Dada in Ambleside

The polymath artist Kurt Schwitters still thrills and shocks today, says James Woodall
December 12, 2012

En Morn, 1947 (courtesy of: Musée National D'Art Moderne, Paris)

Schwitters in Britain Tate Britain, 30th January to 12th May 2013

The Dada polymath Kurt Schwitters has always had a habit of turning up in the most unexpected places. The unlikeliest of these is surely the Lake District. A refugee from Nazi Germany, this pioneer of the German avant-garde suffered an unstable and impoverished final decade in Norway and Britain. It is the British years, from 1940, in London and the Lakes, which lie behind a thrilling new show at Tate Britain.

With scraps and rubbish Schwitters created a form of collage which, in exuberance, far outruns Braque and Picasso’s contemporaneous experiments. He made three-dimensional pictures. In one, from 1921, toy skittles and painted strips of wood create a defiantly strange abstract image. He wrote cackling sound poems and, in recital—though sadly little of Schwitters’s live recordings survives—anticipated performance art by at least four decades.

It was not until the second half of the century that Schwitters began to filter into popular culture. In 1959 Robert Rauschenberg, an American collagist and lover of found objects, claimed that Schwitters had “made it all just for me.” British artists Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi were avid followers. Damien Hirst is a fan, Brian Eno has used samples of his poetry, and a few months ago Jarvis Cocker played some of his anarchic 1920s poem “Ur Sonata” on BBC radio.

Along with paintings and many rough-and-ready late sculptures, Schwitters’s dazzling inventiveness will be on display at the Tate in dozens of collages: painstakingly fabricated, neat and symmetrical, yet mildly crazy. Doremifasolasido (1930), with its lopsided and upside-down pieces of text, is a delightful puzzle, as are so many of these pictures—tantalising, funny, provocative, one subtly distinct from another.

A wonderful oval composition from the mid-1940s, Untitled (ROSS, with Penny), unites a feather, a coin, plastic foil and paper on cardboard. It brings to mind the judgement of fellow artist-in-British-exile, Naum Gabo: “[Schwitters] would pick up something... a stamp or a thrown away ticket. He would carefully and lovingly clean it up... Only then would one realise what an exquisite piece of colour was contained in this ragged scrap.”

Although Schwitters died, stateless, in Ambleside a day after papers for British naturalisation had arrived in January 1948, a bit of him nonetheless survives in Cumbria. In woods a few miles north of Kendal stands a stone-walled hut, used by Schwitters as a studio that became a kind of sculpture itself. It is called the Merz Barn. Today, the roof leaks. It might be best suited for housing sheep (not many would fit in). What did its idiosyncratic occupier see in it?

The first world war had radicalised Schwitters, as it had dozens of young artists. With the arrival of photography and the collapse of the 19th-century social hierarchy, a great deal of the most innovative art, from Paris to Moscow, was driven by an assault on bourgeois order and representation. Dada, which began in Zurich in 1916, was a piercing cry for the deliberately incoherent and fragmented.

In Hanover, Schwitters had for several years been dreaming up his own renegade manifestos and moving towards a defining categorisation of art, or anti-art: Merz. Derived from—and a deliberate critique of—the German bank Commerzbank, Merz was Schwitters’s unified concept of art. He was founding his own movement. “Merz denotes,” he wrote in 1919, “...the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes... A perambulator wheel, wire-netting, string and cotton wool... [have] equal rights with paint.”

In the name of Merz, he constructed a weird zigzag room in his house in Hanover but it disappeared during Allied bombing. He built something similar in Norway but that vanished in a fire a few years after his death. The Cumbrian version, the Merz Barn, was Schwitters’s last attempt to keep his singular aesthetic alive. By then, he’d become a profoundly deracinated figure, full, it seems, of the old vim, cheek and plans, yet lost. Decades were to pass before this iconoclastic German’s legacy would even begin to be understood.

In 1978, as Schwitters was becoming better known thanks, in part, to Brian Eno, I went to a lecture on him by an elderly, professorial type at London’s Goethe Institute. About 20 minutes in it was rudely interrupted by a bristling agitator, who stood up and took issue with everything the professor had just said. Security eventually, and tactfully, ushered him and a couple of henchmen protesters out. One of them jeered, “Yeah, and why don’t you pull out your gun?” It was absolutely Dada. Schwitters would, unquestionably, have approved. The professor ended by calling him a “great lyric poet.” Tate Britain has caught, perfectly, his unique, agitating spirit.