IN 1919 Kurt Schwitters, a German artist, snipped the letterhead of a local bank as part of his first collage. "Merz", sliced out of "Kommerz- und Privatbank", became his trademark, shorthand for the idea that anything—including rubbish—could be used to make a work of art. This radical concept has come to be seen as the foundation of much pop and conceptual art, evident in the work of artists such as Richard Hamilton and Damien Hirst.
“En Morn” 1947
Source: Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne
“Untitled (Quality Street)” 1943 Source: Sprengel Museum, Hannover/ DACS 2012
“Untitled (Opening Blossom)” 1942-45 Source: Sprengel Museum, Hannover/ DACS 2012
Conceived in Schwitters's hometown of
Hanover, "Merz" became more central to his work in 1937, when he was
forced to flee the Nazi regime via Norway into exile in England.
Wherever he was, whether on an icebreaker in the North Sea, an
internment camp on the Isle of Man, in London or the Lake District, he
made art with whatever materials were at hand. "Everything an artist
spits out is art," he declared in 1933.
His British work in exile,
spanning his last eight years, demonstrates his creative vitality until
the end. It also underpins what Penelope Curtis, Tate Britain's
director, calls his "living influence" on British artists. This
communion between artists over time is at the heart of "Schwitters in Britain",
a show of the artist's late works now on at Tate Britain in London. The
exhibition juxtaposes 180 of Schwitters's pieces with those of his
contemporaries from the 1940s, and includes newly commissioned works by
Adam Chodzko and Laure Prouvost.
Schwitters's versatility is
impressive. The works on display include hand-held sculptures, collages,
paintings (some startlingly good portraits and landscapes), drawings
and fragments of the "Merz Barn", a stone building in the English
countryside that he was turning into a sculptural installation at the
time of his death in 1948. An audio clip features Schwitters performing
his poem "Ursonate". Most of these pieces have not been seen in Britain
since the Tate hosted the Museum of Modern Art's first big retrospective
of the artist in 1985.
Loosely identified with the European Dada
movement, Schwitters shared ideas and friendship with the modernist
avant-garde that included Max Ernst, Hans Arp and Marcel Duchamp.
Branded a "degenerate" artist by the Nazis, he was forced to abandon his
"Merzbau", a painstakingly assembled architectural interior in Hanover,
later destroyed by a bomb. Although Schwitters resisted interpretations
of his collages, it is hard not to perceive a certain wistfulness in a
piece that combines steamship schedules and the label "Made in Britain".
In exile his work exploded in many directions. A vibrant
example is "Glass Flower" of 1940, an abstract collage of curves with a
central bloom made of glass and wood. The curators hang it beside the
1937 "Mz Oslo Fjord", whose echoing contours make it a painted
doppelgänger of the sea-swept glass assemblage. Nature was a source of
both material and inspiration for Schwitters, says Emma Chambers, one of
the exhibit's curators. In the 1946 collage "15 pine trees" he layers
corrugated cardboard in vertical stripes that form a slice of forest. A
series incorporating snippets of Old Master paintings is endlessly
fascinating; there is humour, too, as in a modified portrait with the
title "This was before H.R.H. The Late Duke of Clarence and Avondale.
Now it is a Merz picture. Sorry!"
Most striking for many will be
the portraits Schwitters painted while incarcerated for 16 months as an
"enemy alien" at the Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man. These loose,
confident paintings brim with intimacy and life, like others he made in
Cumbria in his final years. Long derided as bread-and-butter work,
unworthy of any self-respecting modernist, these affecting landscapes,
still lifes and portraits are an important part of Schwitters's oeuvre,
says Ms Curtis. The show aims to give equal weight to the abstract and
figural work of this great artist, she says. "Both were ways he looked."