Sunday, 10 February 2013

Schwitters in Britain at Tate Britain, London

Schwitters in Britain, Tate Britain, London on from 30th January 2013 to 12th May 2013.

The Tate Britain has compiled an extensive and in depth exhibition on the German artist, Kurt Schwitters. Schwitters was an important figure in the early 20th century European avant garde movement and ceaselessly produced numerous works of art throughout his life, whether he was an exile in Norway, England on the Isle of Man or living his last years in Great Britain.

Perhaps due to the enormous number of works available the Tate has put on a chronological view of the artist’s work. We see that even though Schwitters’ main artistic preoccupation was with abstraction and encompassed also sculpture and poetry he was a talented portrait painter. He painted many portraits of his fellow detainees when he was interned as an ‘enemy alien’ in Hutchinson camp on the Isle of Man. Amazingly, bearing in mind the fact that he was effectively a prisoner of war, he managed to produce over 200 works during his internment; whether they were paintings, assemblages or portraits. We see also towards the end of his life that he turned to portraiture in order to make ends meet but his figurative work was entirely commercial. His portrait of Henry Pierce for example is accomplished and true to life.

One of Schwitter’s main concern as an artist is what is known as Merz . This, he explained as “ art which denotes the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes and technically the principle of equal evaluation of the individual materials…. A perambulator wheel, wire netting, string and cotton wools are factors having equal rights with paint.” Thus we see him producing abstract and expressionist paintings and pieces and combining all numbers and varieties of different materials to create a whole. This can be seen in all of his abstract works on display, particularly in the first room of the exhibition. His painting “Yes - What ?Picture”, created in 1920, is made up of diagonals that radiate from the centre of the picture and are counterpointed by circular and rectangular forms made from cardboard, coloured wood and canvas. We see how his creative process is channelled through the exact choice, distribution and symmetry of the materials he chooses. I found that there was an unnecessarily large number of his abstract paintings on view, especially in the first room, as many of the paintings were similar.

The relationship of his art with nature was also of profound influence and this can be seen at different points of his life; particularly when Schwitters was living in Norway. In his painting, ‘Half Moon’ we see how the curve of the wood is cut to resemble a sliver of the moon and how each part combines to create an idealistic but also figurative work. His famous painting of the roofs of houses on the Isle of Man – painted on linoleum as there was a shortage of canvases - portrayed his desire to paint the landscapes he saw around him. In many of his abstract paintings is a collection of beautiful greens and blues, denoting perhaps elements of the outside world.

Schwitters was also interested in creating oral pieces of art; he performed his most famous work, the Ursonate, at the beginning of his London solo show in December 1944 and it is exhibited in this show. For me I did not find it especially enlightening or interesting other than what we can learn from what was happening in the art world at the time. Schwitters’ small sculptures on the other hand are marvelous. He made them from natural materials such as stone, bone and wood and usually combined them with plaster or even dried fruits and wire. Many of them are painted in bright colours. Playful and creative; Schwitters himself saw these works as the marriage of painting and modelling into one art and a challenge to the traditional boundaries that separate painting and sculpture.

Of course it is Schwitters immense installation work; the Merz barn, that was his passion and for which he was renowned. In every place he settled it is amazing to see that Schwitters would tirelessly construct these large-scale sculptural works which were made from plaster and found objects such as twigs, stones and rubbish. His work often funded by art charities such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Photos of these monumental and impressive installations as well as detailed footage are on show. Moreover the exhibition ends on a movie and installation created by a contemporary artist, Laure Prouvost who is responding to the history and legacy of Kurt Schwitters. Her film is thought provoking and challenging.

It is hard not to admire this Avant Garde artist simply on the basis of the tremendous variety and scale of his work. Schwitters was a prolific artist and was an immensely important figure in the history of modern art. For me his sculptures were an absolute delight! It seems rather poignant to learn that he struggled throughout his life to make ends meet and needed help from sponsors and friends. The exhibition is definitely a must.

Schwitters, Tate Britain, London, by Larissa Woolf, Arts Editor,

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