Kurt Schwitters was a German born artist who between the wars was instrumental in the Merz movement. This was a close to Dadaism at the beginning and evolved into a movement that made art from everyday objects. In the late 1930’s Schwitters was able to construct Merzbau houses that embodied this philosophy.
However after being labeled degenerate by the Nazis Schwitters fled first to Norway and then to Great Britain it is this later part of his career that the new exhibition at Tate Britain covers in detail.
The exhibition devotes a room to the work that Schwitters produced while in Norway. This continues his earlier work with collage but also shows his more traditional side. He was inspired by the landscape of Norway and produced a few painting that document the sea crashing against the rocks. Stylistically these are closer to Impressionism but they have a raw feel about them that both contrasts with and complements the collage work that was inspired by the same landscape. Schwitters time in Norway was short as in 1940 the Nazis invaded and again Schwitters, his Son and Daughter in Law were forced to flee once again. This time boarding an ice breaker bound for Scotland.
Shortly after arriving in Edinburgh Schwitters was detained as an ‘enemy alien’ and sent to Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man. Hutchinson Camp was not a camp as such most of people were housed in boarding houses and there were few restrictions. Many of those fleeing the Nazis were able to make the best of the situation and Schwitters was no different. He produced over 200 works while on the Isle of Man and was involved with the art exhibitions and magazines produced there. Materials were short but people were able to make do. Schwitters even used left over porridge in some work while other artists were able to turn linoleum tiles into print works. Again on the Isle of Man Schwitters painted more traditional works including some portraits of fellow inmates. These are presented in the exhibition along with artifacts from the cultural life of Hutchinson Camp.
By the time that Schwitters had moved to London in 1941 he concentrated more on his collage works. The exhibition features a large array of these. It is easy to see why he is known for his influence on pop art and from the 20th of February Tate Modern will play host to a major retrospective of Liechtenstein. However it was the other father of Pop Art Andy Warhol who seems to have taken the mantle of Schwitters on more. As late as 1983 Warhol was producing works that echo those of Schwitters. Most telling in Schwitters work is the mix of language that is used in collage. A piece of a cigarette pack in English sits next to a German bus timetable and a text in Hebrew. The collision of peoples in London thrust together due to war is very evident. Again the exhibition shows that even during the darkest hour of World War Two no one turned their back on culture. Schwitters and others were able to exhibit regularly and innovate. However Schwitters was struggling to make a living from his art. During his time in London he concentrated more on his small sculptures. These recalled the large scale Merz works of twenty years before and contrast again with the collage work. However these did not sell as he had hoped.
In June 1945 Schwitters moved to the Lake District and again was inspired by the landscape. It was here that he made some of his better known collage works the ones that can be seen to directly influence the work of the British Pop Artists a decade later. However to make money Schwitters turned to more traditional art once more. The exhibition hosts some of the portrait work that he undertook while in the Lakes. This shows another modern touch. The sitters appear naturalistic and seem to predict the work of Freud a few years later rather than looking back as most portraiture of the era does.
Also in 1947 Schwitters produced a last large scale work ‘The Merz Barn’ this was an echo of his work in Germany before the war. The work itself was removed from the Barn and gifted to the University of Newcastle later. A timeline of the barn and of the conservation of the work is the focus of the last part of the exhibition. Also the legacy of the barn and Schwitters is explored through the commissioning of works by Adam Chodzko and Laure Prouvost that close the exhibition and bring Schwitters work into the 20th century.
Schwitters in Britain is at the Tate Britain until 12th May 2013.