Abstraction and the natural environment

Kurt Schwitters Irgendetwas mit einem Stein

Kurt Schwitters
Anything with a Stone 1941/1944
Sprengel Museum Hannover

Schwitters moved to Ambleside in the Lake District in June 1945. On previous visits the landscape had reminded him of Norway, and he hoped to make a living by painting portraits and landscapes. Inspired by the surrounding countryside, his work increasingly began to focus on the natural world. His assemblages combined organic found materials with delicately modulated areas of paint, and he also made naturalistic paintings of the landscape around him. Abstract paper collages also referred to the natural world in their titles and formal arrangements.

Although Schwitters lived in a small rural community he was in contact with friends in London, Europe and America and made plans for exhibitions of his abstract work in London and New York. His collages reflect this communication, frequently incorporating envelopes and stamps. The parcels of food and magazines sent from America by his friend Kate Steinitz also profoundly affected the appearance of his work and he used food labels, cartoon strips and photographs to make collages. Their subtle juxtaposition of items of consumer culture with references to contemporary events anticipates the development of pop art in Britain in the 1950s.

New friends and commercial opportunities

As soon as he moved to Ambleside, Schwitters began to investigate commercial opportunities. One of the most popular sights in the town was the eighteenth-century Bridge House, and he made several paintings of this to sell to tourists.

Schwitters also quickly gathered a circle of friends and acquaintances who would help him to gain commissions. One of the most important of these was the local bookshop owner George Arnold Varty, and he also made contact with local hotel proprietors. Over the next three years he travelled widely in the North-West, painting portrait commissions in Manchester, Liverpool and Blackpool. He became a member of the Lake Artists Society and showed in its exhibitions portraits of friends such Dr George Ainslie Johnston who had treated Schwitters after he was confined to bed in 1946 first with a stroke and then a broken leg, and who became his regular chess partner.

Schwitters’s figurative work has often been regarded as a purely commercial exercise, but in fact it was an important aspect of his practice which co-existed with his abstract work. This was particularly true of his landscape paintings, and he considered the study of nature to be a way of replenishing his imagination for his abstract work.