Kurt Schwitters Tate exhibition banner

‘Anglism’: The Dialectics of Exile

Three orthodoxies have dictated previous accounts of the life of Kurt Schwitters in England: that England was simply ‘exile’, a cultural desert, that he was lonely, unappreciated, that his late figurative work is too embarrassing to be displayed in any authoritative retrospective. Scholars ask ‘What if?’ What if Schwitters had got a passport to United States and had joined other artists in exile? He would have continued making Merz with American material. He would have had no ‘need’ to paint figuratively.1 Would he have fitted his past into an even more ‘modernist’ mould like his friend Naum Gabo, to please the New Yorkers?2 Surely not.

‘Emigration is the best school of dialectics’ declared Bertold Brecht.3 Schwitters’s last period must be investigated not in terms of ‘exile’ but the dialectics of exile: as a future which cuts off a past which lives on through it all the more intensely in memory, repetition, recreation. ‘Exile’ moreover is a purely negative term, foreclosing all the inspirational possibilities of a new ‘genius loci’, a spirit of place: England. The Germany Schwitters knew was disfigured, disintegrating, self-destructing. His longing was for place which was no more. His Merzbau was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943; Helma died in 1944: ‘Hanover a heap of ruins, Berlin destroyed, and you’re not allowed to say how you feel.’4 The English period was a both a death and a birth, a question of identity through time, of new and old languages. ‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future / And time future contained in time past.’ T.S. Eliot’s nostalgic sonorities in the Four Quartets, 1936, must be substituted with Schwitters’s rougher, more robust, more angular sounds and planes in the ‘poeting and paintry’ of the English period. ‘Only the wrong material used in the wrong way will give the right picture, when you look at it from the right angle. Or the wrong angle. That leads us to a new ism: Anglism. The first art starting from England, except the former shapes of art.’5

The Manx Period, Isle of Man: 1940–1

Relief, safety. After an arduous escape from Norway, Schwitters and Ernst arrived in Britain on 19 June, 19406. There followed a succession of reception centres in Midlothian, Edinburgh, York and Manchester. Schwitters found himself interned by late summer in Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man, as one of ‘His Majesty’s most loyal Enemy Aliens’. (His Majesty’s family had been Hanoverian, let us remember, since 1714).

The Isle of Man, situated four hours from Liverpool in the Irish sea, is a fascinating place with its own ancient Celtic culture, language and archeological remains; traces of a Roman invasion, tailless cats, the three-legged ‘triskele’ emblem and a degree of autonomy from the British Government.7 It was used as a prisoner-of-war camp during the First World War The situation among the internees in 1940 was tense, and management problems amongst this segregated community led to very real injustices, challenging the prevalent decorum of ‘fair play’. Nationally speaking, attitudes were complicated: unemployment had reached three million by 1933, a situation which had encouraged the excesses of the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley. Immigration laws, subject to controls during the 1930s, were changed after the events of 1938, particularly Kristallnacht, and by September 1939, there were roughly 75.000 immigrants of Germanic origin in Britain, 60,000 being refugees from Hitler.8

Schwitters wrote to his mother on August 18th ‘I hear lectures on philosophy and art and concerts and paint very interesting heads’9. A mystery surrounds a subsequent clue to his life at the time, the Players Navy Cut cigarette packet, decorated with eyes, a nose and two church steeples10, dedicated, in Schwitters’ ‘Artstutterer’ mode, to ‘mmmeinem Freunde, Roland Peppenrose…5.9.40.’ This early token of friendship was addressed to the most active English collector of Dada and Surrealism who had co-organised the ‘German art of the Twentieth Century’ exhibition in 1938.11

Both Kurt Schwitters and Ernst signed a protest letter from Hutchinson Camp, published during the internment debate by the New Statesman and Nation on August 28th, 1940: ‘Art cannot live behind barbed wire… the sense of grievous injustice done to us, the restlessness caused by living together with thousands of other men… prevent all work and creativity.’ They were joined by fourteen other artists from Germany and Austria.12 Schwitters applied formally for release from internment in October, stating that he was registered to emigrate to the U.S.A. in December 1939 with son and daughter-in-law – to no avail13. Christmas was miserable: ‘ I go to our church unable to believe in the love of humankind;’ his studio was swept by fire in early January 1941.14

Yet Schwitters’s artistic activity in Hutchinson Camp countered the moments of ‘painful disillusion’, the ‘unnecessary humiliation’ and the epileptic fits returning for the first time since adolescence that his son recalled (Ernst was released four months before his father). In fact it was a fertile and stimulating time for Schwitters; while certainly the most celebrated modernist, he also painted remembered landscapes from Norway (despite wonderful local views down to the sea) and worked from postcards and photographs of Norwegian soldiers in England, sent to him via Esther, Ernst’s wife who was working at the Norwegian embassy. Schwitters’s portraits of camp officials and internees allowed him the luxury of wine and cigars.15 He was able to work regularly every day and was given an attic studio in an administration building of the camp, outside the barbed wire.16 Despite a regimen of reveilles, roll-calls and curfews, it was also true that Schwitters had: ‘No material worries, regular meals, rest at normal hours and, nearly every evening, re-unions of intellectuals exchanging views on art and philosophical matters. There Kurt shone in all his glory’.17 Internee Fred Uhlmann’s own memoirs, confirmed the ‘embarras de richesse’ of ‘more than thirty university professors and lecturers mainly from Oxford and Cambridge’ who provided intellectual fare in the evenings.18 The panoply of personalities and talents was such that the Isle of Man as a ‘Menscheninsel’ became the symbolic microcosm of internee, Richard Friedenthal’s novel: Die Welt in der Nussschale, the world in a nutshell of good and bad, of man’s existence through ‘idyll and terror’ in which Schwitters was comically parodied as the eccentric artist, Baby Bitter’.19

To many, Schwitters was primarily a performance artist, with a literally captive, German-speaking audience. Dada evenings were held and the Ur-Sonate and Anna Blume recited; performances of ‘Leise’ (‘Softly’) were given, the word repeated in a crescendo culminating in a saucer-smashing climax in the Artists’ Café20. Performances were also semi-private, even more subversive: savage barking at twilight in reponse to the barks of an elderly Viennese businessman, when animals were not allowed in the camp for example.21 Schwitters wrote scurrilous rhyming ditties in English for the camp journal, and produced a roneotyped version of ‘An Anna Blume’ in 1941. He also had drawings and stories reproduced on the precious duplicating machine, such as ‘The Story of the Flat and Round Painter’ (translated by Heinz Beran); round figures drawn in the air, leading to an explosion and the necessity to paint ‘plain, flat figures with flat brushes on flat canvas.’22

Once Fred Uhlmann or Klaus Hinrichsen became subjects for portraits by Schwitters, however, they saw the curious conditions in which the artist worked, a garret adorned with collages, sculptures made partly of stinking porridge, old food and stolen bits of broken furniture on the floor used ‘for the construction of a grotto round a small window’, (another proto-Merzbau?)23Inevitably Uhlmann would have told Schwitters of his life in London, of his founding role in the F.D.K.B.(Freier Deutscher Kulturbund) organised with Oscar Kokoschka from his Hampstead home from February 1939, and its programme of lectures, cabaret, exhibitions, social meetings etc.24 Uhlman’s English aristocrat wife, Diana, was Secretary of the Artists’ Refugee Committee (founded in October 1938), forming a link with English exhibiting groups25. Camp mail arrived regularly from Liverpool (albeit censored). Whatever Schwitters’s despondency, one must conclude that he had far more knowledge of a lively London war-time avant-garde before he left internment than previous accounts would suggest.

