Pop Art Pioneer Mixes Broken Glass, Bus Tickets at Tate

This is a rubbish exhibition.

Let me put that another way. “Schwitters in Britain” at Tate Britain is all about garbage: art made out of detritus, litter, old bus tickets, broken bits of glass and other unconsidered trifles.

Kurt Schwitters was to trash what Monet was to water lilies. It was his trademark, the article with which he will always be associated.

That doesn’t necessarily make it good, or bad. In fact this exhibition is over-large, somewhat monotonous and doesn’t contain anything that would qualify as a great work. It is nonetheless interesting, in part because it presents an overlooked artist.

Schwitters (1882-1948), a German from Hanover, is generally classified as a Dadaist. That ignores the fact that as one of life’s non-joiners, he was shunned by the Berlin Dada movement for being too respectable. He spent his first two decades living in the Schwitters family apartment in Hannover, which he converted into a sort of modernist grotto full of jagged planes and found objects. He called this the Merzbau.

Schwitters’s breakthrough, shortly after World War I, was to use the thrown-away junk of urban society as the source material for abstract collages. He named his own brand of art “Merz,” from a stray symbol on a piece of paper he found that once had read, “Commerz und Privatbank.”

British Career

So Schwitters really belongs to the story of German avant-garde art. Still, he spent a significant proportion of his artistic career -- eight years -- in Britain. That’s nearly as long as Van Dyck clocked up, not that poor Schwitters was given anything like the welcome Sir Anthony enjoyed.

He arrived in 1939 from Norway, where he had previously fled from the Nazi crackdown on “degenerate art,” and was promptly interned in a series of camps for enemy aliens. When he emerged, Schwitters sold little and received little attention.

He eventually moved to the Lake District where he died prematurely, short of money. While his figurative paintings won prizes at a flower show, he was hardly a Cumbrian celebrity.

His collage compositions derived from the splintered geometry of cubism. The ingredients have a romantic quality that comes from the discarded and neglected. The trouble is that although individually they have can be quirkily poignant, in bulk they are repetitive. And there are a lot of them in the Tate show.

Snowy Fjord

More of a surprise is the quantity of figurative painting. Towards the end of his life, Schwitters turned to portraiture as a way of making money. Even before that, he obviously felt an urge to return to oils and canvas, depicting for example, a snowy fjord in Norway.

His paintings are a bit like his collages: There are lots of them, and none stands out. The idiom is reminiscent of brushy post-romantic naturalism of later Oskar Kokoschka. Schwitters was not as good at it.

The tantalizing thing is that Schwitters may have made some masterpieces, though they have -- almost -- disappeared. These were the Merzbau and its successors. The first was destroyed by bombing in the War, then he began another in Norway -- which has since disappeared -- and a third in the Lake District.

The last of these, set in a rural building, he called a “Merzbarn.” Sadly Schwitters died before he had completed more than one wall of this strange exercise in rustic Dada. This still exists, but is not in the exhibition -- presumably because it cannot travel. There are some projected images, though they are no substitute for the missing magnum opus.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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