Schwitters in Britain at Tate Britain

IMG00749-20130129-1008Before I received the publicity about the exhibition of Schwitters‘ work, I must admit I had never heard of the artist.  My ignorance is in a way just another facet of the way in which it seems this country has treated him since he arrived here as a refugee in 1940.  But now, after a fascinating time in the gallery, I feel so much better educated.

Originally part of the German avant garde in the 1920s and 30s, his work was included in their exhibition of Degenerate Art by the Nazis.  He fled the country to Norway, from where he had to escape when the Germans occupied that country, and then arrived in the UK in 1940.  Here he was immediately interned in a camp on the Isle of Man until he was released some 16 months later.  It’s one of those things that looks harsh from a present day perspective.

The early work on display are all collages, collections of carefully selected bits and pieces, train and bus tickets and sweet wrappers as well as strips of card, lace and feathers.  His guiding thought was that each material was of equal merit; oil paint and canvas are not intrinsically superior.  In this it is possible to see him as one of the forbears of the Pop art movement which came after his death in 1948.  Many of the collages had a pleasing geometry of angles and complementary colours, small and carefully observed; I liked the economy and control of them, as well as being able to see all the layers and shapes he had used to build up the images; details that simply aren’t visible on reproductions of the pieces.

In Britain, for periods, he painted more conventionally, especially during his internment when he did portraits of his fellow internees, relying on his ingenuity with materials, by sometimes using things like lino from the floor as the surface on which to paint.  When he settled in Ambleside in the Lake District he took advantage of the popularity of the local scenery to paint landscapes for sale to visitors, as well as doing more portraits of local people.

He did one portrait of his doctor in payment for his medical treatment, posed as the doctor and he were playing chess.  A note explains the dilemma of whether to beat the doctor, and then his subject would look bad tempered and everyone would think he was a bad painter, or lose at chess, and then his painting would look good but people would think him a poor chess player.

I enjoyed the small so-called hand-held sculptures less; but the story of his Merz constructions was a sorry and touching tale. He had, apparently,  wherever he was able, built himself an immersive sculptural environment in which to work.  He’d had to leave one behind in Germany, which was subsequently destroyed, and then began to  build a Merz Barn near Elterwater, only one relief wall of which he had completed before his death.  One display in the exhibition detailed the rather stuttering attempts and failures by artistic institutions to rescue the wall relief, although it seems it was eventually secured.  I was surprised that even though over the years I have spent a fair amount of time in the Lake District I hadn’t previously been aware of his work there.

There was lots to learn, and I enjoyed it.

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