Mar 2013 Journal
Art notes (review)
The German-Jewish refugee artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) was shaped by Dadaism and influenced a generation of 20th-century European avant garde art, including conceptual and pop art.
He achieved this with a simplicity that was profound and organic. Everything could be used. From a spindle to a paper clipping, from a bus ticket to a cotton reel, from a film star poster to an Old Master portrait – all the detritus of life was as useful to him as paint itself. It was all part of a radical concept: Merz. In a new exhibition at Tate Britain, Schwitters in Britain (until 12 May), his collages, paintings and sculpture comprise everything. Given his history, his use of rubbish may reflect the fact that his own art was rubbished as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis.
In Germany before he fled to Norway in 1937, Schwitters created the Merzbau, a building he constructed in his own home but was forced to abandon. The Norwegian landscape influenced the abstract and naturalistic forms which he layered together to provide a visual and almost tactile experience.
But the Dadaist in him did not see things conventionally. A scrap of an Old Master clipping would be edged into the top half of his work: you’d have to squint to see it. So newspaper clippings become surfaces, string becomes brushstroke, and pencil stroke becomes line. A wire netting over the painting or pasted on grease paper becomes varnish and a glass flower poised on a wooden stem can make you smile. But Schwitters painted portraits too, including one of the noted painter and print-maker Fred Uhlman. I was captivated by Untitled: Lovely Portrait, whose pose suggests Rule Britannia.
On entering Britain in 1940 Schwitters was interned on the Isle of Man but the scarcity of raw materials there only fed his imagination. He tore up the lino floor to paint on and made sculpture from porridge. He created over 200 works during his 16 months in the camp before his release in November 1941, when he came to London.
The fragmentary nature of wartime city life prompted him to make collages from London bus and train tickets and even sweet papers, from which he ironically created Untitled (Quality Street).
And yet a deeper message persists: is it the statelessness of the refugee who gathers up the bits and pieces of life to make them work? In London Schwitters became a performance artist, producing his most famous work, Ursonate, at the Modern Art Gallery in December 1944. Critical acclaim followed but he failed to make ends meet in London. He turned to small, hand-held colourful sculptures made of stone, wood and bone, sometimes held together with plaster, wire or dried fruit. These small works challenged the separation between painting and sculpture.
In 1945 Schwitters moved to the Lake District, which evoked memories of Norway. Making collages from stamps and envelopes now expressed contact with distant friends. And finally he tried to complete what he had left unfinished in Germany - a Merz Barn installation with stones, twigs and a cartwheel rim.