Anecdotes aside, in what ways was Schwitters’s art significantly affected during the Manx period? Firstly, in internment conditions, circumstances created even baser forms of Merz; before painting materials began to arrive from the Artists’ International Asssociation or island supppliers, crushed bricks were used for pigments; ‘oil paint from crushed minerals and dyes extracted from food rations mixed with olive oil from sardine tins… gelatine from boiled-out bones [mixed] with flour and leaves to size newspapers’;26 ceiling squares, dismantled tea chests and linoleum prized from the floor formed the crudest of supports for his art. In Das Schachbild (The Chess Picture) 1941, a frayed and jagged piece of cloth, stained with some pigment into squares – a rudimentary chessboard – becomes a Merz picture; in Brown and Green, 1941, an old shoe sole pierced with nails and a scrap of tweed is glued onto a salvaged square of lino, itself mounted upon a rough piece of wood. Schwitters’s linguistic playfulness steals into these minimal compositions. An argument for dating Bild mit Filmspule und Draht (Picture with Film Spool and Wire) ‘1937–40’ to the Hutchinson camp period is the way in which the bobbin creates an ‘I’ within the ‘Q’ of a twisted twig: ‘I.Qs.’ (intelligence quotients) were an obssessive concern amongst the classifiers and dividers of men into groups and statistics.27 While Schwitters conserved his precious oil paints for portraits, the visible degradation of his Merz materials in camp conditions added a poignancy to his experimental work and its private status as a secret diary. The minimalism of these works speak of a dialectic between possession and dispossession, a form of collecting – in exile – ‘as an existential project that seeks to lend shape to hapless circumstance’.28

In parallel with the question of materials came the problem of language. Schwitters, as an international modernist, had had a pre-eminently polyglot past; the Ur-Sonate may of course be linked to utopian attempts to recapture a transcendental ‘Ursprache’, a state of harmony before Babel.29 Yet now the German language itself became both a form of cultural heritage, binding the internees together, and, schizophrenically, a remembrance of time past to be rejected. As Fred Uhlmann put it: ‘The language in which Goethe and Holderlin and Moencke had talked and written would be alien to me’30 Klaus Hinrichsen, Schwitters’s fellow internee confirmed that most prisoners refused to speak German: ‘It hurt too much’; English, a new language, was part of the new world to be espoused; the camp Almanach, 1941, including Ernst Schwitters’s caustic piece ‘Bromeo and Julia or a mystic fairy tale’, contains only one short poem in German. Schwitters would find himself betwixt and between: he wrote private, sentimental rhyming love poetry in German to Helma at this time, and the poem with the painful refrain: ‘Denn ich bin gefangen, Im Kriege gefangen’, (For I am a prisoner, imprisoned by war’) which uses the trope of death itself to express his helplessness. The public Schwitters, however, found himself in a linguistic ‘nomansland’. ‘Roll-call’, ‘rations’ ‘coal-fetching’ ‘reading- room’ ‘parcel office’ entered a German syntax; alternatively words like ‘Kaffeewautscher’ phonetically transcribed ‘coffee voucher’. Michael Seyfert has discussed this problem of language and its relationship to internee identity, of personalities fluctuating in mood between distractions and ‘resistance’. ‘Schrifter ohne Sprache’ (‘Writers without a language’) was the theme of a discussion at a London P.E.N. club meeting in September 1941. Some writers subsequently spoke of this change of language as a symbolic destruction of the deepest kernel of their consciousness.31

There was surely a level of distress involved in this language change for Schwitters: after Ernst returned to Norway their correspondence was strictly in English, despite a whole previous ‘German’ life together. Schwitters’s new friendships, new loves, his irrepressible sense of humour and the linguistic absurd would redeem the situation, as is evident through his consistently multiple practices – writing in English, in German and in his own phonetic ‘Ursprache’. The ‘nomansland’ of an interlanguage becomes the principal of a collage such as Mier Bitte (Kendal Art Gallery) in which the English beer label ‘Premier bitter’ turns into Schwitters’s German imperative ‘Mir bitte’ [‘for me, please’], an ironic comment in an era obsessed with the scrambling and breaking of codes.32 Language, time, memory; Schwitters recreated the past in the present as his new present anticipated a future past.

Merz in the Blitz: London 1941–5

So Schwitters was friendless and unrecognised in London? It was his first experience, as an artist, of an immensely extended yet very private city , a ‘collection of villages’ with no obvious ‘centre’ or café life, totally unlike Hanover or Paris. He moved first to Bayswater, an area excellent for public transport, very close to Kensington Gardens and the West End. Here he lived with with Ernst and Esther Schwitters; his romantic encounter with Edith Thomas or Wantee (‘Want tea?’) who lived in the same house, took place rather rapidly.33

Schwitters’s initial feelings of isolation in London on release from the camp must be respected: ‘the houses were empty, partly bombed… Behind me there was lots of barbed wire, because it was a war on…Life is sad. Why did the director of the National Gallery not even like to see me? He does not know that I belong to the avantgarde in art. That is my tragie… I wait now already 7 months for work, and cannot wait with eating.’34 Schwitters’s spirits were instantly raised, according to this prose piece ‘On the bench’ by the gift of a Royal Sovereign red pencil. In fact, Sir Kenneth Clark, at the National Gallery was doing his best: President of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, he was coopting not only Academicians but surrealists and neo-Romantics into war art projects. It was one of the most creative moments for English art in the century, while literary life in war-time London was equally intense, competitive and colourful.35 Besides the War Artists’ topographic records and sketches, Henry Moore was producing his Shelter Drawings, and Graham Sutherland and John Piper their apocalyptic depictions of bomb damage in the Blitz. Refugee artists also contributed: Felix Topolski or Edward Ardizzone for example, but not Schwitters.36

