Look closely at this picture, and you may spot two tiny china dogs enthroned within a box-shaped niche embedded in the canvas towards the top. This was my highlight. Schwitters’ collages are full of such incidental appearances. Newsprint girls peek out from behind tatty bus tickets and other assorted scraps of paper; a man in a mackintosh strolls onto a set-piece of brown paper in a cameo role to nowhere; an ostrich is partly obscured by a whitewash fog. The components of these ‘merz’ works are all the detritus of everyday life. Schwitters accorded every medium an equal status with paint – metal, wood, plastic toys, wool, net and paper all combine with oils in a tactile layering of textures and visual effects. And the palimpsest of found objects that are the basic ingredients of his art testify to his own peripatetic life story.
We begin in Germany after the First World War. Collage had been raised to avant-garde status by Picasso and Braque a few years earlier; but though Schwitters’ compositions often focus on one truncated word clipped from a newspaper, advertisement or food wrapper, this is one of many such insertions, and he rejects the primary importance of paint, the faceting and fragmentation of the subject matter that was key to the Cubist mentality. What he took from the Cubists he combined with the dynamic, minimalist forms of the Russian Constructivists, and – in rebellion against the determined abstraction of the latter – with the surrealism of Max Ernst, to whom the cast of bit-part actors and assorted pets are obliged.
Schwitters himself appears in one. After his work was branded ‘degenerate’ by the Nazi regime, Schwitters fled to Norway, and from there to Britain where he docked at Leith in 1940. The glimpse of his face amid layers of torn brown paper and old newsprint is, in such a context, poignant. He was adrift abroad, forcibly exiled, his future uncertain, his identity as an artist in question, and trodden underfoot by regimes and authorities like the rest of the bureaucratic detritus that makes up this image. From Leith he was sent to an internment camp 0n the Isle of Man.
Here is the suitably dreary scene of rooftops from his window there. He also painted portraits of his fellow detainees such as Fred Uhlman, and these easily prove his talent in a traditional artistic sense. (It is always a question that lurks in the back of my mind with artists who have shunned the realism – can they actually draw? Good to know). He was released from the camp after 18 months and went to London for a while, where he resumed his collages, seemingly fixated on British sweets – Quality Street (below) and Basset’s in particular are given starring roles in their eponymous pictures.
There are also ‘assemblages’ that are almost sculptural; gnarled tree roots protrude from the canvas, while half of a smashed glass object is presented as a terrifying flower, petal-shards threatening to reach out and cut you.
Suddenly Schwitters is not alone; he appears alongside Paul Nash, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo in an attempt to recreate the company he kept when exhibited in the touring show, New Movements in Art in 1942. The influence is clear in the subsequent glass cases full of what the Tate terms ‘hand-held’ sculptures; these look like small working models of Nash-style megaliths, somewhere between the natural forms of pebble or flint and the man-made outlines of industrial machines. Others, such as ‘Mother and Egg’ are clearly Hepworth-inspired, though painted in bright primary colours.
His move to Cumbria inspired a delight in the landscape that had not been kindled since he had left the Norwegian fjords. Unable to kick his frugal habit of using waste paper to create art, these strips from envelopes and magazines now represented pine trees (above), strata of rock or ripples of water. And no modernist pride prevented him from returning to pure landscape painting and portraiture in oils to record his adopted home, friends and patrons, and as studies for abstract compositions.
It was at this point that the gallery attendants began to round us up. I was chased through the last few rooms of bizarre installations, uncomprehending. The booklet tells me they are new works commissioned ‘in response to the history and legacy of Kurt Schwitters’. I cannot comment.