Schwitters in Britain – the title of the exhibition, with its clipped sing-song tone and accompanied on billboards across London by Schwitters’ ‘En Morn’, the collage nearest to the practice of Pop Art, lulls the uninitiated into a false sense of ease. This is something we recognise – the blonde babe, the branded label (the ‘(Gold)en Morn’ peaches that give the piece its name), the Hamilton-esque phrase underlining the composition: ‘These are the things we are fighting for’. Concrete, meaningful things.
However, on entering the exhibition you are confronted by an array of over 180 works, disarming in their complete tonal elegance and meticulous aesthetic control. The collages of Schwitters’ late period in the Lake District demonstrate such a mastery of tone as to be comparable to Giorgio Morandi, currently exhibited at the Estorick Collection. If Pop Art had a type of analogue quality to it, a relatively complicit relationship with symbolism (or at least an attempt to ironise symbolic meaning), then Schwitters is the unwilling symbolist; his compositions are an attempt to snatch at pure form through a complete materialism – not materialism in terms of the meaning or status generated by a snippet of typography or a recognisable image, but material as found form: readymades of colour and texture, which Schwitters incorporated into compositions of unprecedented elegance.
The work produced during his imprisonment with refined mob of exiled intellectuals on the Isle of Man after his emigration to Britain in 1940, are particularly appealing, not without a certain mournfulness. This is the art of containment, of beautiful collaborative books of drawings, of landscapes painted from high windows, of a newspaper which, though a gesamtkunstwerk of text and image, has an inevitably constricted circulation. This is late Modernism at its most appealing, the collaborative effort, the euphoria of communicated ideas, yet pocketed, islanded. Contrastingly, Schwitters’ work on arrival in London in 1941 has the rage of the aesthetic kleptomaniac about it – somehow it reminded me of Song Dong’s installation ‘Waste Not’ at the Barbican last year, where everyday objects were stacked sky high in an attempt to hold and contain. In Schwitters’ London works we see this attitude of foraging and collecting distilled into pure correspondences of composition. There is nothing of excess in these collages and reliefs, reaching a height, perhaps, in the beautiful hand-held sized sculptures that Schwitters at one point confessed to be his finest work. Surrounded by the slightly more heavy-going reliefs which jut from the gallery walls, these sculptures made of stone, wood and bone seem to fly from their pedestals, embracing their surrounding space with a heartrending delicacy. They seem the physical forms of the twirled annunciations of Ursonate – Schwitters’ poetry of abstract sounds, which chant overhead in a subsequent room. Possessed of none of the intellectual sternness we usually associate with such esoteric performances, the sounds are strangely welcoming, encouraging.
The exhibition has a lyrical quality in its organisation. Instead of the jumpy chapters which launch towards us in some of Tate’s grander ‘narrative’ exhibitions, here we float between rooms, experiencing the subtlety and complexity of Schwitter’s controlled examinations of form and composition. The chronological framwork fluxuates gently according to place (Germany, Norway, imprisonment on the Isle of Man, wartime London, the Lake District..), ordered by the the forms and visions that offered themselves to him amongst the cigarette butts of the street, the magazine pile in the hairdresser’s waiting room, or the sheets of water, pinioned by pine trees, which confronted him during his final years in the Lake District.
Before this exhibition, it’s fair to say that few people could admit to knowing much about Schwitters outside of the rarefied crystal walls of the art world. Tate, playing god, throws a thunderbolt into the midst of our Damien Hirsts and luscious Pre-Raphaelites, and gives us someone who once made sculptures out of porridge. Yet, this is one of the god’s more benign gifts – the exhibition is a triumph. The curators have stepped back, letting the works sing from behind their glass confines – the overall effect is one of simple harmony. Schwitters is portrayed as an unremitting, self-defining individualist, uncategorisable despite his forays into major London exhibitions with artists including Naum Gabo and Paul Nash.
This, perhaps, is one of the slight oversights of the exhibition. Keen to cast the only other protagonist as ‘Britain’, the contextual lens through which we are invited to view Schwitters’ work, the display is relatively tentative in its presentation of the work of other artists. The exhibition could have done with an example of a collage by Picasso or Braque, those godfathers of the collage form, who nonetheless offered none of the passionate deliberateness of Schwitters’ in their compositions – for them, the collage was an exercise, an experiment in creating anew. For Schwitters it was life, in action. This is particularly beautifully demonstrated in the collage ‘wind swept’ (1946), where the forms are placed as if blown towards one side, sweeping their way out of the frame.
Schwitters’ multiple theories and enterprises are too numerous to list here, but one of his most exciting is his concept of ‘Merz’, in which found materials became ascribed with specific formal qualities, becoming conventional pictorial element in themselves. Schwitters wrote:
“In Merz pictures the box top, playing card and newspaper clipping become surfaces; string brushstroke and pencil stroke become line; wire-netting becomes overpainting on pasted-on greaseproof paper becomes varnish; cotton becomes softness.’
Schwitters’ concept of ‘Merz’ translated itself into the walls of his own house in Hannover before the war. The ‘Merzbau’ was a living, collaged installation – a sort of inverse of Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’ where, instead of a dense, pointedly unreadable structure, Schwitters’ house became a hollow cave of textured reference points, a baroque grotto of highly composed found-forms. Both works are now destroyed; Schwitters’ by bombs, Whiteread’s by the local council. The ‘Merzbau’ was later to be reimagined by Schwitters in a barn in the Lake District, prompted by a $1000 cheque by MoMA. However Schwitters’ health fragmented half way through the project, played out rather mournfully in the final section of the exhibition, where his slightly anticlimactic figurative landscapes merge into two conceptually interesting, but aesthetically problematic contemporary responses by Laure Prouvost and Adam Chodzko. The literalism inherent in the 3D enactments of rooms and spaces with attendant video art are conceptually sophisticated, and highly experiential. Yet they overrun the essential simplicity of Schwitters’ oeuvre. His sound was the abstract bark of a human dog his forms were palimpsests against a wall or canvas, layers of life. They were not re-enactments.
Then again, these contemporary responses are supposedly exercises in the way the work of an artist might be translated through time, the retelling of narratives within art history. Certainly interesting conceptually, but does this really mean that our final glimpse of ‘Schwitters in Britain’ has to take the form of two piles of mouldering boxes, mournfully framing the exit like crumbling columns? Schwitters work was bombastic, excitable, utterly life-affirming. The pieces in the exhibition speak, shout, for themselves in lyrical Ursonate. These contemporary echoes are measured, interesting studies of the artist. But they lay the table for a posthumous party, a well-meaning wake – not realising that the party is going on in the other room.
Words: Matilda Bathurst © ArtLyst 2013
Schwitters in Britain: Tate Britain 30 January – 12 May 2013