Schwitters was born in Hannover 1887, and died in Kendal 1948. My father was born in Hanover 1951. A Tibetan Buddhist Iconographer, he now lives in the Lake District and pops into Kendal for his printing.
His recent afternoon visit to me in London found him on an RA exhibition epic – Constable et al. Manet, Mori – followed by commercial Cork Street, where we happened upon Schwitters at Bernard Jacobson Gallery. He recalled how thirty years ago, portfolio in hand, he walked this same street to make it big, only to find he did not fit. His story is not unlike Schwitters’ who, decades earlier on the neighboring steps of Trafalgar Square, jotted in his notebook, ‘Why did the director of the National Gallery not even want to see me? He does not know that I belong to the avant-garde in art. That is my tragedy.’
|Das Kegelbild, 1921|
I would like to think that Schwitters’ sense of belonging grew out of his artistic metamorphoses of materials. He belonged to Merz, his ‘principle of equal evaluation of the individual materials’. He fitted somewhere in amongst his old bus tickets, miniature plastic dogs, paper doilies, and scrubbing brush, and through collage, the process of sticking it all together, he found harmony. Yet within the arcade game aesthetic of Das Kegelbild (The Skittle Picture, 1921) wooden bobbins lie like cannons with miniature toy sheep as their fodder. Schwitters’ art was a sacrificial game.
Indeed what Tate Britain fail to mention in their current large-scale retrospective of Schwitters is that he was pitifully poor, having once traded a portrait of local, Francis O’Neill, now hanging in Kendal’s Abbot Hall Art Gallery, for a loaf of bread. To buy an apple was a big deal. Dealers at Bernard Jacobson Gallery now value his smaller than A5 ‘fourth one from the left’ collage at ‘forty’ – that is, my father and I overheard their receptionist quote to a briefcase customer, forty thousand pounds. Oh how Schwitters must be laughing, with Ursonate’s fümmsböwötääzää and rakete rinnzekete’s, from his beyond, for Schwitters espoused British sarcasm; chewing on his success at an annual Ambleside flower show he once spat, ‘Mrs Vartis's roses got the first prize and Mr Bickerstaff's Chrisanthemum [sic] the second. So I got two prizes. The only thing is that the prizes are low 1½ gns. But the honour! People here know now that I am able to paint flowers.’
Flowers, portraits, Lake District fells, Schwitters could paint. But what will he be remembered for? The Curator Emma Chambers choice of Schwitters publicity image seems somewhat of a spent salute to pop art; EN MORN’s (1947) Barbie is the Tate’s toy. She kindly paves the way for the pop generation of Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi. Yet when Chambers, recently in her blog, opened up her search of the mystery Barbie to her readers, she soon received an answer from a Mr John Eaton who found the advertisement ‘These are the things we are fighting for’ for Community Silverplate cutlery in which she appears as a teacher representing ‘the right to teach truth … not propaganda’. The question is, is the Gallery’s advertisement of a ‘retrospective’ truth or propaganda?
These reservations are unfounded, for the Tate methodically tracks Schwitters life history. Yet, like the Gestapo, they seem to be forever chasing his tail. Schwitters has fled Norway for Edinburgh before he has even flown the Nazi nest and their totalitarian sticky ‘Entartete Kunst’ (‘degenerative art’) tags. Until of course he runs face first into British Internment. Got ‘im! Nicely captured in Douglas Camp, Isle of Man. Conceived as one of the ‘pioneers of European Modernism’, is it not quaint that Kurt Schwitters is exhibited at Tate Britain not Modern?
Despite his shackles - physical, psychological, or otherwise - Schwitters does not slot into a single ‘school’ of art. Rather, his paradoxical lot (I like to think of his work as organised chaos) finds him at the margins of mainstreams, in his final years he was working, quite literally, in his hillside shed at a remove from the water. If he was broken, for the world around him certainly was, then ‘new things had to be made out of the fragments’.
Where the bow of his three-dimensional collage Merzbarn Wall (1947-48) (into which found items were slotted and then covered with plaster and paint) was drawn towards the small window in his Elterwater barn, the arc of his career never left its cobbled floor, often flooded with water. An artist always working towards the light, his adopted country repeatedly obscured him from view: imprisonment, poverty, and pneumonia. Until now, our Nation’s indifference was his tragedy.
Included in: A Century of Collage
Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London W1
8 April - 24 May 2013
Schwitters in Britain
Tate Britain, London SW1
30 January - 12 May 2013
Das Kegelbild (The Skittle Picture), 1921
EN MORN, 1947, © Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris / DACS 2012
Merzbarn Wall, 1947-48
Merzbarn Wall, 1947-48