The Bridge House, Ambleside by Kurt Schwitters 1945. Courtesy of the Armitt Trust
Kurt Schwitters: The Ambleside Legacy
Kurt Schwitters’ time in Ambleside was hugely important in terms of the inspiration he drew from the small town and its surrounding countryside. The 30 works on permanent display represent a thread of continuity in Schwitters’ work, in the form of a reverence for the natural world and give an insight into the artist’s life. Schwitters’ own description of art as ‘a spiritual function of man which aims at freeing him from the chaos of life’, exemplifies his time in Ambleside.
The Armitt began to acquire work by this internationally important artist, as early as 1953. This long term commitment has continued and we now have the largest collection on permanent public display in Britain, making it an important destination internationally for Schwitters aficionados. A further five works have been acquired this year through the generous support of the V&A Purchase Fund, the National Art Collections Fund, the Friends of the Armitt and our local supporters. Our goal is to continue to strengthen, through further acquisitions, this already internationally important collection.
Alien at Ambleside
“Alien at Ambleside – William Feaver for The Sunday Times”
‘We keep right on playing until death comes for us,” Schwitters once said. “I have so little time.”
Report by William Feaver for The Observer Magazine (circa 1975)
As a rule the annual Lakeland Artists’ Exhibition at Grasmere is hardly surprising. However, in the summer of 1947 the peace of the prevailing landscapes was disturbed by two collages, strange objects made from litter, scraps, debris: absolute rubbish. One had half a ball stuck to it. Both were initialled KS. They failed to sell. KS, a German refugee who had arrived in the Lake District a couple of years before, might have had better luck with the plashy views he was in the habit of laying out for sale on the steps of the Bridge House, Ambleside’s most picturesque spot. Or there were his portraits of local personalities, Dr Johnson for instance, Harry Bickerstaff the schoolteacher and Frank O’Neill of the Central Cafe. These had been much admired when he put them on show in key positions such as Mrs Rushforth’s sweet-cum-pottery shop window. KS stood for Kurt Schwitters. His gravestone in Ambleside Church yard reads “Kurt Schwitters 1887-1948. Creator of Merz”. Which still doesn’t mean much to Ambleside people, though they have become quite used to questions from visitors – art students particularly – who come like pilgrims to his burial place. They used to see him ambling around in a perpetual overcoat and beret, suitcase in hand; a distant figure, tall, stooping, flat-footed. His companion, a pretty English girl, half his age, tended to attract more attention. He called her Wantee and in return she nicknamed him Jumbo which, everyone agrees, suited him perfectly.
Schwitters didn’t seem all that unusual. During the war, evacuees – notably students from the Royal College of Art – were billeted in every available boarding house, barn and outbuilding. Compared to them he looked just a shabby old oddity. Hilde Goldschmidt, another refugee artist who lived a few miles away in Langdale, was one of the few to recognise immediately who and what Schwitters really was: “One day I saw a drawing in a little antique shop in Ambleside. It was a portrait in pen and ink, signed Schwitters. I must have uttered my doubts aloud as to whether it was the Schwitters. Suddenly the owner, a dear old lady, stood behind me and said, ‘It is the one’ and fetched a catalogue from his exhibition in the London Gallery, with an introduction by Herbert Read. And she said, ‘I can also give you his address – he lives in Ambleside.’ It wasn’t that Schwitters faced any particular hostility in Ambleside on account of his being German and an abstract artist. As Wantee says, “We were quite unaware of the feelings and opinions of local people anyway, though I don’t think we really were accepted.” But he had come to expect rejection, not to say persecution. His paintings had been thrown out of German museums and paraded derisively in Hitler’s Entartete Kunst – Degenerate Art – exhibition. His publications had been burnt. He had been forbidden to give his recitals or seek employment and had only been able to transfer work from Germany to Norway before the war because customs officials took one look and declared it worthless. He had arrived in Ambleside a totally displaced person.
