Abstract Critical

Schwitters in Britain

Written by Gwendolen Webster

Kurt Schwitters, En Morn 1947, © Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris / DACS 2012

Kurt Schwitters, En Morn 1947, © Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris / DACS 2012

Let’s start with the poster and catalogue cover of the Tate’s ‘Kurt Schwitters in Britain’ exhibition, which both feature Schwitters’ 1947 collage En Morn. On each, the strip of white print running along the lower edge of the original is lacking. ‘These are the things we are fighting for’ it reads, in the manner of a caption. No doubt the curators had good grounds for the omission, but to find a complete, horizontal sentence in a Schwitters collage is unusual – not to say suspect – so this one at least deserves special attention. Automatically we associate it with the dewy-eyed blonde on the right who is encircled by a somewhat forbidding jumble of elements dominated by the colours of the flag of Weimar Germany. Below her, an upturned photo of a respectable Victorian male, a piece of arrow-like frame and a red stain draw our attention to the irregular and comparatively nondescript grid of torn and crumpled papers on the left. Is the blonde gazing at a grubby bus ticket or into a blank future? Who might be fighting for what in 1947? And who does ‘we’ refer to? Artists? The British? Schwitters was of course German, if alienated from his homeland and on the brink of gaining British citizenship. Is he preaching, mocking, warning or just plain teasing? For a clue, we might look to another assemblage on show, which he has entitled As You Like It.  

Of course, no complete or incomplete two-dimensional image of Schwitters’ work can hope to reproduce the plasticity, textures and subtle hues of the originals. It is a joy to wander round the Tate Britain exhibition, exploring at first hand the cornucopia of surprises that the artist has in store for us and marvelling at the panache and audacity with which he transforms trivial scraps of battered refuse into works of fragile, poetic elegance. Reproductions are also deceptive about dimensions. The original of En Morn unexpectedly turns out to be smaller than a standard A4 sheet, and along our way through the show we encounter everything from fragile jewels of minimalist collages no bigger than postcards to grand and densely packed works in heavy frames. There is a kind of choreography involved in a Schwitters exhibition, as if the artist is playing games with us: in the Tate; viewers home in on the intricate cascade of found objects in Picture with Two Little Dogs, trying to spot the (yes, very small) dogs, before retreating in an attempt to make sense of the whole; they wander round the striking assemblage Glass Flower 1940, scrutinizing it from different angles (how on earth did Schwitters manage to produce such a magnificent picture in one of the worst years of his life?), and peer at tiny collages, craning their heads in an effort to decipher tantalizing scraps of print at close range before a gallery attendant intervenes. Schwitters’ abstracts rarely allow us the luxury of peaceful contemplation, but oblige us to adopt a dynamic of shifting mental and even physical standpoints.  

Schwitters in Britain has benefited considerably from the outstanding expertise and resources of the Kurt Schwitters Archive and Foundation at the Sprengel Museum Hannover (a modified version of the show moves to the Sprengel in June). The long-running academic debate about the overall quality of Schwitters’ late work need not concern us here, for the exhibition is highly successful in what it sets out to do – which is to convey the sheer wealth and diversity of his artistic output after he arrived in England. With over 180 works on show, this is an impressive survey that allows for a host of serendipitous encounters; as the curators have refrained from any detailed background information, the exhibits are largely allowed to speak for themselves. Those unfamiliar with Schwitters’ work may be surprised to find just how bewildering, challenging and captivating their language still is.  

Kurt Schwitters, doremifasolasido c.1930. Private collection. Tate Britain, Schwitters in Britain

Kurt Schwitters, doremifasolasido c.1930. Private collection. Tate Britain, Schwitters in Britain

