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Brian Sewell on: Schwitters In Britain, Tate Britain - review
By Brian Sewell
31 January 2013

Dismissed as 'degenerate' by the Nazis, German refugee Kurt Schwitters was on the periphery of the nihilist movement, creating something from nothing with his found art and collages

Kurt Schwitters (June 1887 - January 1948), painter, sculptor, graphic designer, poet, performer and, above all, a maker of collages and assemblages, was born a German, but died in Kendal, Cumbria, almost a British citizen. As this new nationality was offered him the day before he died, too ill to read the letter, it is sentimentally suitable that this very German semi-Dada artist should be honoured at Tate Britain, rather than Tate Modern, with an exhibition of work executed in this country. Threatened by the Nazis, he had moved from Hanover (his birthplace) to Norway in January 1937, and from that then safe distance learned that his work had been included in their notorious condemnatory exhibition of Degenerate Art later in that year. When, to increase their control of the North Sea, the Germans invaded Norway in the spring of 1940, Schwitters had to flee again and by icebreaker reached Edinburgh on June 19, only to be interned until late November the following year.

On his release he lived, poverty-striken, in London until the end of the war in May 1945, and then, within six weeks or so, moved to Ambleside in the Lake District, there to suffer strokes, asthma, a broken femur, a heamorrhage and the pulmonary oedema and heart attack that killed him within two and a half years.

In Germany he had had a thorough academic training as a painter that was never to desert him, and it was his ability as a conventional painter of portraits and landscapes that sustained him during his internment and, particularly, in Ambleside, though they were sold for shillings and other very small sums of money; but his reputation in Hanover and Berlin was as an artist on the edge of the international Dada movement (nihilist, anarchist, anti-war, anti-authority and baby-babble), rejected from "official" membership for not being political enough. Nevertheless, Schwitters contributed poems, essays and declarations to Dada publications, was much in demand as a Dada performer at soirees and recitals, exhibited work all over Germany and in Prague, Vienna, Basel, Zurich, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, London and, most important, in New York, and was acquainted with or well known to, not only international leaders of Dada, but to Mondrian and van Doesburg, to Arp, El Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, Albers and the astonishingly influential writer and exhibition organiser E L T Mesens. Schwitters described himself as "citizen and idiot" - and idiot he may have been in the sense of perfect fool, but he had few rivals as a networker.

Schwitters' achievement between the wars that ended in 1918 and began in 1939 was to establish the belief that art could be made from anything, from any discarded material and junk, and that these could stand alone or be combined or juxtaposed with the accepted materials of painting, sculpture and collage, and that the resultant work could be on a single plane, in low or high relief, and even free-standing as sculpture. He coined a word for it, MERZ, a nonsense word that is something of a stumbling block for all who attempt to understand him; it came to him by chance when, making a collage, he cut the name KOMMERZBANK from a newspaper and, topping and tailing it, found MERZ in his hand, irresistibly akin to the French merde, slang that he translated as rubbish or garbage, but that is better known as shit.

Suddenly there was the notion of the Merzgesamtkunstwek in which painting, sculpture, architecture, music, poetry and drama could all be rolled into one super-Wagnerian total-shit-art-work. Suddenly there was Schwitters the Dada poet eulogising the smells of sexual congress and reciting horrific tales of murder and castration. Suddenly his art was preaching this new gospel through the refuse of the collage and the ant-heap architecture of the Merzbau (shit-building) that he constructed within his parents' house, from room to room, up the stairs and through the roof. Suddenly there was the great lumbering Schwitters in the dog kennel, barking at the neighbours, and up the garden trees tweeting and twittering at the worthies of Hanover on their way to church. All this was more than enough to make him the darling of the avant-garde, and decadent Berlin took him to its breast. England did not. 

An essay in the catalogue of Tate Britain's exhibition suggests that considerable exposure here between the wars had brought him to the attention of the English avant-garde; in theory it had, but that avant-garde was hardly functioning after the Blitz. Released from internment on the Isle of Man, where the camp had been so much run by middle-European intellectuals that it was, if not a university, certainly a grove of academe, Schwitters came to London.

