Kurt Schwitters popped into my life in Newcastle, England in 1999. I was cruising the streets looking for excitement and drifted in to a university art gallery where a Schwitters retrospective was on. Seeing as I was and am totally knowledgeable about art in every respect, from every culture in every period in every form and by every worthwhile artist, for some reason I had never heard of him.
The exhibition was pretty strange.
Schwitters was truly different, and it’s not just me saying so. He never fit anywhere enough to be in a “school”, though he is sometimes pegged as a “Dadaist”. Other times he is a “constructivist”. But what he really was, was Kurt Schwitters. From Hannover in central Germany, he studied in Dresden for five years alongside Otto Dix and George Grosz but seemed unaware of their work or their “school”, Die Brucke. **
Later, he was involved, kind of, with the post-WWI art movement known as Dada. Some Dada members apparently didn’t take to him because he was too talented basically, and insisted on drawing things, and painting them, even rather well. But he had their idea of poking a very sharp stick up the nose of “philistine” art standards and modes, and had friendly relations with some of the leading Dadaists. He toured with a few, Wiki says, giving performances of an ill-defined nature.
He could paint. He could sculpt. He made a large number of collages, a technique he apparently claimed, resentfully, to have discovered. He was a typographer. He wrote. He dreamed up an “ur-language” he reckoned contained the basic sounds of all languages, and recorded the sounds. At the show in Newcastle, they played these and ever since I have (more than) occasionally made stupid noises, remembering Schwitters’ ur-gent vocals .
There was a CD on sale and I wish I’d bought it. “Gawk! Skirk! Dweeeb!”
I think Schwitters’ tongue was never far from his cheek. He was engaged with life in all its aspects and humour could colour anything at all.
The organising focus of the Newcastle show is on permanent display there, and it is what grabbed me about him. Much of that show was composed of portraits and landscapes from a time in the English Lake District when he was down on his luck, slapping paint onto canvas willy-nilly to make a few bob, and are not exactly terrific. But in a corner of the gallery is a wall – yes, an entire wall – from a stone shed, or barn, from the Lake District, near Ambleside. Schwitters settled there after WWII, after being released from internment as an enemy alien and living in London. He’d taken off from Germany in 1937 after some friends had been arrested and he had been invited to an interview with the Gestapo. His art was condemned as “degenerate”, figuring in the (actually quite popular) toured degenerate art exhibition organised by Josef Goebbels.
By that time a big deal for him was installation art. He’d made an installation in a room in his family’s house in Hannover that spread and threatened to take over the entire building.
It was called “The Cathedral of Erotic Misery.” The erotic was a theme of Schwitters, and the “merzbau” wall, though it is not visible in the photo below, is no exception: suggestive elements abound. Sadly, the Hannover installation was bombed during the war. In Scandinavia, he made one in a corner of a barn that has also not survived, and in Ambleside, aided by a Rockefeller Foundation scholarship, he did it again. When the wall in England began to crumble, it was transferred to the gallery in Newcastle.
Well, I was gobsmacked by this wall. It was eerie. A lot of it was made from rubbish Schwitters picked up as he walked to the shed and back from his flat in Ambleside. . . taken and plastered in among other bric a brac. He didn’t finish it before he died in 1948, the day after he was granted British citizenship.
I had never seen anything like it.
Schwitters life after 1937 was hard, and in 1948 he was virtually unknown. Now he is represented in every major gallery in Germany I have visited, there have been “merzbarn festivals” in England, and a space he transformed in Norway has been rescued and shifted to a museum.
He was a one-off, genuinely unique and everything I have seen by him is a reproof to those (like me) who are often too shy to be themselves, to try. . .to go on learning how to be.
Schwitters was endlessly creative. He made thousands of collages, and they are far from bad. In internment on the Isle of Man in Britain, unable to find the right material for plaster, he used porridge. A friend said it stank terribly, went green with mould and who knows what bacteria. . .but there is was, a work of smelly art.
American artist Robert Rauschenberg said that when he saw an exhibition in New York in 1959, he’d “felt like he did it all for me”. Schwitters can grab you, just like that.
The “merzbau” as the wall was called is now recognised as “installation art”. This is something important these days in the art world, and like Schwitters’ work is often conceptual before it is actual. In Schwitters case, we know that he had the talent to draw or paint or sculpt; for many of today’s installation artists, that is not so obvious. For example, in Scotland while I was living there a decade or so ago, an artist filled an empty room with ping pong balls.
Cool! For me, this is at once silly and liberating. If someone can fill a room with ping pong balls and call it art, and even make a few bob from it, who am I?*** Nobody, sure. But also I am the one who will make a sculpture out of dead hoovers, that’s who! Is the cheque in the mail?
Where was I? Ah. Kurt Schwitters. The fellow got so much under my skin that my second novel, Evilheart, has a character named Schwitters, supposedly distantly related to to Kurt. . .now, fifteen or so years later, is another chance to pay a bit of homage. . .
Gotheborg in Sweden has a wonderful art gallery with a hall devoted to self-portraits, and yes, there is one by Schwitters:
The gallery has a notice wisely suggesting that artists may not have painted themselves as they really looked, and this one, like so much of what Schwitters was about, is hard to tell.
Here is one photo of the man:
In life he was said to be a positive person, friendly and engaging, and the photo suggests it is so. “Erotic” this and that maybe but hey. . .nice. Middle class even! Here is another photo:
Now, that looks more like “my” man, my Kurt – still friendly, still engaging, but mischievous, a bit eccentric. Like your unworthy correspondent.
Kurt Schwitters is a challenge to each of us, even if you had never heard of him until you read this post, dear reader, and even, if like myself, your talent is questionable at best. He is no longer forgotten – you can read more about his life in wikipedia, and search google images for a huge number of his works.
*The third post springing from my euro-trip in summer 2017. Schwitters coined the title “Merz” for his work, which is pronounced in English as “Mers”, since in German “z” is said “s” and “s” is said “z”. He took this from the name of a bank that is still around, Commerzbank, after finding a torn bit of newspaper with “merz” on it. I think he was making a sly statement, funny but serious, as with so much of his output. “Have Mercy” is a song by Don Covay that was recorded by the Rolling Stones. Jimi Hendrix was a sideman on the original recording.
**Otto Dix was also a remarkable painter, whose wartime experiences led to some very upsetting work, especially a huge triptych on war now in Dresden’s Albertinum “Neue Meister” gallery. Grosz was also a left-wing surrealist. Google images will show.
***Those who follow the British Turner Prize will know many similar examples.