The introductory room of the Tate exhibition contains what can of necessity provide only a glimpse of Schwitters’ prolific and extraordinarily diverse output during the Weimar Republic, when he was one of the lynchpins of an international network of artists and intellectuals. He launched his one-man movement of Merz in early 1919, and his Merz manifesto of the same year claimed the right to use any material to create an artwork of formal harmony. Despite the ensuing witch-hunt that viciously branded him as either insane or a traitor, his vision of Merz became increasingly ambitious as he extended the practice to other disciplines such as sculpture, poetry, prose, drama, performance and architecture, blithely ignoring traditional boundaries and time-honoured hierarchies. There are some memorable early works in this part of the exhibition that in their time delivered a slap in the face to those upstanding citizens who understood art as a supreme expression of national pride, mirroring their own complacency. In the Yes-what? Picture of 1920, scuffed strips of corrugated board hover over a base of refuse loosely veiled by nonchalant flourishes of subtly coloured wash (and it is worth commenting here the deliberate exposure of process plays a significant role across the whole range of Schwitters’ work). In Merz Picture 46A The Skittle Picture, two skittles intrude unceremoniously on gallery space, the artistic equivalent of those horizontal en chamade pipes that protrude from Spanish organs and startle unwary bystanders. Here a smidgen of Dada, there an echo of Constructivism – the philosophy of Merz enabled Schwitters to help himself, magpie-fashion, to a plethora of styles, yet set his democratic, fundamentally inclusive concept apart from other avant-garde movements. Merz boasts no ideological strivings, no calculated hostility to the social environment and no dogmatic prescriptions of aesthetic criteria; it professes an explicit tolerance of human failings, a subversive sense of humour and, in Schwitters’ ultimate identification of Merz with himself, a creditable, if quirky, example of corporate identity. Small wonder that the man and his work were unloved by the Nazis.  

Kurt Schwitters, Irgendetwas mit einem Stein (Anything with a Stone) 1941-4. Sprengal Museum, Hannover / DACS 2012

Kurt Schwitters, Irgendetwas mit einem Stein (Anything with a Stone) 1941-4. Sprengal Museum, Hannover / DACS 2012

The multi-facetted professional activities that provided Schwitters with his main source of income during the Weimar Republic – he worked as a writer, graphic designer, typographer, publisher, journalist, lecturer, entertainer, dramatist, poet and art consultant, with occasional excursions into architecture and music – dried up with the advent of the Nazi regime, while the international networks that he depended upon for support rapidly disintegrated. With his increasing isolation and his departure to Norway (not, it may be noted here, on account of the Munich Entartete Kunst exhibition of 1937, which was not even planned when he left) came a new phase of introspection, and as we move through the roughly chronological layout of the exhibition rooms, we see how the composition of his abstracts becomes looser and less intense, resulting in what John Elderfield has aptly termed ‘breathing spaces’. There is a new focus on individual objects, manifested in the unsettling contents of the Basket Picture, the eerie void of Fantasy on Roofs, the ominous Red Wire and Half Spoon and the sinister Take, dominated by a sombre scrubbing brush whose bristles have been worn down to almost nothing. These masterly and arresting works exude an uncanny, Surrealistic atmosphere that belies Schwitters’ avowed rejection of the movement (he dubbed it ‘literature produced by the wrong means’). In contrast, I found it an arduous task to engage with the abstract landscapes in oils that he painted after 1930, characterized by an often crude stippling technique. Most are too mannered, too wishy-washy, too humourless and too self-consciously impressionist. For once this is a genre that Schwitters the gifted all-rounder doesn’t quite carry off.  

Kurt Schwitters, Untitled (Curving Forms) 1941, Eindhoven, Stedelijk Van Abbe Museum. Schwitters in Britain (30 January - 12 May 2013)  Tate Britain

Kurt Schwitters, Untitled (Curving Forms) 1941, Eindhoven, Stedelijk Van Abbe Museum. Schwitters in Britain (30 January – 12 May 2013)
Tate Britain

Schwitters’ time in England can usefully be divided into three parts, starting with his one and half years of internment as an officially designated ‘enemy alien’. Released in late 1941, he spent the rest of the war in London being bombed by his compatriots – the exhibition justifiably lays emphasis on his time in the capital, which has received little critical attention to date – and in 1945 he moved to the Lake District, where he died in 1948. What induced the extraordinarily fertile burst of artistic activity that started the moment he was imprisoned behind barbed wire on the Isle of Man and ceased only with his death eight years later? To no small degree his élan was prompted by renewed contacts with old colleagues and the gradual resumption of his role as an inveterate networker. His address books are bursting with useful contacts and in London he exhibited his abstracts with astonishing frequency, to occasional critical acclaim. Selling them, however, was a different matter. By nature both frugal and resourceful, Schwitters survived by producing the well-crafted landscapes, portraits and still lifes that had always enabled him to eke out a meagre existence when times were hard – as they were, without exception, after 1933.  

