Schwitters in Britain

Degenerate is a harsh word. One could go so far as to say that it sounds disgusting, literal bile that corrodes the mouth as it is enunciated. And though not semantically profane it carries with it a ruthlessness that offends.
Something or someone ascribed as being degenerate is thought to be physically, mentally and morally deficient, be it from the very beginning of inception or through decline. Degenerates (objects or persons) are rotten miscreants, aberrations that need to be sterilised or destroyed.
To the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, everything that didn’t fit into its idea of the perfect world was just that. Degenerate. The Nazi vision of utopia was full of immaculate, obedient and loyal people, and any deviation from this was simply a problem that only the state could rectify.
Kurt Schwitters was one such individual that the Nazis could not cope with. He was dissension, a distortion of the new narrative of German history, past, present and future. This “wrong” began to be remedied.
First he lost his contract with Hanover City Council and then his work, once enjoyed in museums, was confiscated and then derided in public. Then the Gestapo came knocking. His time was up and so Schwitters left Germany, heading to Norway in 1937. Three years later he arrived in Britain, where he would remain for the rest of his life.
Although Schwitters was only in England for eight years – he passed away at the age of 60 in 1948 after suffering a heart attack – it proved to be an exceptionally creative time for the artist, whose life in exile, though undesired, helped him reach new levels of artistic enquiry.
This final flourish is the main subject of a new exhibition at Tate Britain, the first of its kind in the UK. Made up of 150 collages, assemblages and sculptures, it reveals Schwitters to be a tour de force of European modernism. The world imagined by the Nazis was bereft of this.
One of the things highlighted in the show is his concept Merz, which first materialised after the First World War. Germany had collapsed into near oblivion, further ruined by being severely punished by the fumbling, greedy and conflictive victors.
“In the war, things were in terrible turmoil,” Scwhitters once said. “What I had learned at the [Dresden] Academy was of no use to me and the useful new ideas were still unready … Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of the fragments; and this is Merz.”
However, reception to Schwitters was not exactly warm. He was first interned and then struggled to make a living from the very work that defined him as an artist. He balanced this out with conventional works, commissions that meant nothing to him, but which helped pay the bills.
Nobody wanted genuine masterpieces from German modernists, because, haughtily, they didn’t consider there to be any. Kenneth Clark, for example, who was the director of the National Gallery at the time – and known for not being appreciative of modern art – said that Germany was not his spiritual home.
This hurt Schwitters, who was left wounded for the fact that Clark would not give him the time of day. He wrote in a notebook: “He does not know that I belong to the avant-garde in art. That is my tragedy.”
Regardless of being classed as an agent of degeneracy in Germany and an alien in Britain, he endeavoured to do what he must to exist in heart and soul. He pursued with his art by collecting various bits of detritus from London and shaping them into meaningful works.
Critical recognition was at best reserved. This was a time of war and he was an abstract German artist. He was therefore everything to fear – the enemy whom people could not understand. Perhaps then, he was in people’s eyes – clouded by mistrust and uncertainty – a degenerate.
How wrong everyone was about Schwitters. This show goes a long way to confirm his importance to European modernism, to the history of art and to bringing new meaning to collage.
“I could see no reason why used tram tickets, bits of driftwood, buttons and old junk from attics and rubbish heaps should not serve well as materials for paintings,” Schwitters stated.
“They suited the purpose just as well as factory-made paints … It is possible to cry out using bits of old rubbish, and that’s what I did, gluing and nailing them together.”
The Nazis were never going to understand that, degenerates that they were.
Schwitters in Britain at Tate Britain runs until May 12th 2013.
Cadogan Tate can ship works of art to your chosen destination anywhere in the world.