I thought I knew Schwitters. That is until I walked around Tate Britain’s latest exhibition.
It is said of so many people that they are forerunners of their time but Schwitters really was and his incredible multi-disciplinary practice brought together not only collage, assemblage, painting, sculpture and installation but also performance – sound poem Ursonate is screaming from room 4.
Kurt Schwitters, Dancer, 1943. Own photograph.
This exhibition asks us to re-consider many of Schwitters’ later works. After fleeing Hanover, he emigrated to Norway and, two years later, he boarded the last ship to leave before the Nazi occupation. In Edinburgh, he was detained as an ‘enemy alien’ and interned until 1941 at the Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man with a significant number of artists and intellectuals with whom he became friends. His creativity increased during captivity and he produced over 200 works during his 16 month internment. On his release, he moved to London where he remained until the end of the war when he moved to the Lake District. His was not an easy life; he suffered from misfortune, hardship and, in his latter years, extreme ill health.
Kurt Schwitters, Picture of Spatial Growths/Picture with Two Small Dogs, 1920 and 1939. Own photograph.
His determination to make art meant he used whatever was to hand. His works are shaped and influenced by location and the materials he was able to find, and it’s fascinating to trace the changes in his environment through his work. His unique concept of Merz includes three-dimensional, everyday objects, discarded packaging and ephemera forming collages that used the detritus of everyday. The compositions are considered and controlled but filled with emotional poignancy about Schwitters’ constant flight expressed through tickets, postage stamps, identity papers – the remnants of travel and upheaval. His works from his period in London include such objects as sweet wrappers, bus tickets, metal toys and even a scrubbing brush.
Kurt Schwitters, Untitled (Quality Street), 1943. Own photograph.
The first room, looking at his earlier years in Germany is stunning, and contains the crème de la crème of the exhibition.
His portraits are fascinating and are a part of his oeuvre of which I was not at all aware. Not all were commissions, although those that were enabled him to earn a small living for his art. They are also wonderful works in their own right, allowing us an insight into the people who surrounded him – his German and Austrian friends and his fellow internees.
Portraits in the exhibition. Own photograph.
The room focusing on the Merzbarn lends itself to sober thoughtfulness – Schwitters had been forced to abandon this installation in Germany and it was later destroyed by bombing; he had only just begun to rebuild the piece in Cumbria – the biomorphic abstract plaster relief extended from the interior wall with embedded objects such as twigs and stones – when 6 months into the project he died, aged 60, never able to realise his aspirations. Although born in Germany and having previously gained Norwegian citizenship, he was only offered British citizenship on the day before his death.
Fragments from the Merzbarn with slides by Richard Hamilton. Own photograph.
Tate has also commissioned young artists, Adam Chodzko and Laure Prouvost, to think about what Schwitters means in current times and the final two rooms of the exhibition are devoted to their new pieces.
Responding to Schwitters. Own photograph.
My only criticism of this show (and regular readers of Artista will probably know what’s coming) is that Tate have whipped out their store of grey paint. I have to say it’s not quite as bad as usual but for works on paper that have no doubt faded quite dramatically with time, a dull grey would not have been my chosen colour on which to represent such an exciting artist.
This is Tate’s second Schwitters’ retrospective – the last one was in 1985. He had an amazing but tragic life that’s further outlined in the fabulous exhibition catalogue through which I’m slowly working my way. By bringing together all these works, Tate has succeeded in showing how Schwitters’ figurative works move into abstraction and vice versa.
Tate grey. Own photograph.
This is a big exhibition covering an incredibly varied output. Schwitters never gave up and his drive and enthusiasm is excellently applauded by Tate. Here, we see his interaction with British art and culture and the profound effects his locations had on him throughout his life. Like a chamaeleon, Schwitters always adapted to his surroundings!
The following day, I popped in to the opening of Hauser & Wirth’s three new exhibitions. Philippe Vandenberg takes over the space in Piccadilly, presenting strongly textured and powerful works that are explorations of his own psyche. His visceral and tormented works help him to overcome his demons as he mutilates the canvas as much as he does the figures he depicts. The feeling is immense but the works didn’t scream out to me in the way I had hoped – the inner turmoil remained stuck within the canvas.
Philippe Vandenberg, Now Patience Is Flowering Into Death 2, 1980-1990-1999. Image via www.londoncalling.com.
Savile Row hosts two very different shows. In one gallery is an exhibition of works by Eva Hesse from 1965 when, with her then husband, she unhappily spent a year working in a former textile mill in her native Germany; when she was two, she and her sister were sent by Kindertransport to Holland because of the Nazi threat. This period of time in the factory marked a significant transformation in Hesse’s practice where she re-assessed her approach to colour and materials and began to move towards sculpture. Like Schwitters, she was inspired by her surroundings. It’s a must-see show for any Hesse fan. I may well have to go back as the opening was too crowded for words and I was heading off on a shoe shopping mission that was sadly unsuccessful but I’ll be going back to that too.
Eva Hesse in 1965. Image via www.aestheticamagazine.com.
Next door, in a small survey exhibition, there are five enormous Bruce Nauman pieces that easily fill the gallery – you have to be dazzled by Nauman. The exhibition concentrates on his iconic neon sculptures and installations. The ‘flashy works’ aren’t what won me over. Instead, it was his Untitled (Helman Gallery Parallelogram) where you have to hunt out the work, pushing your way through a narrow entrance until you’re absorbed by his green fluorescents.
Bruce Nauman, Untitled (Helman Gallery Parallelogram), 1971. Image via www.theartsdesk.com.
The lights inspired me and reminded me that I must get over to the Hayward Light Show as soon as I have the time – though who knows when that may be.
Schwitters in Britain is at Tate Britain until 12th May 2013, www.tate.org.uk. Philippe Vandenberg: Selected Works is at Hauser & Wirth Piccadilly until 13th April 2013, www.hauserwirth.com. Eve Hesse 1965 and Bruce Nauman / mindfuck are at Hauser & Wirth Savile Row until 9th March 2013, www.hauserwirth.com.