Untitled (Cal), Collage, paper, carton and wallpaper, 1947. ©Private collection (courtesy of the Armitt Trust).
Last week I returned to London after a two week residency at the Kurt Schwitters Merzbarn site in Elterwater, Cumbria. I say site because, in a number of ways it is more appropriate to think of it as the site of an event than as a place to visit and see an artist’s work in the flesh, or in stone and plaster as might be the case. The original wall on which Schwitters worked between March and July 1947 was removed and placed on permanent display in the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle in 1965. All that physically remains of the construction, which the artist hoped would develop into a new and perhaps more significant Merzbau than his Hanover original, is a section of plasterwork resembling an arm reaching across the upper left hand corner of one of the remaining walls. Even this was in fact added to Schwitters’ original by Harry Pierce, the owner of Cylinders estate, after the artist’s death. The original Merzbarn construction had not developed beyond the limits of the western wall of the building by the time Schwitters suffered a haemorrhage in July 1947. He died on the 10th of January, 1948.
Schwitters is not an easy artist to love. When I first became aware of his original Merzbau, which was destroyed in an allied bombing raid, I was more confused by my attraction to this obscure installation than I was definitively impressed by it. Long before I became aware of its influence on artists and architecture students and its implications for immersive installation art, I found myself wondering why I should be so engrossed in its seemingly measured randomness. The fact that only a few black and white photographs of the Merzbau were in circulation meant that I couldn’t even contrive a sense of having understood it through gazing at it; in the way a hermit might attempt to understand the wilderness through time spent getting lost in it. Now it only existed in the imagination.
As frustrating as it was as a teenager to find my access to the Hanover Merzbau blocked by the opacity of an old photograph, it strikes me as in keeping with the mythology of Kurt Schwitters to arrive at Cylinders Estate to find the Merzbarn wall long gone and stories and photographs in its place. In a further twist, the woods surrounding the Merzbarn itself, in which visitors’ children play hide and seek and in which adult visitors wish they could, were not there in 1948. Sitting outside the Merzbarn, Schwitters would have had a wider vista than is afforded to the visitor today. As a visiting artist trying to make sense of the site, I found myself disappearing into the woods around the Merzbarn, and further afield, with a sketchbook, easel and paints, much as Schwitters himself did in various locations around the Lake District. Perhaps, I thought, the most appropriate testament to a person for whom a particular place was important, was to try to see it as they did. The sense one gets at Cylinders estate is of the echo of events past and current, all of which become small against the backdrop of the unchanging and indifferent mountains.
Smithy Brow, oil on wood, 1945/1947, ©Courtesy of the Armitt Trust.
Added to this sense of ephemerality, the difficulty implicit in forming an unmitigated appraisal of Schwitters’ trajectory as an artist, is exacerbated by the very real disruption to the artist’s life in the 1940s. Elizabeth Burns Gamard, in her book about the Merzbau, reminds us that “…the war and subsequent exile from Germany left (Schwitters) destitute and disoriented in the most literal sense.” (1). Schwitters moved to London following a period of internment in detention camps around the north of England. After an unsuccessful period in the capital he subsequently found himself staying on in the Lake District as the result of an extended holiday. To sustain himself there he produced a large number of landscape paintings and drawings of local scenes, such as the Bridge House in Ambleside, and portraits of local personalities and acquaintances such as Charles Simpson, Dr. George Ainslie Johnston, and Harry and Ida Pierce. Harry Pierce, the owner of Cylinders Estate and the building which was to become the Merzbarn, was a retired landscape architect for whom Schwitters had great respect. “(Pierce is)…a genius…he lets the weeds grow, yet by means of slight touches he transforms them into a composition as I create art out of my rubbish.” (2).
Schwitters continued to produce collages in England right up to the end of his life. Some of these are amongst the best he ever produced, and formed a major part of a large survey exhibition at Tate Britain in 2013. And it is true to say that, in part due to the difficult circumstances of the artist’s arrival and subsequent life in the UK, the landscapes and portraits Schwitters produced in Cumbria are commonly seen as a negligible aspect of his oeuvre. It is difficult to evaluate the impact his change in circumstances had on Schwitters’ confidence as an artist. The mythology, as it is taken up with his departure from Germany, reads variously as the story of an artist whose unshakeable vision led him to abandon a country which had abandoned sanity, or of a once important, cosmopolitan, European artist who had been left with no choice but to run to wherever he would be accepted.