December 1941 was no time to be in the still threatened Blitz-torn capital; if that month Pearl Harbor brought the USA into the war, this seemed less relevant than the sweeping uncertainties of our North African campaign and the sinking of British battleships in the Far East, the loss of Malaya, Singapore and Hong Kong the immediate consequence. Food was in short supply, clothing too was rationed, coal almost unobtainable, gas pressure too low to bake or roast, and the lull in Luftwaffe activities strangely enervating. Schwitters moved into the attic of a common lodging-house near Paddington station, in which he found Edith Thomas, a young woman (far from intellectual) who was to care for him and become his devoted companion; so often did she ask him if he wanted tea that Wantee became his nickname for her. Within a year he moved to Barnes. He set up studios, networked and exhibited industriously, contributed work to fund-raising and travelling shows, joined every organisation that he could, was rebuffed by Kenneth Clark and quarrelled with Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, both of whom he thought weak; Nicholson thought Schwitters "an ass and a bore." All this without making any money.

His son, Ernst, in his early twenties, was with him all this time, but at the end of the war returned to Norway, while Schwitters and Wantee moved to Ambleside to sell for shillings the conventional landscapes, flower pieces and portraits of local worthies that distracted him from the reliefs, collages and sculptures that had been his metiers; there was also, from March 1947, the now celebrated Merz Barn, his third and least convincing attempt at a Merz Building, left, after nine months, less unfinished than scarcely begun, in which he sought to convert a dry-stone sheep shelter into a Merzgesamtkunstwerk.

Mercifully, this disappointing failure, though much romanced into a masterpiece, is not in the Tate exhibition. This is of small things, of reliefs and collages, sculptures and portraits, in many of which there is a wistful note - as there was in those executed in the internment camp.

A substantial number of early examples from 1919 to 1939 set the scene for the late work in England that was to be so influential for Pop artists such as Richard Hamilton and Peter Blake (and, dare I suggest, Howard Hodgkin?), and in the catalogue there is a hint of some debate about a decline in quality. One authority suggests that his circumstances were detrimental to his late work, weak because he was physically weak, leading to "tragic decline"; another has it that the work is a re-evaluation of his vision rather than an aesthetic deterioration; and with others still we have the extreme views that the work is "unbearably slipshod" and his "most audacious ever." 

I can read nothing of this into the work. Some collages must, when new, have been much brighter - the mellow tone of some is largely due to the deterioration of poor-quality paper during the way; Schwitters must to some considerable extent have been influenced by the available materials, but I discern no prevailing mood reflecting the misfortunes of war or the deprivations that he was by no means alone in having to endure. The early observation of the Dadaists that his work was not political enough was still true, though there is perhaps a touch of irony in the collage bearing the prominent legend "These are the things we are fighting for", made in 1947 when post-war austerity was unrelentingly harsh. If I can detect an inconsistent difference between the early and the late work, it is that the early, influenced by his parallel skills in professional printing, design and advertising, are more planned than intuitive, the late more intuitive than planned, but I suspect that once into his stride there was little signifiant change. 

With Schwitters we should be wary of the interpretations of experts. This is the Tate's second major exhibition of his work - the first, a retrospective, got off to a bad start with the reproduction of Blauer Vogel (Blue Bird) on the cover of its catalogue, which had to be withdrawn and reprinted when Ernst Schwitters condemned it as a fake - yet this was a collage extolled by many, including John Elderfield, world authority on Schwitters, as one of his "greatest" and "very exceptional" in its rich and sexual iconography. That there could be so convincing a fake raises the question of just how difficult it is to piece together a collage of paper scraps or knock together a relief of broken tools and offcuts of timber, or with painted stripes turn a stone into a sculpture.

The answer must be that it is not at all difficult to push about within a frame the bits and pieces of the junk-yard and the wastepaper basket until they resolve themselves into satisfactory compositions; but I must argue that however absurd the behaviour, the theories and the baby-babble of this citizen idiot, in achieving his aesthetic apotheosis of rubbish, there is in Schwitters' collages and boxed microcosms of representative tokens that represent nothing other than their abstract functions in terms of colour, tone, texture and form, the inescapable integrity of the perfect fool.