Between the wars Schwitters had been identified with successive phases of the European avant-garde, Der Sturm in Berlin, de Stijl in Holland and Dada here and there. He had chanced on a word ‘Merz’ which became his trademark and callsign. To him it meant a positive, affirmative Phoenix spirit, expressed by any means he cared to choose: writing, recitation, painting, sculpture, collage. Merz was the title of the magazine he published from 1923-32 and ‘Merzbau’ the name of an extraordinary sculptural environment he spent 10 years constructing in his home in Hanover only to leave unfinished when life there became impossible. Unlike the hardcore Dadaists of his generation who proclaimed something of an end to art, and delighted in playing among its ruins, Schwitters believed that the most derelict, unpromising materials could be salvaged, reorganised and shown to be beautiful given an artist’s Midas touch.
Schwitters had been comfortably placed in Hanover, so much so that Berlin Dadaists had objected to his bourgeois life style. Assured of a basic income from four houses he inherited, he had also worked as a graphic consultant to the municipality and had founded his own advertising studio – the MerzWerbezentrale. However, the New Order of Merz was deemed undesirable by the Third Reich. The pressures grew so intense that he took refuge in Norway with his son Ernst in January 1937, leaving his wife Helma to look after their parents and property. Living at Lysaker, near Oslo, he became deeply depressed and at one point attempted suicide. Ernst encouraged him to build a second, substitute Merzbau and he began to establish himself as a landscape and portrait painter. But three years later he had to escape again and landed in Scotland in June 1940 with his son and daughter-in-law, two white mice and a small birchwood sculpture whittled into shape en route.
As an enemy alien he was shifted from one reception centre to another – Edinburgh, York and Manchester – before being interned on the Isle of Man. The camp was a collection of seaside boarding houses and he found his stay fairly agreeable. Moreover, the commandant allowed him to work in a room outside the camp and even to strip lino off the floors to paint on. His fellow internees, many of them artists and academics, were treated to Merz recitals, but they made little response. Towards the end of 1941 Schwitters was declared safe and turned loose, with bundles of completed work. He joined Ernst in London and met Edith Thomas -Wantee- who described herself as a “very, very ordinary London girl, who worked as a telephonist and lodged in the same house in St Stephens Crescent, Bayswater. Once more he tried to scrape a living from portrait commissions and at the same time pursue his Merz interests. He had a one-man show at Jack Bilbo’s Modern Art Gallery in 1944. Herbert Read provided a catalogue introduction. “Schwitters,” he noted, “is one of the most genuine artists in the modern movement…the supreme master of collage . . . a poet parallel to James Joyce.” But few came and only one collage was sold, for seven guineas. “During my exhibition,” he wrote, “I received a telegram notifying me that Helma had died; she suffered from cancer as I later heard. That was my best friend for all time gone, leaving me and Ernst. I also learned that my house and Merzbau in Hanover had been destroyed. There were only a few pictures left in Basle and what I had taken over to Lysaker.” While in this hopeless, derelict state he had a stroke which left him paralysed down one side for a while.
At the end of the war Ernst returned to Norway and Wantee, having been demobbed, then felt she had to leave London for a short holiday in the Lakes. “She had a kind of nervous breakdown after the bombing and I was not very healthy either,” Schwitters said. He decided to go with her and raised enough money to last them a fortnight by selling his stamp collection. They arrived in Windermere on June 26, 1945. The following day they took a bus to Ambleside where they had booked rooms at No. 2, The Gale, one of three houses stuck on a shelf on the hillside. Schwitters was worried about the landlady, Miss Bowsefield’s likely reaction faced with this oddly-matched couple. Though she raised no immediate objections, life with her did prove irksome. She kept strict house rules. Mirrors were fixed around the house so that she could keep an eye on her lodgers and make sure they used only one burner on the gas stove, turned down low. However, they had four rooms to themselves and a piano on which Schwitters played Beethoven, Greig and his own Merz music. He also used a little outhouse at the back and started accumulating likely materials for his work. The fortnight’s holiday stretched to well over a month. ‘We were out on Wansfell one day when we heard it was VJ Day,” Wantee remembers. “There were bonfires all around, and there was the joy of knowing that at last everything was O.K.”
