This review of Schwitters in Britain at Tate Britain was published in Art Monthly issue 365, April 2013
Midway through Kurt Schwitters’ sweeping eight-room retrospective is an image entirely different from everything else on display. Untitled (Lovely Portrait), 1942, a chiaroscuro oil painting in which a woman peers from between the beak of a giant black bird, seems a composite vision torn from the inky recesses of Schwitters’ unconscious and not from his usual source material: newspaper clippings, ticket stubs and other printed detritus of everyday life. While the dynamic arc of ‘Schwitters in Britain’ swings between the Avant Garde (formalised in collage, assemblage and sculpture) and the artisanal (impressionistic landscapes and commissioned portraits), Untitled hovers at a level of abstraction difficult to categorise but somewhere between the two. It is a strange, ghostly image. An illustration of a haunting, undercut by flourishes of colourful organic shapes where the beast’s jaw should be.
The year Schwitters painted Untitled was his second in Britain, following a bleak 16-month internment at an Isle of Man refugee camp in 1940, a previous four years in Norway, 1937-40, and formative decades spent in his native Germany, circa 1918-37, amongst the doyens of Dada and Constructivism – albeit from the relatively safe distance of Hanover. This is the expanse of time and true geographical focus of Tate’s rather misleadingly titled exhibition. It is tempting, then, to see Untitled as the reflection of an itinerant mind at rest. Maybe the relative quiet of England functioned like a psychological depth charge, pushing uncanny visions from the spectral deep to the forefront of Schwitters’ consciousness. Indeed, Schwitters once described art as ‘a spiritual function of man with the purpose of liberating him from the chaos and tragedy of life’. Perhaps Untitled was an anomalous artwork-as-exorcism. In any case it provided a startling interlude to a fairly mute exhibition, largely bereft of shocks and unexpected encounters.
In fact an air of institutional dispassion, hard to resolve with the energy and nonconformist vitality of the man, pervades ‘Schwitters in Britain’. For that Tate’s overly didactic, retrospective-by-numbers house style is partly to blame. Shared responsibility must also go to the exhibition’s curatorial framework. Choosing to focus on Schwitters’ British years, however productive, reduces some of the most significant events he was involved in to the status of wall-printed anecdotes – his inclusion in the Nazi’s ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition of 1937 for instance. In the room consigned to displaying evidence of Schwhitters’ London exhibitions and performances, a considerable amount of space is given to restaging a 1942 Modern Art Gallery exhibition titled ‘New Movements in Art’. Here amid work by Barbara Hepworth, John Wells and Naum Gabo hangs Schwitters’ Untitled (curving forms or isle of man), 1941, a colourful example of his constructivism-with-curves paintings (dynamic arrays of abstract geometries softened into organic shapes). Piped quietly into the space is a thin audio recording of Schwitters performing the Ursonate, a phonetic poem inspired by Raoul Hausmann’s fmsbw. Hans Arp once described a performance of this work as inducing listeners to jump ‘out of their drab grey skins’. Here it is transformed into a hollow-bodied, distant and fragile invocation.
The first and second exhibition rooms skim across Schwitters’ time in Germany and Norway. In the second space we are given a glimpse of Schwitters’ talent for impressionistic landscape with a trio of Norwegian exteriors, the most arresting of which is Isbreen Under Snow, 1937, a swirling blizzard of brushstrokes that resolve, at canvas top, into a mountain. As the exhibition unfolds it is these artisanal works that hold the attention. Of course the avant-garde brilliance of Schwitters’ Merz collages, abstract sculptures and assemblages still shine through, but nothing new is stated about the works, no new linkages made. Instead old knowledge is dusted off and printed up: we are told the Merz collages were Schwitters’ way of reenergising painting and not destroying it, and that following death Schwitters’ influence stretched to British Pop Art luminaries like Richard Hamilton and US giants of the 20th century like Robert Rauschenberg. As for evidence of Schwitters’ contemporary resonances his influence on Japanese noise musician Merzbow (an artist whose abrasive sound works cause physical alarm comparable to Arp’s description of the Ursonate) was completely sidestepped in favour of displaying large, safe and superfluous (the exhibition already contained around 180 works by Schwitters) installations by Laure Provost and Adam Chodzko – one senses their inclusion is meant to fill the void left by the absence of either German or Norwegian Merzbau installation recreations or the reappearance of the Merz barn last seen at the Royal Academy in 2011.
Fans of Schwitters’ oeuvre will be thrilled to see classic Merz works alongside less well known portraits and paintings from his period of internment at the Isle of Man refugee camp. On the other hand new initiates may find the exhibition’s drab grey ambience clouds the brilliance of the work. Schwitters was a pacifist, iconoclast and freethinker, but with ‘Schwitters in Britain’ the image of a man who stuck two fingers up at George Grosz and Richard Huelsenbeck, started his own art movement and arguably invented installation art, has been delicately neutered.