Artistic life in London had already been largely influenced by immigrant artists before the influx of the 1930s37. It must be stated that cultural life between the wars was distinguished by the division among intellectuals between Francophiles and Germanophiles. Writers on art such as Roger Fry and Anthony Blunt were Francophile, as were Nancy Cunard, or Roland Penrose and subsequently the British Surrealists; alternatively D.H. Lawrence, the poets W.H.Auden, Stephen Spender and young artists such as Francis Bacon who had been drawn to Berlin in the late 1920s were Germanophile, as were sections of the British aristocracy such as the Mosley family with their fascination for Hitler, and even, it is argued, King Edward VIII (who abdicated in 1936). German expressionism was nonetheless considered embarrassingly raw and ‘ugly’ by the British public who were exposed to ‘Twentieth Century German Art’ at the New Burlington Galleries in July 1938; London’s response to Hitler’s Munich exhibitions of ‘Degenerate art’ included major works by Max Beckman, Oscar Kokoshka’s Portrait of a Degenerate Artist, Schwitters’s construction The Golden Ear, 1935 and an undated collage, both from private collections in London.38 With the transfer of the Warburg Institute from Hamburg to London in 1933, German art history had transformed traditions of English conoisseurship and criticism; Ernst Gombrich was a Hampstead denizen – as indeed was Sigmund Freud from 1938 – and soon German and Austrian artists were well established amidst their English contemporaries’.39 In the Uhlmann’s house the refugee photomontage artist John Heartfield was a guest for seven years: the presence of Francis Klingender or Friedrich Antal gave a distinctly Marxist tone to their discussions.40 Despite the traditions of British liberalism, however, and propaganda exhibitions such as ‘Allies inside Nazi Germany’ (1942) which travelled throughout Britain as ‘We accuse, Ten Years of Hitler Fascism’ the following year, suspicions of the Jew, the Communist, the camouflaged Nazi, all affected perceptions of German refugees in exile – and Schwitters was no exception.

Given the Roland Penrose connection, and Schwitters’s deep friendship with Fred Uhlmann from internment days, it could not have been too long before he established contact and was welcomed by the Hampstead artistic community. By February, 1942, Schwitters had become a member of the Artists’ International Association (A.I.A.), exhibiting Memory of a Lady we never knew alongside works made by the very broadest spectrum of the left-wing London artists.41 By May, 1942, Schwitters had met Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth; a possible personality clash with Nicholson did not prevent the latter from making an homage to Schwitters in the form of a collage. Nicholson modified his rigorous Constructivist construction with cardboard, gauze and an exemplary bus ticket. The couple kept in touch during Nicholson and Hepworth’s stay in Cornwall, where Nicholson made a small collage incorporating Schwitters-type ephemera – an envelope from Hampstead and a Post-Office telegram (he gave it to Hepworth as her birthday card, on January 10th, 1943).42 By June, 1942, Schwitters would surely have met most of the avant-garde intelligentsia still resident in London at a group exhibition held in refugee architect Erno Goldfinger’s modernist buildings, Willow Road, Hampstead, in aid of Allied Russia. Works from the School of Paris some from Roland Penrose’s collection, were shown together with the Nicholson, Hepworth, Henry Moore, the British Surrealists and neo-Romantics. Surprisingly Janco Adler was the only refugee artist together with Schwitters, who exhibited Blue and Gold, 1942, Brown and Green, 1941, and two sculptures: a bas-relief and Mother with egg.43 Artists Aid Russia Exhibition, a more eclectic event, was held in the Wallace Collection from July 1st to August 4th, 1942. Here Schwitters exhibited with his friends Uhlmann and Georg Ehrlich from Hutchinson camp days, the Hungarian concrete sculptor Peter Peri (co-founder of the A.I.A.) and an array of English artists in a group show of Allied solidarity.

1942 was an extraordinary year for Schwitters’s work in both collage and poetry. Perhaps because of the Victoriana of street and pub, the artlessness of furnished lodgings with their cheap prints and anti-macassars, the taste of a working-class girl like Wantee in the era of Picture Post, Schwitters’s collages, in particular the series using reproductions of Franz von Drefregger’s ‘Galerie Moderner Meister’ series, such as Die Brautwerbung, 1942, or Merz 42, Like an Old Master, were full of tenderness in the traditional scenes they revealed. Weddings, motherhood, childhood, days of yore, jostled, as in memory itself, contrasted with both the bus tickets of everyday life and the fantasy world of contemporary advertisements. While Dada had been obsessed with patriarchy and patricide, Schwitters here evokes a female world, and curiously anticipates the sentimentality of English Pop.44 ‘Old Master’ that he was, with Wantee’s help, Schwitters tuned his ear as well as his eye to London and his new environment; his poem, London Symphony, is a cacophony of advertising jingles, telephone numbers, small ads, war slogans: ‘Dig for victory’ , ‘ABC’ (Aerated Bread Company) and the evidently self-referential cry of the rag-and-bone man:

Sell us your waste paper

Rags and Metals

Any rag any bones any bottles today.

These are verbal collages, but collages which immediately evoke visual equivalents in a tumultuous order. ‘Bank’ suggests the red, white and blue tube sign; ‘Bovril is good for you … What you want is Watney’s’ and every other familiar slogan would have had its own distinctive colours and lettering on familiar shop signs, and of course the billboards covered in posters, which sprang up almost daily to hide the ever-increasing number of bomb-sites.

Moreover, to interpret Schwitters’s prose writings of this period as ‘ full of sadness…’ about people ‘frustrated by life…living without hope’ is precisely not to ‘hear’ Schwitters: the wry ear for dialogue captured in ‘Five Girls on the Switchboard’, 1942, (discussing men of course) or the compassionate irony and humour in ‘The Landlady’, so proud of the match-saving methods she uses to cope with restrictions in austerity London.45 Alternatively, there is the tenderness and fairy-tale element of stories such as ‘Twopenny-Novel about an Ugly Girl’, which relates interestingly to an abstract sculpture of the same name.

In September Schwitters holidayed in the Lake District in its glorious autumnal colours; he wandered looking for motifs, resolving to return in February to paint snowscapes. ‘It’s like Norway there, but more romantic’ he wrote to his friend Edith Tschichold.46

By late December 1942, Schwitters had moved to another London ‘village’, leafy Barnes, south of the Thames, together with Ernst and with Gert Strindberg (a relative of August Strindberg). They had a radio, telephone and Schwitters bought a piano. Wantee would come to cook at weekends.47 Life continued tranquilly; Schwitters exhorted new acquaintances to have their portraits painted.

Separate from the activites of official War Art commissions, the British Surrealist movement flourished with an incestuous intensity in London, its hostilities continuing with the generally Communist realists of the the A.I.A.48 Each grouping was modified by the impact of colourful refugees – Jacques Brunius, Toni del Renzio, Felix Topolski – all managed to make their mark in the London art world. None more so than the extravagant Jack Bilbo, ‘Al Capone’s bodyguard’, a Londoner since the late 1930s and a fellow-internee from the Isle of Man (Onchan Camp), who included Schwitters in his first group show in London. Bilbo’s gallery became a ‘home from home’ for many refugee artists and a glamourous London elite of writers and film-stars; his soirées, which united a multitude of poets and artists saw Schwitters’s first London poetry recitals: ‘dadaist poetry, a mixture of illogical nonsense based on sound only, and logical lunacy. Kurt himself, being quite pathological enjoyed himself immensely. So did my guests, because outside the bombing went on, which seemed to be logical, and therefore wasn’t so amusing, and inside the house Kurt Schwitters went on with his illogicality, which was amusing.’49

Four works by Schwitters, including Parrot, Stork and Tears, were exhibited in ‘The World of Imagination. An exhibition of “Oodles,” Abstracts, Surrealism “Merz” Sculpture, Constructivism and Symbolism. The Most advanced and original Show in Town’ in Bilbo’s Modern Art Gallery, Haymarket, in January 1944.50 Bilbo’s own introduction acknowledged Schwitters’s historical position, while appropriating the Merz principle as an ‘oodle.. a humorous creation made out of old rubbish, something positive out of something negative’.