This would have been an obvious time for them to leave. At one stage Schwitters thought of going back to Norway; America was another possibility. But he was unwilling to move so they drifted into staying for good. “I don’t think he wanted to do anything else but stay in the Lake District and paint,” Wantee says. “We lived very much apart from the local community. The friends and acquaintances we made could be counted on one hand.” The first and foremost of these was Harry Bickerstaff, a slight, quiet man, a teacher at Ambleside elementary school, who had an allotment on the Gale. He couldn’t make him out at first, for Schwitters said nothing about his past, and he didn’t like to pry.
“Miss Bowsefield told me he was a Norwegian artist. I think she was a little bit scared actually – and she wasn’t the only one. A portrait painter – a professor from the Royal College of Art – was lodging there too, with his wife. Now he couldn’t bring up the courage to approach Schwitters. He asked me about him, and said how proud he was of being in the same house. I said, quite simply, ‘He’s a very normal gentleman, and I’ll introduce you if you like.’ And he says, ‘Oh, no! You mustn’t do that!” Not knowing this, Schwitters and Wantee thought they were stand-offish. They found it easier to make friends with people met casually in a pub where they went occasionally to play skittles. Schwitters picked on them the same way as he gathered his collage materials. There was Mr Routledge, a retired woodcutter who used to sit sunning himself by his cottage door at the foot of the Gale. Schwitters started on a portrait of his wife, but she couldn’t stay put long enough so he gave up and did Routledge instead in 12 sittings. Pleased with the result, Schwitters went to see Routledge’s daughter, Clara Thornborrow. “He asked if I’d like to buy this picture. ‘Someone in the family should have it,’ he said. The price was so little – about five pounds – but my husband had just come out of the army and we were poor. We had enough to give to him.”
Having decided to stay on in Ambleside, Schwitters once again aimed to make a living doing likable portraiture and landscapes. During his walks he would sometimes stop at a farmhouse and ask if they would like him to do them a painting. He made repeated studies of the Ambleside Bridge House perched curiously across a stream. Paintings like these could be classified mere potboilers. But Schwitters refused to make any absolute distinction between works to be sold as quickly as possible and those he believed would endure. “You have to paint a portrait, an apple or a flower before you can go on,” he used to say. “I can never give up or entirely forget a period of time during which I worked with great energy. I am still an Impressionist even while I am Merz. I am not ashamed of being able to do good portraits.”
He worked in an expresso-impressionistic style; or, as Hilde Goldschmidt puts it, “the good traditional manner he had learned at the Dresden Academy. And he charged, as he remarked in his dry humour, according to the amount of body depicted. Five guineas for a head, 10 guineas to the breast and should the hands come in it rose to 15 guineas.” He prospected in every likely quarter to find sitters who would pay him in cash or kind. Robertson, the dentist in Windermere, had a free portrait by way of payment for taking Schwitters’ teeth out and supplying a new set. He received advice on sales appeal: “Wantee tells me how to behave to get portrait commissions from the English middle class.” But there were constant frustrations. “In England,” he observed, “you must not see any brushstrokes on the surface of the picture. My pictures have brushstrokes, therefore I have difficulties.”
That first summer in Ambleside they evolved an easygoing routine. Schwitters would work from 8.30 until one o’clock with a break for coffee. “Then if the weather was nice we just packed a picnic lunch and went out into the mountains.” They would go out to Jenkyn’s Crag behind the Gale, to Tarn Hows or Grasmere, Wantee carrying the food in a haversack, Schwitters equipped with a stick and the suitcase which held his paints, brushes, boards or old canvas. He browsed along the shoreline of Lake Windermere looking for driftwood and litter, clambered round the riverbeds in search of lumps and slithers of Greenstone slate ripe for development into sculpture. Nothing went disregarded. He evolved little rituals: he would pick snails off the path for their safety’s sake, swish his stick in the waters of Tarn Hows, hum contentedly as he collected ox-eye daisies. But just as each picnic was a foraging expedition, every journey was an errand. For the main object of the expeditions was to paint. Schwitters smacked down impressions of mountainsides dribbling with midsummer foliage, tumbledown streams, walled meadows. Some these pictures turned out merely local colour, but others have an exhilarated, rush-released air walled meadows. ‘The scenery, nature itself; meant much more to him than the people,” Wantee says. In the evening Schwitters would return to the Gale, like a hunter coming back from the kill, the suitcase full and a wet painting strapped to his back. He became more energetic and enthusiastic than he had been for years.
