readings, Schwitters began making small “hand-sized” sculptures and found great satisfaction in them. But bad things come in threes, and the years of 1943 and 44 brought a trio of tragedies for the, now 56 year-old artist. His first Merzbau in Hanover was destroyed by bombing and his wife Helma, who had been caring for their elderly parents back in Germany, died of Cancer. Schwitters looked for solace in his work but even that was hindered by a temporary paralysis brought on by the stroke he suffered in April of 1944.

Recovery came relatively quickly and by December of 1944 he held a substantial solo show at The Modern Art Gallery in London. Thirty-nine works were exhibited including ten of his new small sculptures.

Several of these, and later “hand-sized”  pieces are on display in this Tate exhibit.

Kurt Schwitters Untitled (Togetherness) c.1945
219 x 75 x 70 mm
Tate Collection lent by Geoff Thomas 1991 on long term loan

They seem to express a slight sense of unease. Perhaps after enduring war, captivity, destruction, debilitation, and the death of a loved one, making a monumental sculpture or composition seemed a bit far-reaching? These are works of art you could set on a nightstand to watch over you as you sleep, or cradle in your arms as you cross national borders on a dreary night.

Though the Tate museum strictly forbids it, these small works in wood, plaster and found objects, beg to be touched, concealed, comforted. One piece is simply a rock, painted wistfully with faded colors, and like the bowerbird that Schwitters was himself, I desperately wanted to put it in my pocket and secret it away to decorate my personal lair.

In 1945 Schwitters moved with Edith Thomas to Ambleside in the picturesque Lake District, and just as the items of the city streets had infiltrated his art in London, the items of the natural world took precedence in these new, serene surroundings. Schwitters called on his early training and painted quaint country landscapes and local landmarks to sell to tourists.

Kurt Schwitters Untitled (Bridge House) 1945
Oil on cardboard 255 x 191.5 mm
Courtesy of The Armitt Trust, Ambleside on short term loan

But even these paintings had a feeling of assemblage to them, as if each brush stroke were a colored matchstick, carefully put in it’s perilous place, joining with the others to form the familiar image.  But Schwitters’ collage work didn’t take a vacation during this time. Though he was physically secluded, he was still corresponding regularly with friends and colleagues in the art centers of the world and participating in exhibitions as well. And with the growing prevalence of print advertising and Schwitters’ fondness for English words, his collages inevitably became adorned with these pre-Pop images.

Kurt Schwitters, EN MORN, 1947
Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris
© VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2013

1946 and 47 brought more health issues for Schwitters, but a second stroke, a broken leg and an asthma attack, didn’t dampen his resolve. At 60 years old, with financial assistance from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he embarked on his final Merzbau; an abandoned barn on an Elterwater estate. Schwitters had now worked on his Merzbau structures in each of the three countries he lived in. Although he had previously proclaimed each of them to be “finished,” he actually continued working on both until he was forced to abandon them. And this one would be no different.  He had gathered some of the remnants of the rural farm, part of a cart wheel, some sticks and stones, to help form a nature-inspired plaster structure, when his work would be interrupted yet again. Only this time is wasn’t angry politicians or invading armies. On July 17, 1947, Schwitters was struck by a hemorrhage and later admitted to Kendal hospital where he would eventually die of an acute pulmonary adema and myocarditis on January 8, just one day after being notified that his application for British Citizenship was scheduled for approval.

Kurt Schwitters had virtually fallen off the art world’s radar by the time he passed away, but as it did with so many great ones before him, his true genius and prolific legacy rose through the years to be counted among the masters of Modern Art.

The meager beginnings of his final Merz Barn were removed and in 1966, were installed at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle where it can still be seen today, but there are so many other treasures in this Schwitters in Britain exhibit, I implore you to see it for yourself. If not at The Tate before May 12, 2013, then head over to Hanover and catch the second act at the Sprengel Museum where it’s scheduled scheduled for June 2, – August 25, 2013.


Tate Britain

Sprengel Museum Hanover

Hatton Gallery in Newcastle


all text © Lance Aram Rothstein 2013


Un-Erasing Rauschenburg’s Erased de Kooning Drawing

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Discover this and more artwork that no longer exists at Tate’s “Gallery of Lost Art