A collaged life

Different Strokes

A collaged life

Kurt Schwitters could find beauty everywhere, even in ordinary and discarded objects like candy wrappers, tram tickets and cigarette butts. Giridhar Khasnis profiles the world famous German artist

Branded a ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis, German artist Kurt Schwitters ran away from his homeland to Norway in 1937. Three years later, when the Nazis annexed Norway, he fled to England with his son and daughter-in-law, boarding the last boat available. He carried with him very little luggage but supposedly stuffed a white mouse in each of his pockets.
As a refugee of World War II, he arrived at the Edinburgh port in June 1940 and spent short periods in transit camps in Scotland and England before being transferred to the Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man. Schwitters, who was interned on July 17, 1940 was to spend the next 16 months in the camp.

Curiously, Hutchinson Camp, which was teeming with hundreds of internees, most of them being German and Austrian refugees, became a hotspot of creativity. Filled with a rare artistic energy and intellectual verve, it informed a positive culture of learning and sharing. Freddy Godshaw, who spent four months at the camp, recalled that the camp was bursting with interesting characters; they included celebrities, Nobel laureates, university professors, eminent musicians, authors, sportspersons and even the chess correspondent of the New Statesman, and a lion tamer!

“Kurt Schwitters though was our main star,” wrote Godshaw. “Not only was he a world famous artist, but he also was the most fascinating raconteur who could keep a full house entertained for hours. He wrote and recited a symphony in words... Schwitters was quite happy there. He was fed and housed well and could paint all day without having to worry about money or other mundane things. He also had a captive audience for all his stories.”

During internment

Schwitters produced over 200 works during his internment, including landscapes, abstracts and assemblages. He produced numerous portraits of his fellow artists and friends. When a drastic shortage of art supplies forced him to innovate and look for alternative material, he astounded his friends by making sculptures out of stale bread and hardened porridge. When the camp produced its own newspaper, his short story, ‘The Flat and the Round Painter’, was published and distributed in an English translation by a fellow internee.

Even though he appeared active and joyful at the camp, Schwitters felt a deep sense of depression in the privacy of his room. “For the outside world he always tried to put up a good show,” recalled his son, Ernst. “But in the quietness of the room I shared with him... his painful disillusion was clearly revealed to me... he worked with more concentration than ever during internment to stave off bitterness and hopelessness.”

Schwitters was released on November 21, 1941, but his troubled days were not over. Although well connected, he could not find buyers for his work. He had only one solo exhibition in Britain at The Modern Art Gallery in December 1944 where he managed to sell just a single work. Stateless and virtually penniless, he relied on donations from more affluent friends, as well as funds raised by selling portraits and landscape paintings to the local townspeople and farmers.

His final years were spent in near obscurity. Working in a barn he suffered an attack of temporary blindness, a broken leg, and finally a stroke. He died from a heart attack on January 8, 1948, aged 60. Just the day before his death he had received documents confirming his naturalisation as a British citizen.

Unconventional material

After his death, Schwitters’s reputation revived steadily in Germany and elsewhere. Today, he is regarded as a highly influential artist whose works have inspired future generations. Critics have come to recognise that he was a key figure in the interwar European avant-garde and modernism. His path-breaking explorations of collage, assemblage and installation, as well as his contributions to typography and advertising, have become legendary. He is hailed as the godfather of several innovative ideas and concepts such as performance art, conceptual art and multimedia art.

Despite many ups and downs in his life, Schwitters never wavered in his commitment to art. His practice and personal vision only expanded with time; he was a model artist who never stopped experimenting. In particular, Schwitters’s collages were extraordinarily striking for their sharp juxtapositions of textures and materials. He used a whole range of unconventional material in his work: from thick cards, scraps of book illustrations, bus/tram tickets, matchbox covers, fragments of newspaper, ripped swatches of wallpaper, postage stamps and newspaper clippings to snippets of labels from wine bottles, candy wrappers, and tobacco. As a leading light of the international avant-garde, he regarded everything as potential raw material for art. “Everything had broken down,” he declared, “new things had to be made out of fragments.”

Urban scavenger

He was a keen, if restless, urban scavenger. He embellished his work with all kinds of objects. Broken flywheels, half-smoked cigarettes, trashed vehicle parts, ration coupons, fabric swatches and rusty nails, all came to the surface of his canvases. “I am a painter and I nail my pictures together,” he told a fellow artist in 1919. Another friend of his remembered him collecting “every tram-ticket, every envelope, cheese wrapper or cigar-band, together with old shoe-soles or shoe-laces, wire, feathers and dishcloths.”
Some of his collages were incredibly small but never lacked delicacy, subtlety and flashes of embedded narrative. One of his most famous collages, For Kate, is credited to have anticipated Pop Art. Only 4×5 inches in size, it was made entirely of tissue paper, comic strips and a postage stamp.

“It needs a poet like Schwitters,” said Russian artist and a pioneer of constructive art, Naum Gabo (1890-1977), “to show us that unobserved elements of beauty are strewn and spread all around us and we can find them everywhere; in the portentous as well as in the insignificant, if only we care to look, to choose, and to fit them into a comely order.”
Schwitters grouped all his work, whether they were paintings, sculptures, abstractions, representations, poetry, sound art or design under a new artistic movement and unique aesthetic style called Merz (a pun on the word commerz), which he originated in 1919. “Merz is about the total breakdown of inhibition,” he explained. “It means creating relationships between everything in the world.” Merz exemplified Schwitters’s continual “freedom from all fetters”, cultural, political or social.

“Kurt Schwitters was never fanatic about purity,” wrote art historian Rudi Fuchs. “He was a very ‘impure’ artist... He had no great interest in the finely chiselled ultimate artwork. He was the practical and poetic magician.”

Comments (+)