Towards the end of 1945 he spent 10 days in Blackpool on a portrait job arranged for him by Mr Varty, the Ambleside bookseller. He had to get up at dawn to catch the bus, and Wantee went to the end of the Gale with him to see him off. “The whole place had piled high with snow during the night and the path down had become a sheet of ice. It looked impossible, but Schwitters threw down his case of brushes and paints and I watched them zig zag down the hill out of sight. Then he looked back at me, sat down and followed, waving goodbye as he went round the corner. I thought, ‘My God, he’ll break every bone!’ But he survived. You see if he made an arrangement with someone he stuck to it.” Not long after he had another stroke and was in bed for five weeks. Harry Bickerstaff wrote in his diary on Saturday February 9: “Wantee came to see me at the garden to say Schwitters was very ill and Dr Johnson warned her he could die. She was afraid and knew nobody but me and asked me to go and see him.”
He visited him daily. ‘When Schwitters began to recover he asked me a lot of questions about the subjects I was teaching; then he taught me to play chess and painted my portrait. He would take a thick brush and put an outline in any colour. He was on top of it all the while he was painting and when you looked very closely you couldn’t see what those large pieces of paint formed”. “March 20. Schwitters well enough to come here with me to show the portrait to my wife. During this time Wantee and I were looking for new accommodation for Schwitters as the stiff climb onto the Gale had become impossible for him. I found rooms for them with a near neighbour of mine, Mr Creighton, the local blacksmith.”
Millans Park is a trim street with conspicuously clean doorsteps and a weakness for half-timbering. They moved into No. 4 at 30 shillings a week. Charlie Creighton’s wife had died not long before. “He was a lonely little man,” Wantee says. “His house was empty and we brought life to it.” And a good deal besides. They had arrived in Ambleside with only a couple of suitcases, but things had accumulated. “The problem was how to get it all down the hill. In the end we went to Mr Routledge, the woodcutter, and he said he’d move it for us. We brought it down by horse and cart – and literally it was a cartful of rubbish. I’ve never worked so hard in all my life, hiding it. A couple of days later Mr Creighton came to me and said: ‘You’ve brought rather a lot of stuff haven’t you? I thought to myself: ‘You ought to see what’s under the bed, dearie!”
Schwitters’ pictures also caused friction: “There was a large tool chest in the attic. Schwitters had lots of collages lying on the floor to dry out and Mr Creighton, of course, didn’t realise these were works of art. And so, when he went to his tool chest he stamped all over these little bits of rubbish thinking, probably, what untidy people we were. Jumbo came down and said: ‘Wantee, you’ll have to go and tell him not to stand on my pictures.’ So I said: ‘I wonder, if you mind, if you must go to the studio, would you just let me go with you to pick up the pictures.’ There was a pause. ‘Pictures? he said, ‘Pictures?’ ‘Yes, these are works of art Mr Creighton.’ And he just said, ‘Well I knew he was mad, but I didn’t think you were too!’
Before long Mr Creighton’s house was riddled with Merz. Schwitters boiled up his flour-and-water paste in the kitchen, and spent hours sorting his finds, filing them away in boxes. They could no longer be concealed. Collages would lie around for months awaiting the last adjustments and the final pasting. They can be dated roughly by postmarks and other inlaid clues. Addresses written in different hands, the blue-and-white stripes off airmail envelopes, letters from New York, France and Switzerland, demonstrate his growing contacts with the outside world during 1946. Ernst sent him magazines in which his photographs had appeared. Bits of these went into the collages. Kate Steinitz, a friend from the Hamburg days living in Los Angeles, once sent him a food parcel wrapped in the comic strip section from a Sunday paper. He was intrigued and asked to see more. He also particularly liked the red bits off Picture Post covers. The materials shaped his work, which in its turn, reflected the Lake District.