Kurt Schwitters, John Bull 1946 and 1947. Hannover, Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Hannover, Sprengel Museum Hannover

Kurt Schwitters, John Bull 1946 and 1947. Hannover, Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Hannover, Sprengel Museum Hannover

The curators have wisely decided to include both abstract and figurative work in this show – a practice that the artist himself favoured in the 1920s, to assure those unnerved by his scurrilous brand of abstraction that he ‘really could paint’. The figurative paintings no doubt contribute to the general appeal of this exhibition, for they record the people and places that Schwitters encountered in Britain with a self-assured and forthright charm. Moreover, for a British public the collages and assemblages of this period are more easily readable, in all senses of the word, than pre-1940 works, for like no other country in Europe, Britain cherishes its iconic wartime images, and many of the creased slogans and scraps of print from the Forties that Schwitters inserted into his abstract works with cheeky insouciance – British made, John Bull, Dr Scholl’s Foot Comfort, Mr Churchill is 71 – still generate a treasured sense of familiarity. Schwitters’ enduring sense of humour – sometimes whimsical, sometimes bitterly ironic, sometimes black – will also endear him to a British public. Some collages gain a subtle sheen from flattened Quality Street chocolate wrappers; for others, liquorice allsorts advertisements and paper doilies provide a fund of chirpy abstract elements. Schwitters himself rarely commented on his materials unless to accentuate their irrelevance or note that he chose them because they had been formed by other agents. But if Merz is not ostensibly a diaristic method, Schwitters’ insistence on working with his immediate environment, however unfavourable, nonetheless leaves us some fascinating glimpses of the England of the 1940s.  

Kurt Schwitters, Untitled (Quality Street) 1943 © Sprengal Museum, Hannover / DACS 2012

Kurt Schwitters, Untitled (Quality Street) 1943 © Sprengal Museum, Hannover / DACS 2012

This exhibition also succeeds in revising and augmenting standard perceptions about Schwitters’ time in Britain. With so many visual works that require intensive demands on one’s attention, it is easy to overlook the showcases that document other aspects of his professional life, but they are well worth exploring, and clearly disprove the common notion that in London he remained largely isolated from the art world. We rarely think of Schwitters as a sculptor, as almost nothing has survived of his considerable sculptural oeuvre apart from a few rarely-seen examples, but Schwitters evidently attached great importance to those created in exile, and here in the Tate we are treated to a noteworthy display. Readers are directed to Megan Luke’s catalogue article for a perceptive analysis of these works, which indirectly tell their own tale of Schwitters’ valiant struggle to orient himself in an unknown country – a struggle exacerbated by desperate poverty, failing health, isolation from friends, family and homeland and a culture that frequently baffled him. 

Despite such setbacks, Schwitters never abandoned his fervent desire to preserve what he regarded as his foremost legacies to future generations – the Ursonate, a 40-minute-long sound poem that trills and gurgles through the Tate’s exhibition rooms, and the Merzbau, his generic name for the ground-breaking sculptural interiors now seen as the forerunners of installations, environments and site-specific artworks, though they perplexed even the most intrepid and innovative of his contemporaries. A hitherto unpublished photo documentation of the Merz Barn – a third Merzbau that Schwitters constructed in the Lake District – is also welcome addition to the show. Problematical for me, in the other hand, was the inclusion of two especially commissioned Schwitters-inspired installations by Adam Chodsko and Laure Provost; it is a commendable gesture, but I found it almost impossible to relate to these works at the very end of such a large and demanding exhibition. At best they require a separate visit. 

Kurt Schwitters, Untitled (Opening Blossom) 1942-5, Sprengel Museum Hannover on loan from Sammlung NORD/LB in der Niedersächsischen Sparkassenstiftung, Hannover

Kurt Schwitters, Untitled (Opening Blossom) 1942-5, Sprengel Museum Hannover on loan from Sammlung NORD/LB in der Niedersächsischen Sparkassenstiftung, Hannover