The heaviest air raids since 1941 poured on London in February 1944; flying bombs started to arrive in June. In August, 1944, at an important international PEN Club conference – with ‘writers from all over the world… and the sound of aeroplanes above the roof’, Schwitters met two kindred spirits who had been involved with dada and avant-garde film in Poland since the late 1920s: Stefan and Franciszka Themersen.51 Their film, Calling Mr Smith, had been shown to great acclaim in London and Edinburgh at the end of the previous year. Just as Schwitters’s most explicit anti-nazi collage, The Hitler Gang c.1944, juxtaposes an advert for the Hitler film in gothic script with an evocation of the most famous of all fragments referring to the invention of modernist collage - printed chair caning – the Themersens’ Calling Mr Smith, while designed to appeal to ‘the common man’, denounced nazi atrocity through fragmentary references to European culture, Germany and Poland in particular. It deployed all the experimental vocabulary of the art in a film-collage: art-objects, high-contrast photographs, silhouettes, coloured shadows, rhythmic repetitions.52 In September, Schwitters reported that social life was additionally improving thanks to his almost weekly visits to Dr Walter Dux, formerly from Hanover, now resident in Richmond, near Barnes. Dux would be a most generous patron sending Schwitters £5 every week ‘for paints’.53 At about this time, Schwitters made a collage in Franciska Themerson’s studio, incorporating a photograph of Herbert Read, cut from a copy of Picture Post; the English gentleman, a floating bust, smiles urbanely as the mother-odalisque behind him is disfigured by menacing double male heads.

Herbert Read was the most influential English art critic working in London through the war. Imagist poet, surrealist novelist, adept of Worringer, editor of Kropotkin, Read had been arbiter between the warring factions of Surrealism and Abstraction in the London of the late 1930s. In a context of imminent war on the Continent, he had come to envisage London as the new world capital of the arts (Living Art in England, London Gallery 1939) agreeing to become the director of Peggy Guggenheim’s proposed Museum of Modern Art for London, prior to the collapse of the project and departure from England of such international figures as Mondrian and Naum Gabo.54 During the late autumn, preparations were underway with Read for Schwitters’s first one-man show in London at Jack Bilbo’s gallery in December 1944. It would be a substantial exhibition of eleven collages, eighteen oil paintings with constructions and ten sculptures, including the bomb-site Air and Wire Sculpture twisted out of a coathanger, surely, during the PEN Club conference. Herbert Read’s preface added authority: ‘Schwitters is the supreme master of the collage.’ His historical introduction situated the artist and ‘Merz’ with the great 1920s modernists, yet, with characteristic sensitivity, Read perceived Schwitter’s recalcitrance, his ‘protest against the chromium-plated conception of modernism’, his ‘philosophical, even mystical’ justification of the use of rejected materials, the love of beauty in ‘a rock, a cloud formation or a human face’. The show received an enthusiastic review in The Studio, which contrasted the softly coloured collages with his uncompromisingly ‘intellectual’ wire and wood sculptures; Schwitters sold four works and received three commissions.55 Prior to the poetry recital at the opening on December 4th, Read realised, crucially, that Schwitters’s poetry was essentially an oral art, akin to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: ‘to hear Schwitters recite his poetry is to be convinced that he has invented still another art form.’56

Schwitters’s happiness at his recognition by an expanding audience of friends and admirers was cruelly cut short by a telegram informing him of his wife Helma’s death. She had died in October from breast cancer. He also learned that his house in Hanover and his Merzbau had been destroyed.57 A stroke temporarily paralysed half of his body; Wantee was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. At the end of the war, Ernst Schwitters returned to Norway and Schwitters could no longer afford to live in Barnes. With Wantee’s savings and money from the sale of Schwitters’s stamp collection they decided to go again to the Lake District. A new phase in Schwitters’s life was about to begin.

Romanticism Rediscovered: The Lake District, 1945–8

They arrived at Windermere on June 26th, 1945. Compared with a Norway of precipitous fjords and glaciers, theLake District is a gentler, greener mountain area, colonised first by Romans, then by Vikings and converted by the northern saints. Far from a deserted, isolated spot, Schwitters found himself in a region impregnated with history and culture. The landscape was divided by ‘dry stone walls’ of slate and Lakeland greenstone, sometimes topped with fantastical, irregular lumps of limestone from river beds; these were carried into the gray and purple slate-built villages: see the wall in an early photograph of 2, Gale Crescent, Ambleside, where Schwitters and Wantee first had lodgings.

Life may have been austere, but Ambleside was surrounded by a landscape of sublime natural beauty that nearer their own time had inspired the great English Romantics, from Thomas de Quincey to John Ruskin and William Wordsworth.58 It was not only a spot for Romantic pilgrims, but a centre for art during the war. The Langdale valley, where Schwitters would later work on the Merzbarn, was the focus of an artistic community, with lectures given by visiting professors from Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh.59 And Ambleside itself was graced with the eccentrically dressed students from the Royal College of Art, London, who had been evacuated there to escape the bombing. A professor from the College, a portrait painter, lived in the same house as Schwitters, but was appparently too shy to be introduced; Schwitters had tea with one or two students; yet despite the fascinating potential for an exchange of culture and ideas, no important contacts were established.60

In November, 1945, Schwitters and Wantee went to London to celebrate Ernst’s remarriage. At this happy moment one supposes, in honour of Eve, Ernst’s new wife, the English version of Anna Blume was transformed to ‘Eve Blossom has wheels’. Eve was suitably palindromic and optimistic: ‘E-V-E / Easy Victory Easy’.61 All four returned to the Lake District for a honeymoon period; Ernst and Schwitters went to Tarn Hows and climbed up to the ‘saddle’ of Old Man Coniston.62 New words from the Lakes crept into Schwitters titles such as Windswept, 1946; his colourful abstract paintings became filled with the curves and stippled shadows of the mountains and valleys (Grasmere ); more domestic assemblages referred to local events such as Y.M.C.A.63 All took place under the aegis of his muse; hence Wanteeside, 1945–6. And Schwitters – of course – resumed painting the motifs around him. Equal to the number of abstracts in Schwitters’s life, were the number of naturalistic works, about 4,000 in all, Ernst Schwitters has calculated.64 Should not these, too, attract some scholarly attention? As in Norway, Schwitters was happy to sell landscapes and portraits to local residents or passing tourists. Many were displayed at the picturesque Bridge House, which was an antique shop. Schwitters reiterated how he considered Rembrandt the greatest artist that ever lived.65 The quality of the best portraits surpasses those done in Hutchinson camp. Despite his comment to Raoul Hausmann ‘in England you must not even see any brushmarks on the surface of the picture. My picture have brushmarks and therefore I have difficulties’,66 these works are consistently expressionist. The portrait of Dr George Ainslie Johnston, his faithful doctor and an aimiable chess partner is a triumph of energetic handling. It conveys a natural gravitas, while the predominantly warm tones of green and brown are counterpointed by the startling diamond formation of the chessboard.

