May 1, 2009

Kurt Schwitters, the great dadaist of Cumbria

Philip Oltermann

The Guardian, Tuesday 28 April 2009

Panoramic exterior of the Merz Barn

Panoramic exterior of the Merz Barn. Photograph: Nick May/Littoral

In the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, there is a cheekily doctored portrait of King Edward's eldest son, Prince Albert Victor. Half of his mustachioed face has been blacked out, and a razor blade has been glued across his chest in a reference to the (discredited) claims that the prince was Jack the Ripper. It looks like a piece of pop art, not unlike the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper LP, and so the date comes as a shock: 1947. A scrawl explains that this used to be a portrait of HRH, adding: "Now it is a Merz picture. Sorry!"

The prankster who wrote these words was Kurt Schwitters, one of the most innovative and eccentric artists of the 20th century. In his native Germany, there are schools and streets named after him. In Britain, where Schwitters spent his final 18 years, his legacy has been all but forgotten. Now a group of artists and academics, including Damien Hirst, Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor, want to change that - by building a Schwitters museum in the crumbling barn near Ambleside in the Lake District where he worked.

Interior of the Merz Barn (2008)
The Merz Barn today with a photo installation of the missing Merz Barn wall art work

The Merz Barn today with a photo installation of the missing Merz Barn wall art work, October 2008

Such a picture-postcard setting might seem an unlikely spot for a museum devoted to an artist now seen as one of the leading lights of the very urban dada movement; but Schwitters' life was anything but straightforward. Born in 1887 and brought up in Lower Saxony, he became Hanover's official typographer, establishing a bourgeois lifestyle by the time he came into contact with the more anarchic figures of the Weimar Republic's art world, such as George Grosz and Tristan Tzara.

Schwitters shared their techniques - cutting up newspapers, magazines and photographs and glueing them back together - but not their politics. His approach was also more wide-ranging, incorporating performance poetry, sculpture and architecture. A compulsive hoarder, he gradually transformed his home in Hanover into a sort of walk-in collage of detritus, incorporating paintings, abstract sculptures and found objects. The Merzbau, as Schwitters called this, grew so big that he had to ask his tenant on the floor above to move out so that he could break through the ceiling. (The term Merz was a contraction of the word Kommerz, and became a prefix for his collages.)

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