Kurt Schwitters, Tate Britain

This new show at Tate Britain takes you into the mindset of the Godfathers of Pop Art by means of a gentle stroll through 40 years of his work produced in Germany, Norway, and the UK.

We see collages, assemblages, paintings, sculptures and installations. We track the history of his ‘Merz barn’ in the Lake District, where he fashioned a plaster relief structure into one of the walls. This silent video shows some samples of his collages.

Schwitters, born Hanover, Germany in  1887, died, aged 60 in Kendal, Lancashire, 1948. He was an artist who dabbled with many of the big movements of his period: Dadaism, De Stijl , and constructivism. He also produced sound art and performed poetry.

Perhaps above all Schwitters was a survivor; he escaped Nazi Germany to find refuge in Norway, only to have to flee to England where he was interred on arrival on the Isle of Man for 16 months as an ‘enemy alien’. But what would set most of us back severely, only seemed to spur Schwitters on. He formed an art group while in internment camp which had regular shows to raise the spirits of camp inmates. During his time there he also forged relationships with other artists that would last a lifetime.

With limited access to art materials he produced over 200 works in the camp, many of which movingly depict the dispiriting conditions in which he was held. On release he moved to London and begun to experiment with the transformation of ready-made images, using photographic reproductions of 19th century paintings as a starting point for collages.

The first two rooms at the Tate Britain show Schwitters’ focus on collage – somewhat dreary and colourless by today’s standards – but nevertheless intriguing in their detail and investigation of mixing media. By rooms 4 and 5 we are seeing his shift into making performances and¬†small hand-held sculptures.

In 1945 he moved to to Ambleside in the Lake District where his work understandably took on a more organic, rural form, by using locally found organic materials. His collages juxtaposed consumer culture with references to contemporary events – now seen by critics as anticipating the arrival of Pop Art in Britain.

Next we see some of Schwitters ‘commercial’ work – figurative work and landscape and still life painting. There is a painting of daffodil or similar that was entered into a local art competition and a letter saying how thrilled he was to win it – ‘now they know I can paint flowers’ he says, hinting at the modesty of the man and his desire to make an impact in his new home town.

Well done Tate. This is curation at its best. We are walked through the work of this great man and also get access to some of his letters and notes from the time. We even see a whole range of correspondence relating to saving the Merz barn which is historically interesting as it gives an insight into the shenanigans that occur then a great artists leaves something behind that is hard to move and yet appreciated as of real significance.

The show will not be a blockbuster – collage and mixed media work is not for everyone – but if you want to know about someone who was at the centre of things when Pop Art was just visible on the horizon then Schwitters is your man.

Here is his wiki link.

Verdict: This show gives us a glimpse at an artist whose time has come and gone. It gives us a flavour of what it was like to produce work in a time where meeting face to face and communicating by letter were hugely important. It also reminds us of the importance of collage and assemblage as setting the foundations for the conceptual art we are so familiar with nowadays.




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