The Dr Johnston portrait is a particularly important work: housed today in the Armitt Trust library, of which Dr Johnston was an active member, it belies the myth of Schwitters’s intellectual isolation. Johnstonwas an expert on Ruskin, the great critic of Modern Painters, painter of Alpine landscapes and friend of Turner and Wordsworth. It was the Englishman, Ruskin, one could argue, who precipitated, with the famous Ruskin-Whistler trial, the originary point of departure for modernism, not merely in Anglo-american terms.67 (‘The dadaists belonged to a world which, still, remembered and read John Ruskin’ wrote Stefan Themerson, explicating Schwitters.68) The portrait was the subject of a typically whimsical letter to Christof Spengeman, relating Johnston’s expression to whether Schwitters would allo him to win or lose the game of chess.69 More significantly, the incongruous press-cuttings referring to Norway, pasted onto the back of the Dr Johnston portrait, mark a transitional stage, as it were, between figurative painting and the ‘conventional’ collage, Norwegian Flag, 1947. Time past contained in time present: Schwitters’s continuing passion for his second lost country is contained in these curious, commemorative practices; clues to a dispersed autobiography.70

As Schwitters would famously comment to Raoul Hausmann: ‘In my soul live as many hearts as I have lived years. Because I can never give up or entirely forget a period of time during which I worked with great energy – I am still an impressionist, even while I am Merz. With the gangster Picasso you may ask – which artists does he copy today? With me you may ask – what developments has he gone through? I am not ashamed of being able to do good portraits and I do them still. But that is not avant-garde.’71

In similar fashion, Schwitters’s landscapes of mountain and valley, of lake and rock, as with the best snowscapes of Norway, signal the rediscovery of his Expressionist roots: the energetic scribbles and dashes of his sketches, the fluid, bravado handling of the oils, where the purplish-green palette is flecked with the yellow of gorse bushes on the hills and the white of impasted suns; Schwitters moving from Wordsworth back to Worringer.72  As Ernst Schwitters said: ‘It was his often expressed conviction that the human mind eventually becomes stale if it does not receive new impressions constantly through the study of nature.’73 The works were occasionally unsigned, when Schwitters could not find vermilion for his characteristic ‘KS’ signature – surely a mark by which he wished these paintings to be recognised and distinguished from local productions or his own unfinished exercises.74

Expressionism in the hands of certain of its adepts – Edvard Munch, Oskar Kokoschka, David Bomberg in England- was a lifelong style; Kokoschka was a contemporary of Schwitters in London, becoming a British citizen in 1947. He continued to paint in Londonas well as Viennaand Italy, Germanyand Switzerlandafter the war. The British expressionist tradition, generated by Bomberg, is at the origin of today’s Schoolof London, involving artists of the stature of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff.75 Indeed, while Kokoschka was painting landscapes in Scotland, Hilde Goldschmidt, his student between 1920 and 1923 at the Dresden Academy, was living and working alongside Schwitters in the Langdale Valley, making turbulent, Expressionist landscapes of Elterwater in oil or pastel. Immediately after the war, the emigré art critic J.P. Hodin theorised Expressionism as a constituent of modernism for the London intelligentsia. His articles took their place within a liberal reevaluation of twentieth century German culture in the literary magazine Horizon. ‘The Expressionist artist is associated with the myth-building force, that truly creative, primordial, spiritual force out of which the symbols were created that gave form to men’s conception of life and the world’. ‘Modern art’, Hodin argued, offered a way to escape from the ‘complete disillusionment of the post-war period’ with its existentialist, ‘world-rejecting melancholy’.76 As ruins and bombsites were covered with green, and Europe entered its second period of reconstruction, the analogies with Schwitters’s continuing Romantic empathies and Expressionist practices were obvious.

‘Poeting and Paintry’: The Adventure of Pin, 1946–7

 ‘The phan atom bomb conquered by penn phan’77

Even in the Lake District, Schwitter gave a recital of his Ursonate to Hilde Goldschmidt, and ‘The Fury of Sneezing’ apparently went down well in the local pubs.78 More seriously, it was presumably through Goldschmidt’s friendships from the wartime Langdale artistic community that the dancer and choreographer Rudolf von Laban visited Schwitters, proposing to create a ballet based upon Schwitters’s new ‘Scherzo’.79

During 1945 and 1946, Schwitters’s life broadened immeasurably as he regained postal contact with friends in Europeand America. The international service was extremely efficient; Schwitters was a passionate correspondent. Just as he sent his collages to friends and left bundles of work in various places, posting for posterity as it were, so his poems were dispatched far and wide for safe keeping; he sent his ‘Fury of Sneezing’ to Kate Steinitz in August, 1945, and ‘I build my time’ to Nelly van Doesburg in May, 1947. He commemorated his friendships through collage-poems:

Par Avion
Herbert Read
Naoum Gabo
My dear Friend
Par Avion80

He immortalised one Andrew Invergowrie in his delirious new sonata ‘Ribble Bobble Pimlico (surely implying a visit to the newly reopened Tate Gallery)81 and other friendhips with pictorial equivalents: fragments of correspondence transformed into collage (G. Strindberg, 1945). At the period of his correspondence with Raoul Hausmann, in 1946–7, his optimism and enthusiasm are evident in the tensely constructed, banded collage with its central paper strip De Stijl – Le Style – Der Stijl / le seul organe d’une nouvelle conscience plastique.’ Ambleside envelope fragments jostle with French stamps, carrying the engraved and beautiful head in Phrygian bonnet of ‘La France’ / ‘Liberté’.

It was tremendously exciting for Schwitters to reestablish contact with Raoul Hausmann in June 1946 and to hear of avant-garde developments in Paris.82 Schwitters’s mind effervesced with ideas for a joint project – a ‘phantasy’ project, Pin on the curious, finally impossible axis between Ambleside and Limoges in France, where his companion of Berlin dada days was now living in poverty. It was the epistolary resumption of a friendship ‘as though nothing had had happened’ and yet, while he corresponded in German with Hanover friends, and wrote his play, ‘Die Familiengruft’ (The Family Tomb), in German in November 1946, Schwitters wrote to Hausmann mostly in English (with Wantee’s help).83 Again this was surely an implicit acknowledgement between the two men of all that had gone before, and likewise the urgency of ‘time present’ in their new lives.84

At first they hatched grandiose plans. Hausmann suggested that Schwitters write an epic 500 page book of Merz: ‘Just think of it: The Odyssey, Don Quixote, Ulysses, Merz.’ But the Pin project took over, with an ulterior motive from Hausmann’s point of view. Hausmann’s ‘FMSBW’, a point of origin for Schwitters’s ‘Sonate in Urlauten’ was entering a new arena of controversy in postwar Paris: a second avant-garde was challenging the ‘grandfathers’. The debate was sparked between Iliazd (Ilia Zdanevich, the emigré Russian Futurist and ‘zaoum’ poet) and Isidore Isou, promoter of the new ‘lettrist’ movement. Schwitters was certainly aware of the issues at stake, both via his letters and the antagonistic, phonetic counterprojects set up in PIN.85 Hausmann was corresponding with Schwitters and with Isou simultaneously. He alerted the young Roumanian to the existence of his own ‘poème-affiche’ ‘FMSBW’ of 1918 ( one was in César Domela’s collection in Paris), and sent him Schwitters’s address in Ambleside, saying:/p>

