Schwitter and Degenerate Art

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Schwitters in Britain is a fascinating presentation of the life and works (in that order) of Kurt Schwitters, a German refugee from the Nazis and champion of Dadaism in Europe.

Schwitters was primarily known for his alternately playful and self-reflexive collages, into which he compiled fragments of paper, card or fabric, and even included ‘found’ objects such as skittles, pegs or blocks of wood. Despite his unusual medium, Schwitters insisted on referring to himself as a ‘painter’. He averred that the artist “creates through the choice, distribution and metamorphosis of the materials.” It was this attitude that acted as the founding principle of his artistic movement: ‘Merz’, named after a fragment of a longer phrase that was pasted into one of his early ‘Merz’ paintings.

Tate Britain’s exhibition focuses on the years after Schwitters’ maturation. After practicing for the best part of twenty years in Germany, Schwitters’ work was condemned by the Nazi party and exhibited in their infamous 1937 exhibition of ‘Degenerate Art’. Schwitters fled to the UK in 1940, where he spent eighteen months interred on the Isle of Man. Release from the camp was eventually secured and Schwitters went on to exhibit in the UK alongside fellow avant-garde artists and also in one solo exhibition in 1944.

Although gaining some critical recognition, he was unable to sustain himself financially and spent his last few years in the Lake District painting portraits to commission and using funds provided by MOMA of New York to build a Merz installation in his home.

Schwitters’ work – the curators would have us understand – is fundamentally bound up in his biography. The collages incorporate objects and materials picked up as Schwitters moved across countries both physically and imaginatively.

However, this emphatically historical approach serves to bring to light a rather touching aspect of Schwitters’ work: his unfailing wit and optimism in the face of astoundingly adverse circumstances. This is apparent early on in his playful take on constructivism in Picture 1926, in which a slightly askew wooden pink block breaks the geometrically worked out composition of the rest of the frame. It is again apparent in collages of images of food and sweet wrappers in response to the strict rationing of the wartime.

His humour is evident in his collage overlays of other artist’s work, including a piece titled ‘This was before H.R.H the late DUKE OF CLARENCE & AVONDALE. Now it is a Merz picture. Sorry!’ It consists of a photographic reproduction of a portrait pasted over with a couple of ‘Merz’ materials.

Schwitters’ continually and consistently responded to his intellectual and social context with well placed irony, a quality that recommends his art in itself.

In all, this constituted a fascinating exploration of an interesting artist’s biography, but it is not the place to be convinced of Schwitters’ technical mastery. Though the exhibition may be at times too historically focused, I would not hesitate to recommend it. 

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