Since Schwitters in Britain opened at the end of January many of you have been asking about the artist’s intriguing ‘porridge sculptures’… 

Together with all German and Austrian émigrés who came to Britain during the Second World War, Schwitters was interned by the British government and spent a year and a half in captivity. Schwitters’s camp on the Isle of Man was named after the square it surrounded – Hutchinson. The camp, like many of those on the island, was set up around existing houses and delineated only by the barbed wire fence that surrounded it. Hutchinson was full of artists and intellectuals who ended up there together completely by chance. Schwitters made life-long friends there and painted numerous portraits including one of the artist Fred Uhlman that is on display in our show.

Kurt Schwitters Untitled (Portrait of Fred Uhlman), 1940 Hatton Gallery: Great North Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne

Kurt Schwitters
Untitled (Portrait of Fred Uhlman), 1940
Oil on wood
object: 1000 x 730 mm
Hatton Gallery: Great North Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne

Food in the camps was rationed and the captain of Hutchinson, Mr H. O. Daniel, commissioned dieticians to produce a book with suggested menus that could be followed in the camps. A staple ingredient was porridge! Artist’s materials were also in very short supply and it seems that Schwitters decided that a better use for his porridge was to use it as material to make sculptures. Sadly these works have not survived, and we have not been able to find any photographs of them – if anyone has seen any photographs of them we would love you to get in touch with us.

Many of Schwitters’s fellow internees remember his porridge sculptures and have written about them in interviews and in their memoirs. Uhlman was rather unimpressed when he went to sit for his portrait to be painted; he later recalled that:

the room stank. A must, sour, indescribable stink which came from there Dada sculptures which he [Schwitters] had created from porridge, no plaster of Paris being available. The porridge had developed mildew and the statues were covered with greenish hair and bluish excrements of an unknown type of bacteria.

Comments

Gwendolen Webster

From 'Kurt Merz Schwitters, a Biographical Study' (1997):
Plaster was rare, but contingency plans were Kurt's speciality. Soon he was seen wandering from house to house in the early morning carrying a bucket in which he collected the left overs of the breakfast porridge. (This was often enough an inedible lump or a soggy mass, for inmates had to cook for themselves and the unContinental art of making porridge evaded most.) On a framework of wires and rods in his attic room he set about creating a Merz porridge sculpture that gradually took on interesting pastel shades of pink, white and green as mould set in. The porridge sculpture, unlikely as it sounds, is well documented by fellow internees. Fred Uhlman described it as emitting 'a faint but sickly smell' and Richard Friedenthal noted the 'surprising effects' as the waxy columns changed colour with age. When Klaus Hinrichsen saw it, it was in a fairly advanced state. ' There, in the middle of the room stood, or rather shook, three pyramid like sculptures, studded with stamps, cigarette boxes, nails, pebbles and shells and covered with mould - the world's first abstract porridge sculptures!... Rather sheepishly he asked if we could take charge of them and take them to the [internees' art] exhibition, for one reason because of the complaints from the inmates of his house and for another to save his artworks from mice gnawing away at them.' Hinrichsen, who was responsible for organizing the exhibition, eventually dissuaded Kurt from the impossible task of exhibiting his porridge sculpture. But other residents in the house were growing mutinous about the strange smelling liquid that dripped through to lower floors. How Kurt eventually disposed of his mounds of rotting porridge remains a mystery to this day.