‘L’Ursonate de Schwitters se compose surtout de mon ‘fmsbutézeu’ qu’il a employé comme thèse de fond’86 Hausmann’s initial proposal to Schwitters was for ‘a thing of fantasy to be called ‘Schwittmail’or ‘Pinhole mail’, to be published in Paris in four languages’. Suggested collaborators included Arp, Tristan Tzara and Ernst Schwitters (abstract phogtographs) Alas! it was far too ambitious. ‘Pinhole’ was a metaphor: Give up your human-controlled feelings and please creep through our pinhole and you will realise that it was worth while.87 Pin is the hole people have to creep through in order to see what art is all about.’88 Drafts passed between Limoges and Ambleside; production matters were left to Hausmann; the discipline of mutual editing sometimes led to complete rewriting in the case of Hausmann’s phonetic ‘Cauchemar’ transformed to Schwitter’s ‘The real disuda of the nightmare’.89

The Belgian Surrealist, E.L.T. Mesens, promoter of pre-war dada and Surrealism in England, was the proposed contact point and publisher. Schwitters had known him since the 1920s, and visited him after a trip to Blackpoolin July 1946, but Mesens was not keen on Pin. Finally penury and illness involving both collaborators - Schwitters with a broken leg between October and Christmas 1946 – put paid to the project. His proposal to sell the manuscripts to the Swedish collector Hjalmar Gabrielson came to nothing, and in mid-October Schwitters decided to withdraw his name from Pin.90 Paradoxically it would not be formal or intellectual defeat but sheer physical exhaustion on the part of the older generation which would allow Isou and the Lettrists to triumph in Paris. Nonetheless the debate about the origins of the poetry of the letter was regulated for posterity by Iliazd’s magnificent illustrated typographic production on parchment, Poésie des mots inconnus, 1949, which contained both Hausmann’s ‘FMSBW’ and Schwitter’s ‘Fury of Sneezing’ poem. The same year saw the publication in French in the review K of the ‘Scherzo’ of the ‘Ursonate’ (‘Sonate Présyllabique’).91

On March 5th and 7th, 1947, a postwar London public was treated to a small Schwitters exhibition plus two poetry recitals at the reopened London Gallery in Brook Street, the very street where Handel composed the Messiah, noted a critic in his review of the ‘Surrealist Shakespeare’!92 ‘Attendance first recital: 16, at second recital: 12’ Mesens recalled.93 B.B.C. notoriously refused to record Schwitters’s so-called ‘Primeval Sonate’ and walked out - yet Schwitters certainly had an impact.94 Mesens who ‘adored Schwitters’, according to his assistant George Melly, had reverted to collage-making for a brief period with Schwitters’s encourgement: his superb Complete Score Completed of 1945, using slogans on the musical staves such as ‘Black-out’ and ‘On draught’, is comparable with Schwitter’s slogans ‘Dig for Victory’ and ‘Watney’s Ales’ in the poem London Symphony.95 Schwitters informed Hausmann of his 5 March performance , but at the end of that March conveyed Mesen’s refusal to publish Pin.

Pin, which generated the immortal epithet ‘poeting and paintry’, was a self-consciously neo-avant-garde experiment, internationalist, formalist and pitched against the Zeitgeist: ‘it has liberated itself of the world agony… Poetry of the PRESENT is outside the restrained history, outside the coward anthropophagous and anthropomorphous utilisations

…                                                       Poetry Intervenes Now

                                                              Presence Is New

                                                                    PIN 96

The Elterwater Merzbarn, Swan Lake, 1947

A few miles from Ambleside, in the fertile valleyof Great Langdale, was a village called Elterwater, in old Norse ‘Elpt Vatn’ or SwanLake, rich in Lakelandgreenstone and sheltered by woods. On part of the former site of the Ambleside Black Powder Works was a landholding named ‘Cylinders’ after the cylindrical charcoal furnaces on the site. Harry Pierce, a landscape architect, built a modest stone ‘shippen’ on the site. Around this he cultivated exotic plants: eucalyptus, rhododendron, weeping acorn and bamboo.97 Further away, he constructed a stone-walled barn, built on old foundations during the war. This infinitely modest building would become Schwitters’s final Merzbau, the Merzbarn, a madly heroic, calculated gamble with posterity.

Schwitters’ correspondence reveals that despite his fragile bones and confinement to bed in late 1946, for some period he sustained fantasies of returning to Hanoverand reconstituting the Merzbau from its existing ruins.98 He was also increasingly excited about a proposed trip to New York, writing negatively about England, English art (and, significantly, his own portraits) for the first time to Katharine S. Dreier, aiming to reassure her of his still avant-garde, internationalist credentials.99 These were to be contextualised for a London public by E.L.T. Mesens Dada exhibition, planned for June.100 Schwitters was exhilarated when on June 20th, 1947, his sixtieth birthday, he received an award from the Museum of Modern Art, New York worth $1,000 ‘to proceed with your plans for continuing your work in creative fields, including such such restoration of the Merzbau as is possible.’101 However, he reported to Christoph Spengeman on June 25th that his ‘Herzasthma had become Merzasthma’ and that his heart was bad; on July 15th, he suffered a twelve-hour lung haemorrage. His health forced him to acknowledge that his horizons were now fixed by the mountain rims of Langdale. By this time, Harry Pierce, who thanks to a portrait commission had become a good friend and charming host to Schwitters and Wantee, had already agreed that Schwitters might have his barn for a studio.102 The first cheque for $250 dollars arrived on July 31st.103 The precise date at which Schwitters began the Elterwater Merzbarn is uncertain, but certainly arrangements for a ‘Merzbarn’ were formalised with Harry Pierce, a rent of £52 per annum agreed, and the purpose stated ‘for the completion and exhibition of sculptures and pictures’, while Schwitters wrote anxiously to New York for approval.104

Schwitters could not wait for Mr Pierce to weatherprooof the building, to glaze the holes that had served as windows for hay bales; light inside the barn was limited to a candle; heat to a paraffin stove. The sides of the barn were of typical ‘dry stone wall’ construction, rough, uneven and with no concrete or mortar to hold the local slates together; thus particularly difficult and expensive to fill and plaster in the attempt to create smooth surfaces. Schwitters applied comercial decorator’s plaster with a spatula, table knife and hands in rough relief patches whose surfaces created a pattern of shadows like the stippled area on abstract paintings such as Grasmere. ‘Relief parts were reinforced with garden canes, string, wire, small branches and anything else which came to hand’105 Schwitters became wildly enthusiastic, despite the long daily journey and slow rate of progress: ‘I am building a Merz Barn. In Elterwater. The greatest sculpture of my life… I hope to end my work in 3 years’ he wrote to Ludwig Hilbersheimer in October.‘106

