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Preview: Kurt Schwitters at Tate Britain

As new exhibition 'Schwitters in Britain' opens, it's time to learn more about the life and work of the extraordinary German collagist

How did a German émigré Dadaist, poet and avant-garde collagist end up freezing to death in the Lake District? Ossian Ward previews an exhibition of legendary figure Kurt Schwitters at Tate Britain.
In 1923, Kurt Schwitters started a ten-year project to turn his parent’s house into a sculptural installation called the ‘Cathedral of Erotic Misery’. While this title could describe many a teenage bedroom, Schwitters didn’t finish this rambling den until he was well into his forties, by which time it had spilled over into eight adjoining rooms and involved him dragging all manner of wooden detritus and found objects into this otherwise sedate, residential street in Hanover, Germany.

His immersive, angular environment, which functioned as a studio and played host to visiting avant-garde artist friends and poetry nights, was the first of Schwitters’s so-called ‘Merzbau’ buildings, three-dimensional amalgamations of his eccentric, itinerant life and unconventional, experimental art.

By the time the Nazis rose to power, Schwitters was forced to flee Hanover forever – his son was wanted by the Gestapo and he’d been included on their list of ‘Degenerate’ artists. However, it was an Allied bombing mission that put paid to his family home in 1943 and his ‘Merzbau’ with it. He remained in exile for the rest of his life, but took his homespun spirit of Merz – a nonsensical word like Dada, perhaps derived from Kommerz (commerce), Herz (heart) or even März (March) – as he travelled from war-torn Germany to Norway and then to Britain, where Tate Britain’s new show, opening next week, begins.

Rather than fanfare for this key member of Europe’s modern art movement, Schwitters’s arrival in England in June 1940 was met with enforced internment at a camp on the Isle of Man for German and Austrian nationals. Even on his release, he failed to find much of an audience for his work – perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Schwitters relied on bus tickets, Quality Street wrappers, newspaper adverts and other bits of discarded paper for his collages or else prided himself on his dissonant concrete poems that consisted of noises, clicks and burrs, similarly collected from urban life (such as his ‘London Symphony’), which could take up to 40 minutes to recite.

To make matters worse, no sooner had Schwitters lost his original ‘Merzbau’, but the one he’d constructed in Norway also went up in flames. He moved up to the Lake District after the end of WWII where he began his final built environment in 1947, while he tried to make ends meet by painting portraits of local people. The artist died just over a year later of cardiac asthma, depriving not only himself but also the world of yet another of his intense, grotto-like retreats. Yet to say that he died a hermit or a loner is to miss the point of Tate’s timely reappraisal and not to acknowledge the legacy Schwitters would leave behind.

Indeed, the day before he died, Schwitters received news of his successful application for British citizenship. Not long before that, a cheque had arrived signed by Alfred Barr, the legendary first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which would have enabled him to finish his ‘Merz Barn’, located behind the tiny Lake District hamlet of Elterwater, where only the outer structure remains today. What was left of the sculptures he’d began to construct inside was long ago removed to a safe place, but artists, curators and Schwitters fans still visit this dilapidated site as if it were a holy shrine.

Why he has exerted such influence can be seen in Tate’s ‘Schwitters in Britain’, in his pre-pop collages and assemblages, although it’s perhaps just as much to do with his uniquely modern, one-track state of mind. For Schwitters, everything was ‘Merz’, everything was connected and there was no hierarchy between his various disciplines of poetry, sculpture, painting or collage. This kind of total philosophy was not only ahead of its time but was for Schwitters a position of strength. His belief system was more important than his location, materials or art world contacts and will surely outlast even his more robust works that weren’t fashioned from scraps of everyday life.

Schwitters in Britain’ is at Tate Britain, Jan 30-May 12.
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