Schwitters in Britain at TATE

In his home country, German artist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) is probably best known for his association with the Dada movement, his ‘Merzbilder’ and the incredible architectural construction, the ‘Merzbau’, that he created in his house in Hannover. However, under the Nazi regime Schwitters’ formerly popular work was considered ‘degenerate’ and the artist was forced to leave Germany, first to Norway and then to England. While being familiar with Schwitters’ earlier work, I had not been consciously aware of the artworks he created between 1940-48 during his time in British exile. Yesterday, I finally got the chance to pay a visit to Tate Britain and check out the Schwitters in Britain exhibition.

Curiously, while I was reading in preparation for the exhibition, I came across quite different views and theories on how the British (art)world might have influenced or not influenced Schwitters work. The Tate’s own website’s description, rather enthusiastically, reads the artists’ time in England as positive influence and period of mutual artistic exchange. Philip Oltermann in his article for the Guardian, on the other hand, describes the limited recognition of Schwitters work in Britain and mentions the same incident the Tate points out as success story, Schwitters reciting his ‘Ursonate’ at the opening of his only solo show in Britain in 1944,  in fact as a degrading experience for Schwitters, as BBC journalists got up and left half way through his performance. Even Megan Luke, who wrote the essay ‘Togetherness in Exile’ for the catalogue of the exhibition, describes Schwitters time in exile as a time of ‘unfulfilled searching’ which he spend in a ‘state of perceptual uncertainty and alienation from his past self and present surroundings.’

Which ever version of Schwitters’ time in England you prefer, the exhibition undoubtably succeeds in showing how the artist, upon arrival in the foreign country, simultaneously takes a new direction in his artwork, while changing and adapting old practices to reflect the context of a new country. The former can be seen in the ‘Hand-held Sculptures.’ These are objects made out of found debris, like stones, twigs, and bones, which Schwitters than, in an attempt to dissolute the boundaries between painting and sculpture, worked on with plaster and paint. The latter development is visible in Schwitters’ late collages. During his time in Germany Schwitters’ included cut-outs of German consumer culture (the inclusion of the ‘Commerz Und Privatbank’ cut-out led Schwitters to the coining of the term ‘Merzbild’). His British collages are full of commercial wrappers, bus tickets and newspaper cut-outs with British or American origin.

Some of Schwitters’ earlier works, which he conceived of during his dada time in Germany and his stay in Norway, are also included in the exhibition, as well as, a selection of realistic paintings. As Schwitters’ work did not sell very well in Britain, the artist also worked on commissions to make a living. While the artistic quality of these more traditional works seems (at least to me) lacking in comparison to his abstract sculptures and collages, their inclusion helps to complete the insight into Schwitters’ life in Britain. Thus, opening new perspectives onto Kurt Schwitters’ work, I utterly enjoyed the exhibition and can only recommend visiting. The only possible downside for me, was the inclusion of the two contemporary works in the end. When does a commissioned work which is supposed to play upon an older artists’ legacy non seem forced?

I leave you with two videos. The one below is a great performance of Schwitters’ ‘Ursonate’ exemplifying how crazy/genius this artist was. The second one (which you can find here) is a popular German hip hop song from the 90’s that cites Schwitters’ dada poem ‘Fuer Anna Blume’ (for Anna Flower).

Have you been to see the exhibition? What did you think of it?

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