In conclusion, I’d like to emphasise the less obvious role that this show plays in revealing the political side of Schwitters’ work. I have already indicated that he was regarded as a radical iconoclast throughout the Weimar era, which was polarized by rigid political allegiances from beginning to end. However much Schwitters tried to play it down, Merz was condemned as excremental, unprincipled, unGerman and seditious. The hateful and humiliating campaigns against him, which died down in the late 1920s but never ceased entirely, were supplemented by allegations that an artist who worked with fragments was by definition schizophrenic and should be confined to an asylum. In the 1930s the old polemics surfaced again with renewed force; Nazi propaganda portrayed Schwitters as a subhuman creature bent on burying the pure German spirit under heaps of filth named Merz. The Merzbauten in particular are best understood as defiant works of exile, for by the time the first room of the Hannover Merzbau (a photo features in the Tate exhibition) was completed in 1933, Schwitters had virtually become a refugee in his own country: in Nazi Germany there was nowhere that abstract artists (or anyone else, for that matter) could safely call their own. In Norway he was presumed to be a spy, and after the Nazi invasion he had to flee for his life. Once in Britain, months of internment (for no other crime than carrying a German passport) awaited him, and many of his contacts at this time were either refugees or colleagues who had fled Germany and were now scattered around Europe and the United States. From the first, politics pervaded all aspects of Schwitters’ work, and the Tate exhibition is an inspiring witness to the perseverance with which – against all the odds – he continued to pursue a dream of equality and a commitment to hopeful socio-political causes that in his case could only find adequate expression through the arts. We may smirk at the idea of the porridge sculptures Schwitters fashioned in internment, but they are also sad indictments of an era that shattered and destroyed the lives and visions of so many who worked towards a more democratic, tolerant society. The pathetic, unstable fragments of faded detritus that make up collages like Windswept (1946), as Roger Cardinal has pointed out, have ‘nothing much to say and no strength to say it forcefully,’ yet they are acts of expression ‘made meaningful by virtue of reduction to scarcely more than a hoarse whisper’. We may be grateful (as Schwitters himself was) that he eventually landed in England, a country that gave him at least a modicum of freedom, but ultimately this final tragic period of his life was redeemed by his courage, his humour and his determination not to give in to the stream of almost insurmountable obstacles that life threw in his way. What better way to end than with Schwitters impudently cocking a snook at all and sundry in Oil Wiping on Newspaper (1939), owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum and now on display among a selection of masterpieces on the spotless white walls of the Tate’s Schwitters in Britain. ‘Cherish me, I’m art’, it announces provocatively. ‘Just wait and see’. 

Schwitters in Britain is on at Tate Britain until the 12th of May

  1. Gwendolen Webster said…

    Good point about the global scale of his material, Sam. And of course the fragments that crop up in the collages of his English period are by no means all English – just as in Germany and Norway his choice of materials was international – for instance the remains of a packet of Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes on a collage of the 1930s.
    Yes, and I too found the emphasis on his use of ‘twigs and stones’ somewhat irritating. It was by no means new, as you say. If you look at photos of the Merzbau around 1933 you will see on the right an ominous black twig crawling almost like a spider over the white surface.
    hannover-merzbau-view-with-blue-window-kurt

  2. John Bunker said…

    A great thought provoking review! Many thanks. I especially liked your conclusion. Its left me wondering how the impulse towards collage and abstraction might be connected to issues of displacement and exile- issues that seem even more relevant today on a global scale.

    • Gwendolen Webster said…

      Thank you very much indeed for your comments, John. As to your wonderings – a theme worth exploring!

    • Gwendolen Webster said…

      P.S. John – print was in the early 20th century an ‘outsider’ material, for it defied all the conventions of institutionalized art – it was an impersonal, cheap, easily available, and often ephemeral machine-made product, whose usage demanded only scissors and glue. So its mere presence in a picture provided an ironical or absurd commentary on the common understanding of art. By the way, when critics complained that Schwitters’ collages were was ‘unGerman,’ he solemnly countered that his material was in fact pure German, collected on proper German rubbish heaps.

      • Sam said…

        I thought this was a great exhibition. One thing that annoyed me was the Tate’s insistence (on captions throughout) on a large difference in content between his early German works, and those he made in Britain. It seemed as if the Tate wanted to justify the inclusion of work which to my mind stood perfectly well on its own. Surely it was enough to (as Gwendolen suggests) rehabilitate the work he made in Britain, or to show his abstract against his figurative? I can imagine that in the exhibition proposal the ‘In Britain’ bit may have been suggested in order to get those unfamiliar with Schwitters through the door, but was it necessary to force this through the show? As if everything had to be ‘on message’ (in this it reminded me of the Miro as political artist thesis exhibition at Tate Modern – though the Miro was perhaps a more extreme case).

        In part this involved stressing his use of the twigs and stones in those works he made in the Lake District, when it seemed to me that he used these as often in his earlier work. But more problematic was the insistence that British print material was very different from the German. Of course a British viewer may have a nostalgic view on ‘Quality Street’ etc, and there is always the question of being able (or not) to read the language a particular phrase or scrap of a phrase is written in. But to me what Schwitters’ use of collage highlighted was that the production of the material he used (bus tickets, sweet wrappers, adverts etc, etc) was happening on a global scale. The great tide of stuff that he picked up on was flowing everywhere, and in Britain or Germany was fundamentally the same. Despite his ironical response about German rubbish heaps, his German critics may have had a point: he could have made this work in any industrial society at that point; and this is an important part of his work’s meaning.