Mr Pierce made a new roof for the building, and at Schwitters’s request built a window in the top, right-hand corner above his relief. The light bounced down the wall, falling through a gap designed to illuminate the most carefully-composed, still-remaining centrepiece of the Merzbarn wall. Contrasting with the dry stone walls which served as a dark, ‘rusticated’ frame, the smoothed area – which required so much white paint sent, in part from Norway – thrust out wilfully into a relief comprising: ‘A wedge of slate, small metal window frame, the rose of child’s watering can, twigs, a piece of the rim of a cartwheel, a section of guttering, a china egg, a piece of an oval gold mirror frame, a metal grid, a piece of metal strip, a rubber ball, roots, stones, string, and some gentians which have, of course, now disappeared.’107 Yet the wall that Schwitters, Wantee, Harry Pierce and Jack Cook all collaborated to make was but a part of the conception. Mr Pierce said that Schwitters intended completing all four walls of the barn as murals.108 Cave-like, rather than dominated by a central monument, it was nonetheless conceived as a completely three-dimensional environment.109 As the painter Hilde Goldschmidt later recalled: ‘High up in the wall he wanted a window placed, which was supposed to act both as the sole source of light and as the fulcrum of the whole conception. From there various strings were spanned throughout the room to indicated how the barn space would be interpenetrated. It was all so clear in his mind’.110 Rough, free-standing sculptures were made for the Merzbarn,111 but here as with his other Merzbauten, a system of shelves and niches were envisaged, in the oblique wall that Schwitters built, for the display of his small sculptures.

While many of Schwitters’s small sculptures of the later 1940s are characteristically eccentric, quirky ‘bricolages’, some remaining works - and indeed some works exisitng now only from photographs, are smooth curving, geometrical creations. Often the inspiration for a sculpture in base material, debris – a piece of bone for example – are built up so that they lose their characterstics of origin. They are then painted with constructivist colours: white with red and black; or red, yellow and blue. The most severe pieces such as Cathedral, 1941–2, or Arabesque, 1943–5 deliberately relate as microcosms and miniatures to the Merzbau conception as ‘Zukunftskathedrale’; yet any architectural solemnity is contradicted by the reference to the organic in smooth, biomorphic works such as Opening Blossom, by the personal, emotional relationships intimated in the tiny coloured pieces like Togetherness, or by the sheer impudence of selected painted pebbles and striped stones. More particularly, Fant, (a Norwegian word for ‘devil’) 1944 and the magnificent later Lofty, are outrageously phallic: in Lofty those severe, constructivist colourings are comically challenged: a drooping, but impertinent penis, about to raise its head. However poor or ill Schwitters may have been or have become, Lofty and its sculptural brethren, envisaged in conjunction with the Merzbarn, are not the works of a despairing man: but sculptural extensions of a personality acknowledging sexual desire, irony and an often scatological humour. The Elterwater Merzbarn, made with Wantee in and with and surrounded by nature is no repetition of the Hanover Merzbau; not merely because of its rural aspects or connection with picturesque grottos, but because it is no longer a ‘Cathedral of Erotic Misery’; it is a celebration of a mature sexuality and of an achieved love, as well as of life itself and the will to survive.

On and On, 1947–8

Alas, will was not enough – despite Schwitters’s Valentine Merz relief of 1947: ‘If you can’t get a little SPARK /Out of life / C’mon Get Glowing/ Be my Valentine!’ to which Kate Steinitz had added: ‘and keep burning on and on;’ On and on would be the title of his last collage.‘112 On death itself, his play Die Familiengruft, (The Family Tomb), 1946, had given a parodic and pessimistic view of an after-life rife with old family rancours, a disturbing anomaly in the Lakeland oeuvre.113 As early as July, 1947, Schwitters drafted his last will and testament.114 In constant correspondence with the Museum of Modern Art, Schwitters was also in touch with the preparations for his New York exhibition at the Pinacotheque. Recognition in Europe at this time was not unforthcoming: he approved of Carola Giedion-Welcker’s Die Weltwoche article that was published in Zurich, August 15th, 1947, which signalled his London Gallery performances, and his participation in the forthcoming collage exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. ‘He must have been very satisfied that England, the land of nonsense and the immortal Alice in Wonderland, appreciated his work as a poet and artist.’115

Yet in September, Ernst wrote: ‘It is so dreadful to feel the sadness underlying so many of your later letters… You write: ‘It is a wonder that I do live on, bodily and economically’, yet Ernst dispatched more zinc white for the Merzbarn, as requested, and proposed a visit to Lysaker.116 In late November, Ernst wrote ‘I am very glad to read that your ‘Merz-barn’ goes better than ‘Merzbau’ I and II’, thanking Schwitters for sending ‘the very detailed descriptions of the Merzbarn with drawings, etc.’.117 However, a month later, with water coursing through the Merzbarn in a stream, the short days, the bitter cold, Schwitters became progressively weaker; he wrote an almost valedictory letter to Ernst in 9 December, acknowledging that he could die quite suddenly. Plans for a last visit from Ernst became urgent, desperate notes to Wantee detailed Schwitters’s previous fits as the artist became delirious;118 Schwitters was finally moved to Kendal Green Hospital, where he died, destitute, on 8 January 1948, with Ernst at his side. His choice of the sculpture Autumn Crocus 1926–8, to be erected at the head of his grave in Ambleside was not to be; yet a copy of the original – destroyed in a bombing raid in 1943 – stands over his final resting place in the Engsohder Friedhof, Hanover, as a monument to this ‘Man without an Autumn’.119 As Kate Steinitz wrote to Wantee on 24 March 1948: ‘Our Pfitzer: Our Kurt! I wrote on this red Valentine: You burn on and on – and he does. He is alive for us and burns on and on.’120

Epilogue, From Newcastle to New York: The Merzbarn and ‘Modernism’

While preparations went ahead for Schwitters’s New York retrospective at the Pinacotheca, in January, 1948,121 the preoccupations of Wantee and Ernst focussed on their respective Merzbauten. Wantee informed Ernst of the tragic death of Mr Pierce’s son, who had just finished remaking the Merzbarn floor. Mr Pierce ‘finished’ the walls, asking Wantee to go and help with the final touches;122 she withdrew her offer to help when she learned to her consternation that he had pulled down the oblique wall that Schwitters had erected. ‘He felt that it spoiled the view of the most important work in the barn and had decided to pull it down. Whatever one feels it is too late.’ She remained ‘ willing to help Mr Pierce by loaning him pictures and small sculptures.’123 Ernst was not so distressed by the intervention, writing that ‘finally, from a practical point of view, considering that the barn was to be made into a café, it [the wall] took quite a bit of the little room available, and the “café-idea” still seems to be the only practicable and also the best solution.’124 A year later, Ernst’s concerns were still with the Lysaker Merzbau:’ It is in a very bad state of repair, the house needing an entirely new roof… Still , this Merz-Bau is undoubtedly a supreme effort of Daddy’s many remaining works… uncomparably much richer and much more important than the ‘Merz-Barn’. It is my great hope and wish to have it transfered to America to a ‘Kurt Schwitters Merz-Museum’ or, if that plan fails to a special ‘Kurt Schwitters room’ in the Museum of Modern Art.’125

