Whistlestop tour: ‘Schwitters in Britain’ at Tate Britain

By Emily Watkins

Schwitters in Britain
Tate Britain
Until May 12 2013

Firstly I will admit I saw this exhibition at speed and would have liked to spend longer in it. I didn’t realize that Tate Britain was no longer open late every Friday, as it had been last year. Whoops!

The show set out to explore the work Schwitters produced whilst he was in Britain, yet it also showed some of the work he made in transit giving a sense of a more universal experience of migration and movement.

Schwitter’s journey is told in the vast range of media from different countries found in Schwitters “Mertz” collages, which included bus tickets and advertisements from a selection of countries he sought refuge in. The artist claimed to have chosen these found elements based on their colour, shape or texture to fit in with the other found elements.

He saw these objects as a found palette, however, within many of the ‘Mertz’ pieces there was also evidence of humor and political comment. For example, “en morn” contains the phrase “these are the things we are fighting for”  and features the image of an idealised Aryan beauty and landscape revealed underneath layers of detritus– torn newspaper and advertising. When looking at this image (and with the considerable benefit of hindsight) one questions whether these things really were worth fighting for.

In another ‘Merz’ piece, a photograph of a member of the British Royal Family altered by Schwitters, has been titled “This was before H.R.H The Late Duke of Clarence and Avondale. Now it is a Merz picture. Sorry!” These iconoclastic appropriations of establishment figures and ‘government approved art’ arguably reveal some of the anti-establishment traits which saw Schwitters forced from his homeland.

The imagery handled by Schwitters is treated with aggression– reflecting both the turmoil of the Second World War and the personal turmoil of an artist in flux.

Kurt Schwitters, Anything with a Stone 1941/1944. Sprengel Museum Hannover
Kurt Schwitters,
Anything with a Stone 1941/1944.
Sprengel Museum Hannover

The effect of migration on Schwitters as a person left him disconnected from his peers, whilst interment made it difficult for him to rebuild his conections within the art world. Yet luckily for us, this period of his life also saw him produce exciting works in which the forms were dictated by the need to carry his work with him. This led to a development of small sculptures, designed to be handled. The scale of these intricate pieces and the handling element is reminiscent of personal shrines and deities, which were often designed to be carried on the person, touched and caressed as an act of devotion.

The texture on the surface of these small-scale sculptures made them very desirable. They were reminiscent of ancient fertility symbols– phalluses and female curio such as pieta’s and pregnant goddesses. These quasi-spiritual forms seemed to carry a sense of belief and identity, much in the way that a portable shrine might remind a believer of their beliefs, far from home.

Although World War II was a time of death and upheaval for most, it also led to cross-pollination of ideas within the art community, allowing British artists to experience and be influenced by German art.

The experience of war was also an influence on the style of artists of that period, with many post war works imbuing a sense of aggression and decay. Schwitters’ aggressively torn collage elements and similarly Nash’s dark violently painted landscapes are testament to this.

War seemed to lead to a new urgency in the handling of media. Wartime and post-war work is tarred with jagged edges and bold brush work, evident in the urgent expressive brush strokes seen in “Mz Oslo Fjord”  by Schwitters in 1937.

Arguably this emergence of new forms of abstraction was an attempt to express the turmoil, death and upheaval the artists had witnessed, which led to new ways of seeing the world.

I found myself considering the question ‘war– what is it good for?’ and realising that without war, the prevelant artistic style of the post-war era would not have emerged. Without experiencing death, chaos and displacement on a massive scale, would artists have needed to find ways to express these feelings and experiences in the same way?

Kurt Schwitters (Relief in Relief) circa 1942-5 Oil on wood and plaster object: 495 x 413 x 102 mm Purchased 1970 DACS, 2002
Kurt Schwitters
(Relief in Relief) circa 1942-5
Oil on wood and plaster
object: 495 x 413 x 102 mm
Purchased 1970 DACS, 2002

The chronological arrangement of Schwitters’ work clearly showed the effects of displacement, and it is clear to see how his work and changed and developed.

Unfortunately much of Schwitters early work  which was produced in Germany, where he was already a well-known and established artist was omitted*. In truth, I would have liked to have seen some more examples of it, if only for the sake of comparison.

It would have been particularly interesting to build a more of a concrete idea of how Schwitter’s exile status changed his style, and what, if anything remained of the artist who came before.

*with the exception of photographs of his original ‘Merz barn in Hanover’ destroyed by bombing

A version of this review first appeared on www.emilywatkinsartist.wordpress.com and is reproduced here with kind permission