View from Blue Hill, Ambleside towards High Pike, oil on board, 1945/1947, ©Courtesy of the Armitt Trust.
It hardly seems important now, to pick through the minutiae of Schwitters’ career path from Germany to Norway, and finally to England. By trying to build a picture of the artist’s life in two sections; pre-displacement by war and post-displacement, we risk forfeiting the appreciable continuity in Schwitters’ work and in his thinking. Between 1909 and 1914, Schwitters received an academic training in art at the Dresden Kunstakademie. He continued to draw and paint throughout his life, not just in the Lake District, but also in Norway, and not just to earn a living, but also in response to the considerable effect the landscape had on him. He also paid close attention to what was happening in painting in particular, “(working) through the development of modern painting on his own…(and) these self-described phases of development were not successive, one replacing the other, but rather incorporative.” (3).
It is this ‘incorporative’ strategy which forms perhaps the most defining characteristic of his life’s work. I refer to it as a strategy because Schwitters was, in all likelihood, fully aware of what he was doing as he jumped from genre to genre. In this way, Schwitters could be seen as the archetype of what we now see as a common model of a contemporary artist; one who, at best, moves between media and genres in a sophisticated yet apparently effortless way. Through his experiments in different genres, Schwitters also settled on what Burns-Gamard calls a ‘grandiosity of…vision’ (4). Throughout her book on the Merzbau, she puts considerable emphasis on Schwitters ‘transhistorical’ vision. Contrary to popular perception, the artist emerges as more indebted to German Romanticism than political or social revolution. Doubtless the reality of Schwitters’ life and work in Germany is far more complex than any reductive designation that can be applied to him retrospectively. And this is also true of the artist’s life in England.
Untitled (Wood on Wood), Relief, oil and wood on wood, nailed, 1946, ©Courtesy of the Armitt Trust.
What we can say about his work in the Lake District is that he was in every way continuing along the path which he had established before he was displaced. The landscapes and portraits Schwitters produced in Cumbria can seem troubled and hard-won when we gaze into their brushwork, but his lines in these landscapes are equal to those he produced in Norway. And given Schwitters’ close reading of painting’s history and forms, combined with his heavy involvement with modern art movements in Europe, it should come as no surprise that he could switch so easily from genre to genre. The fact that Schwitters used found material from wherever he happened to be living, whether it be Hanover, London or the Fells around Ambleside, demonstrates that his eyes were wide open to those locations as potential artistic source material. For anyone interested in Schwitters, Cumbria is a particularly rewarding location in which to reflect on the artist’s life and work. Unlike in London, both the living and the dead have room to exist and tell their stories.
Whilst I am averse to pilgrimages of all sorts, in the Lake District I did find myself continuously returning to comparisons of Schwitters’ life there in the 40s and my passing through there now. This was the effect of place over preconception. Having had a long-standing interest in Kurt Schwitters, I had had plenty of time to imagine the urban artist’s rural life in England. The longer I spent there however, the more the locations themselves took over. Of all the wonderful encounters I managed to squeeze into two weeks, two things served to give form to a life I had only imagined from looking at reproductions. The Ambleside Flower Show, in which Schwitters won 1st, 2nd and 3rd prizes in 1946 was being advertised on banners in the street while I was there, and The Armitt Gallery unveiled their newly enlarged collection of Kurt Schwitters works, making it the largest permanent collection of the artist’s work on display in the UK.
Visit the Armitt Museum website for more on Kurt Schwitters: Armitt Museum
Visit the Cylinders Estate Merzbarn website: Merzbarn in Cylinders Estate, Langdale
Visit the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle: Hatton Gallery, Newcastle
Visit the Merzbarn Residency blog of artists Robbie O’Halloran and Hamish McLain: merzbarn16
- Elizabeth Burns Gamard. (2000). Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau. New York; Princeton Architectural Press.
- Kurt Schwitters quoted in: Barbara Crossley. (2005). The Triumph of Kurt Schwitters. Armitt Trust.
- Elizabeth Burns Gamard. (2000). Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau. New York; Princeton Architectural Press.