Ten years later, after Schwitters’s ‘rediscovery’ in London, thanks to Philip Granville’s exhibition at the Lord’s Gallery in 1958, a list preserved in the Wantee archives entitled ‘Pictures taken from the Barn. 1959’ reveals that nine abstract works, from 1940–7, a portrait and four sculptures including Chicken and egg had obviously been left in the barn as part of the ‘Schwitters installation’ for over a decade.126 However, the years and the weather took their toll. The decision had to be made: move the Merzbarn or allow it to perish. By May, 1963 the Trustees of the Tate Gallery had decided they could not make the necessary funds available.127 Negotiations with the Gulbenkian Foundation to fund its transfer to Abbot Hall Art Gallery had also fallen through by early 1964. In October, 1964, the exhibition Kurt Schwitters in the Lake District held at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, revealed the breadth of Schwitters’s late output; the first of the British exhibitions which have been the only shows to reveal the range of figurative work.128

Schwitter’s heritage was acknowledged from the first by the 1960s generation of British artists. Through his correspondence with Kate Steinitz he had received American food, wrappers and comics (see For Käte, 1947) that in his last works anticipated the enthusiasms of British Pop – with a certain irony. En Morn, 1947 does not signal ‘One Morning’, a common mistitling, but ‘Golden Morn cling peaches’, which together with the Marylin-like blond were labelled ‘These are the things we are fighting for’. Edouardo Paolozzi, whose first one-man show was held in the Mayor Gallery in January 1947, showed similar fascinations in his ‘Scrapbook’ series, 1947-1953, crucial precursors of British Pop Art.129 Nigel Henderson, protégé of the Guggenheim Jeune Gallery before the war, maker of collages and later a documentary photographer of the East End found in Schwitters a kindred spirit. And the Mass Observation project, born from Surrealism in pre-war and war-time London, which had investigated food, housing and industry, dreams, astrology, sexual behaviour, was extraordinarily akin in its anthropological sketches of ‘real’ English life to the world in miniature of Schwitters’s collages.130 It anticipated the researches into the widest implications of the new mass culture conducted by the ‘Independent Group’ in the 1960s.131 It was one of their most brilliant members, Richard Hamilton, who devised the rescue of the Merzbarn.

Hamilton, a lecturer at Newcastle working on Marcel Duchamp, was approached by the Arts Council of Great Britain. In May 1965, together with three students he undertook an extensive survey of the Merzbarn in drawings, measurements, casts, colour samples, photographs, the matching of the old plaster colours and so on, prior to the engineering feat which winched the Merzbarn wall from its uneven and protected site, and moved it by lorry, 120 miles across England to its current place of rest, the Hatton Gallery, at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne.132 It was presented to the University in 1965. Fred Brookes, a member of Hamilton’s team would record the move in the greatest of detail, prior to his important article in Studio International of May, 1969.133/p>

A mere five months later, a young Englishman, John Elderfield, published ‘Kurt Schwitters’s last Merzbarn’ – replete with an axonometric reconstruction – in Artforum.134 It is Elderfield’s subsequent article of 1973, however, that one should consider as both harbinger of Schwitters’s New York apotheosis in 1985, and the sacrifice of almost half his work upon the altar of American modernism. ‘Private objects, the Sculptures of Kurt Schwitters’ rehearses the troubling relationship between German Expressionism and the organic, the return to an ‘Urbegriff’, the primeval origin of forms in Expressionist architecture and the Merzbauten. ‘Hence Schwitters’s Expressionist background is of crucial importance to an understanding of his uses of objects… The development of Schwitters’s art culminates in the decidedly rural emphasis of his late style’, Elderfield declares. He explores the dialogue between Expressionism and Dada, the urban, sadistically autobiographical aspects of the Hanover Merzbau versus its status as ‘a primitivist or organicist architecture of mood’. Yet the 1940s sculptures he illustrates are not contextualised by bombsite or the stones and shards of Lake Districtlife; readings of sexual imagery are tentative. Finally the anxiety of orthodoxy prevails over Elderfield’s initial illuminations ‘Escaping the dogmatic and the urban, he retreated to the permissive and the primitive. In the urgency of his flight he left behind the discipline that was not dogmatic but on which the quality of his art depended’[ my italics].’His respect for tradition – for the purity of art –’ is subtextually translated as ‘modernism’ a categorisation used to separate ‘what held personal meaning and what was artistic.’ ‘Finally, however, a turn to the primitive was for Schwitters a turn against the tradition that nurtured him. The collages and constructions have all the charge of these sculptures, but far more besides because they hold their place in the modernist tradition.’135

Perhaps analyses nearer Schwitters’s time were more perspicacious, in their anxiety not about ‘quality’ but precisely in their attempt to account for multiple practices as a new historical phenomenon. In his 1949 Horizon essay: ‘Expressionism. Style and Periodicity’, one year after Schwitters’s death, J.P. Hodin distinguished the characteristics of Expressionist and what he called Formalist art, their periods of transition and succession. These contrasted to the disturbing implications of contemporary pluralism: ‘Two essentially different styles, different in technique and in tradition, in the artist’s approach to his object and his psychological incentives, characterise modern art. Such a phenomenon has hitherto not been known. It is the expression of our rootlessness, when seen from the angle of established values, or maybe of our conquest of noval realms of human experience, when contemplated from the angle of a world-wide culture based on a new science of man.136

Schwitters’s double practice in exile, must be seen – and must be exhibited – as such, ‘the expression of our rootlessness’, the beginnings of a postmodern sensibility. Expressionism and Formalism in co-existence: an expressionism based on empathy, ‘Einfühlung’, in both the Norway of Munch’s fjords and snowscapes, and the green, romantic Lake District, counterpointed by a metropolitain modernism, in London and by correspondence, in which the post-cubist practices of collage in both objects and poetry became ever increasingly dialogues with past, present and emerging avant-gardes.

His was, therefore, a contrapuntal conception of the history of modernism in the twentieth century; the Pop art of the 1960s followed by the neo-expressionism of the 1980s have confirmed his anticipations.137 And as for his own ‘Geistesgeschichte’, his was a musical shaping of a life which ended, as it should, with recapitulation, the essence of the Sonata form. ‘It is gay; it is vital; it is Schwitters’.138


Sincere thanks to Bill Aitchison, Kate Ashley, Armin Bienger, Fred Brookes, Mary Burkett, Philip Dalziel, Laurent Delaye, Isabelle Ewig, Philip Granville, Richard Hamilton, Gillian Hannon, Klaus E. Hinrichsen, Andrew Murray, Dr. Anthony Parton, William Pierce, Sean Rainbird, Jasia Reichardt, Michael Sweeney, Tate Gallery Library and Archives, Geoffrey Thomas, Nicholas Wadley, Witt Library, Courtauld Institute of Art.