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Flight to Norway and escape to Britain

Schwitters had been visiting Norway to paint since 1929. When his works were condemned as degenerate by the Nazi party, Schwitters feared further persecution and in January 1937 he decided to follow his son Ernst into exile in Norway. He lived with him in Lysaker, near Oslo, and also had a small cottage on the island of Hjertøya.

Schwitters continued to work even when he was on the move, carving hand-sized sculptures from wood as he travelled. His transition between Germany and Norway is reflected in works that layer rubbish and ephemera found in both countries: a physical reminder of the artist’s journey into exile.

The Norwegian landscape exerted a strong influence on Schwitters, and closer links developed between his abstract and naturalistic work. In his abstract paintings organic curving shapes and ‘pointilliste’ dots of paints responded to natural forms and the effects of light on water. He also painted naturalistic scenes that capture dramatic seasonal changes with lively brush work, often working in the open air.

He began work on two new Merz buildings, but abandoned them when Germany invaded Norway in April 1940 and he was forced to flee again. He boarded an ice-breaker bound for Britain with his son and daughter-in-law in the hope of starting a new life there.

Creativity in captivity

Schwitters arrived at the Edinburgh port of Leith in June 1940. He was immediately detained as an ‘enemy alien’ by the British government, joining the 27,000 German and Austrian refugees who were interned. Schwitters spent short periods in transit camps and was finally taken to Hutchinson Camp, one of 11 camps that were set up on the Isle of Man.

Hutchinson contained a high number of artists and intellectuals who, with the support of the camp’s Captain H.O. Daniel, organised a wealth of cultural activities including lectures, music recitals, the production of The Camp newspaper, and art exhibitions – in which Schwitters participated. This enforced captivity increased ingenuity and creativity, and with materials in limited supply, the artists used whatever they could find to make art work. Schwitters tore up linoleum flooring to paint on and even made sculptures from porridge.

Schwitters produced over 200 works during his internment. He continued to make abstract paintings and assemblages, and also sketched the landscape from his attic studio that looked out towards the Irish Sea. He produced many portraits in the camp, drawing and painting his fellow artists and friends. Schwitters was finally released in November 1941 after 16 months in the camp.