Art in exile: haunted by a house

Niccola Shearman on “Schwitters in Britain”, Tate Britain, London, until 12 May

Kurt Schwitters, Irgendetwas mit einem Stein (Anything with a Stone), 1941-44

This exhibition is part of the Tate's occasional series on the British context of international artists, and it tracks an artist whose sheer creative resilience turned the deprivation of exile into a scavenger hunt.

Leaving Germany in the wake of the Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937, Kurt Schwitters first settled in Norway before arriving in Britain in 1941, only to be interned on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien. Created during this period of dislocation and relocation on the coastal periphery of Europe, the collage-based works in this show reveal a widening attachment to the natural world: algae, crustaceans, feathers, dried fruit and tree bark all join an established repertoire of found objects and urban detritus. And where painted forms frequently take inspiration from objects sculpted by wind and tide in the manner of driftwood and bleached bone, so too the pre-fab living conditions of camp interiors translate into assemblages of asbestos, scuffed lino and tired scrubbing brushes.

Schwitters’s long term project of “Merz” constructions has been described as a one-man movement. Growing from a random scrap of text into an ever expanding structure that took over his house in Hanover, it had its origin in Dada. “I nail my pictures together,” he said at the time, revealing the spirit of the mechanic behind the process of assemblage. Early works such as The Psychiatrist, 1919, express the gusto with which he took to his task, with metal plates and cogs wired into the subject’s brain. And the work Yes—what? Picture?, 1920, challenges popular reception with a vortex of papiers trouvés, including some fake rush seating that looks very much like a nod to Picasso.

Schwitters was equally fascinated by the potential for vocal assemblage: “word deformations” are how he referred to sound collages such as the The Fury of Sneezing, 1946-47, or the Ursonate, 1922-32, with its rhythmic stream of plosives, rolling guttural sounds and staccato trilling.

The pictures in oil and mixed media sample Constructivism, Surrealism, Pointillism and even Lake District tourism posters, but the best are the abstract Norwegian landscapes and the portraits of fellow internees in grey uniforms and damp woollens. As Schwitters used all his materials as though they were paint; a palette knife stuck onto a sweep of oils provides both image and comment on the nature of pictorial composition. For the most part, the “Merzproducts” are constructed from arbitrary materials selected for their qualities of colour, shape and texture. He takes obvious delight in deconstructing tradition to make this point: see how the Old Masters are torn up to produce Merz 42 (Like an Old Master), 1942. Biographical references also feature: the corner of an envelope stamped Opened by Customs, 1937-38, is a particularly poignant one; and the war has both popular and political presence in the Picture Post fragments and works such as Hitler Gang, 1944. In the abstract Untitled (Quality Street), 1943, the sweet wrappers speak of time and place. But the most evocative works, perhaps, are the “hand held” sculptures that suggest that Schwitters's conceptual house continued to haunt him. It is as if the spatial voids and alcoves from the Hanover Merzbau have solidified into tangible volumes of polished bone, plaster and painted wooden protrusions.

This exhibition owes much to recent developments in the study of the arts in exile, providing a view of art in precarious circumstances. In this respect, the related installation works that complete the show offer some interesting thoughts on the legacy of the Merzbarn which Schwitters was working on when he died and which is now dissolving under curtains of Cumbrian rain.

Niccola Shearman is a PhD student at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Her thesis is on the development of the German woodcut in the Weimar Republic.

Published Wed, 08 May 2013 02:12:00 GMT

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