How Britain left Schwitters out in the cold

I have long admired the work of the German artist Kurt Schwitters but had not fully realised how shabbily we treated this extraordinarily creative man when he sought wartime refuge in Britain from the Nazis.

This is made abundantly clear in the new exhibition Schwitters in Britain (Tate Britain until May 12) and shows how his pioneering work, born out of European Dadism and a profound influence future artists was largely ignored.

It’s a startlingly exciting exhibition but also the sad story of a rising artist who  had suddenly found his work condemned by Hitler’s regime as ‘degenerate’. Schwitters had enjoyed much critical praise in the 1930s when he invented the concept of ‘Merz’ - the practice of combining all conceivable materials to create works of art.

 Under the Nazi’s he found his free-thinking world collapsing, his friends were being arrested and he was on a list of undesirables. Schwitters made first for Norway but the jackboots soon followed and he eventually jumped on the last icebreaker out of Oslo arriving in Scotland in the spring of 1940.

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Had Kurt Schwitters headed for New York like so many other European artists he would undoubtedly have found a warm welcome. Instead the UK authorities detained him as an ‘enemy alien’ and  banged him up in an internment camp on the Isle of Man. When after 16 months they decided he was relatively harmless they released him to fend for himself.

Schwitters would spend the next seven years living in near poverty but producing works of collage, assemblage and sculpture using found objects like tickets, buttons, string, feathers, bottle tops, scraps of cloth, paper-doilies and occasionally old skittles, a pram wheel or larger pieces of detritus.

He would die, all but forgotten, aged 60 in Cumbria in 1948. Years later as his work was rediscovered the consensus was that his best days were already behind him when he arrived in Britain. This exhibition shows that to be a far too simplistic way of looking at things. These works may be rougher and lack the finish of his pre-war output but they are no less dynamic. There can be no doubt that Schwitters was still producing works of  great importance in the most difficult of circumstances. With little or no support from the artistic establishment he would produce art that would profoundly influence artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi.  

Pictures Courtesy of Tate Britain. Top: Kurt Schwitters, En Morn 1947 © Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris / DACS 2012  Above left: Kurt Schwitters, Untitled (Quality Street) 1943 © Sprengal Museum, Hannover / DACS 2012

© Jeremy Miles 2020