The polymath artist Kurt Schwitters still thrills and shocks today, says James Woodallby James Woodall / December 12, 2012 / Leave a comment
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…