Kurt Schwitters – Equal Rights for Material

A perambulator wheel, wire-netting, string and cotton-wool are factors having equal rights with paint

From my own experience, it is rather rare to find an artist (and certainly not an art critic) who has no preconceived ideas of what is art or what is not art; what is good art and what is bad art. I have always felt this to be an indulgent delusion, an often defensive reaction to the simple fact that art is subjective and that contesting this is usually an attempt to force control, system and structure upon the art world. And it works. Just as we used to have the salons, the grand tours, now we have journalist critics, art fairs, the Turner prize. The art establishment is considered by most people to be an authority on art. They have managed to convince a whole populace of the notion that they know best. Not so. It is an impossibility. As with the spoon, there is no right or wrong. I do have some limited experience on which to base this; after spending long hours in lectures and discussion groups at university listening to my art history tutors regurgitate the opinions and thoughts of many others before them, I soon realised that this staid and elitist subject was actually mostly, how do I say this…Bullshit. I’m not sure what I was expecting really, and I don’t doubt my experience there enhanced my writing skills, but it did feel intrinsically snobbish and narrow-minded. The same snobbery I hear from many an ‘educated’ person and repeated back in acceptance by the ‘ uneducated’ ie. non-academics who have been conditioned to believe artistic experience is reserved for a select group of people which doesn’t include them. The belief that to appreciate art you need to know about and/or be able to produce art, is perpetuated throughout the art establishment; trickling down from the publicly educated directors of organisations such as the Tate and National Gallery, and despite the valiant efforts of some to broaden the boundaries of inclusion. Unfortunately, the roots of these attitudes are mired deep in the dusty old vaults of The English Class System and its partner in crime, Entitlement. To cut them at the source requires more than even a barrage of well-meaning education programmes.

This ranting tangent does in fact have some relevance to Kurt Schwitters, who was himself something of a non-conformist, challenging the traditional status of paint in a way many would have seen as blasphemous for an artist. The Nazis certainly saw it this way, branding Schwitters ‘degenerate’ and forcing him to flee his native Germany in exile. Through developing the Merzbau (a large sculptural installation first constructed in Hanover, then re-explored later in Norway and the Lake District; utilising the very structure of a house as part of the work), Schwitters developed a term to describe his artistic practice and beliefs: Merz. Essentially Merz encompasses the basic principles of what I also believe – that is, it is not only traditional techniques which can produce works of art; objects all around us are both art materials, art medium and art pieces in themselves. Instead of using line for line, he used materials and objects to convey their own qualities in accordance with his requirements; wool to express softness, metal to communicate line, and specific arrangements of 2D materials which denote areas of space, in a manner reminiscent of Richard Hamilton.

Merzbau (Teilansicht: Grosse Gruppe), 1932© Sprengel Museum Hannover. Pro Litteris, Zürich

Merzbau (Teilansicht: Grosse Gruppe), 1932
© Sprengel Museum Hannover. Pro Litteris, Zürich

Picture of Spatial Growths - Picture with Two Small Dogs 1920-39 Image courtesy of Tate

Picture of Spatial Growths – Picture with Two Small Dogs 1920-39 Image courtesy of Tate

A large proportion of Schwitters’ work is made from collages of used paper elements from his own, or other people’s, lives. It makes sense. Why should art be a copy of life? Why not made from life; life as it has been lived? After leaving Germany for Norway in 1940, his work flourished as he started construction of two new Merzbau’s, but not for long. As the Nazis advanced across Europe to Norway, Schwitters decamped yet again, this time to Britain, Edinburgh to be precise, where he was promptly classed as an ‘ enemy alien’ and sent on to an internment camp on the Isle of Man. Despite the incarceration, a modest silver lining became apparent; the camp allowed, nay even encouraged, the pursuit of the arts. Whilst at the Isle of Man, Schwitters engaged in prolific production, using whatever materials he found laying nearby. The results tell a story, a lesson in imagination and creativity. Pieces made from old newspapers, painting on linoleum; the things most people would class as rubbish and yet Schwitters could see their potential for expression and their uses as communicators of formal aspects. Pieces of seemingly random ephemera are actually carefully placed and thoughtfully chosen, such as in Half-Moon, where a pink flamingo takes centre-stage but conversely, it’s semi-translucence suggests it’s presence as negligible. After being released from the internment camps after 16 months and with over 200 works completed whilst inside, Schwitters moved to London in 1941. His later works begin to move away from the sharp lines of paper and wood, and towards the suggestion of a fascination with the curve. In a lively dialogue between the canvas and the forms protruding form it, he began to move further and further outwards from the flat surface, eventually going so far as to leave the canvas altogether and produce freestanding sculptures. At this point, Schwitters is encompassing all aspects of his work at once; painting (of which he produced many traditional representative pieces, sometimes to make a living, sometimes as artistic practice), sculpture, and his own unique marriage of the two.

doremifasolasido c.1930Private collection. Image courtesy of Tate

doremifasolasido c.1930
Private collection. Image courtesy of Tate

Untitled (Opening Blossom) 1947© Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d'art moderne, Paris / DACS 2012. Image courtesy of Tate

Untitled (Opening Blossom) 1947
© Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris / DACS 2012. Image courtesy of Tate

In 1945 Schwitters moved to the Lake District and began working on a new Merzbau. Continuing the semi-sculptural collage techniques, he began working on a wall relief, incorporating nearby objects and intending to extend the work throughout the abandoned house in which it began. Sadly, his death at this point meant that the installation was never completed, but the subsequent efforts to transport it and the battle over its purchase, denote the importance Schwitter’s work has to many people. As for me, anyone who challenges the traditional closed-mindedness of the art world is as close as you’ll get to a hero in my book.

Untitled (Quality Street) 1943© Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Hannover, Sprengel Museum Hannover and DACS 2012. Image courtesy of Tate

Untitled (Quality Street) 1943
© Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Hannover, Sprengel Museum Hannover and DACS 2012. Image courtesy of Tate

All images are by Kurt Schwitters

Schwitters in Britain is showing at Tate Britain until 12th May 2013. See here for more information.

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