‘I Build My Time’
Russell Mills text from ‘I Build My Time’
One Never Knows: A Life of Paradoxes – An Introduction by Russell Mills
There is an absurd irony in the fact that virtually the only official recognition that Kurt Schwitters received in his lifetime was to be informed, on January 7th, the day before he died, that he was to be granted a British passport. To compound this irony, on January 10th, the day of his funeral, his partner and muse Wantee (Edith Thomas), was visited by the local policeman who informed her that Kurt Schwitters was now legally a British citizen. Kurt Schwitters, the odd man out of 20th century culture, was out of sync with the world again.
His life and work was a constant stream of paradoxes and opposites; often absurd or hilarious, occasionally ironic, sometimes grave, painful or tragic, and in all instances, with the benefit of hindsight, poignant and prophetic.
Following the senseless barbarity of the First World War, intellectuals, artists, writers and musicians questioned the traditions that had until then prevailed and concluded that they no longer held any moral credibility. In 1916, in pursuit of new responses to an uncertain world, noises from the hastily devised Cabaret Voltaire in the Café de la Terrasse in Zurich sparked a revolution in the arts, which rapidly spread across Europe, unwittingly unleashing the myriad-isms that have shaped modern art. Inevitably Schwitters was swept up in this maelstrom of change. Whilst he shared many of the concerns and aspirations of the Cubists, Constructivists, Dadaists and to a lesser extent the Surrealists, his conscious separation from these groups and all other dogmas led him to be simultaneously out of sync and ahead of his time. He was on the same road, moving in the same direction, but he chose to travel in a different vehicle altogether. His was a one-man movement, which he called Merz.
A unique polymath, whose works and ideas crossed all material and conceptual borders, Schwitters was a visionary who disregarded all attempts to be pigeonholed. He shunned all taxonomies as constraints imposed by a society suspicious of diversity and yet he was constantly seeking ways to publicise his work. A loner, he was also a brilliant self-publicist who applied himself assiduously through manifestos, teaching, lecturing and touring.
He overturned the traditional notion of the plinth-bound sculpture that is viewed only by circumnavigation, with his three masterpieces, the extraordinarily prophetic walk-in sculptures, the Merzbaus (Hanover, begun around 1920, destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943; Lysaker, Haus am Bakken in Oslo, Norway, begun 1937, destroyed by fire in 1951; and Elterwater, Cumbria begun 1947, unfinished), complete environments which enveloped the spectator.
The Elterwater Merzbarn was never completed. Having begun work on the barn in 1947, his health rapidly deteriorating, he could only manage three months of arduous work in appalling conditions (in the winter of 1946 icebergs were reported off the East Anglian coast) before he became too weak to continue. Unfinished and abandoned it grew increasingly vulnerable to damp and decay. In 1963 despite many efforts to preserve it, the general apathy of the art establishment prompted a drastic but necessary decision to remove it to Newcastle. Schwitters would have been horrified. He had declared that he wanted it to ‘stand close to nature, in the midst of a natural park’ that had nurtured his last great work. Again Schwitters’ wishes had been overruled. Schwitters’ suspicion that English people don’t like art was proved true. Having been wrenched from its Lakeland context it has lost its resonance and its meaning. Whilst it remains dislocated from its roots, the full implications of his struggle at Elterwater will continue to be tragically betrayed.
In the 1920s and 30s he performed his startling and cathartic sound poems, comprised of phonetic utterances, sneezing, coughing and barking, to middle class bourgeois audiences around Europe, triggering floods of unashamed tears and hysterical laughter as emotions repressed deep within were released. A superstar of the avant-garde, his tours with Raoul Hausmann and others shocked and delighted, confounded and appalled, anticipating the shock tactics of today’s media-obsessed artists by more than eighty years.
Whilst pushing his work to extremes of abstraction he also retained a deep reverence for culture and history which underpinned all he did. He was dedicated to exploring and promoting ethical and moral values that were (and are still) vital for culture in Europe and beyond, and yet he was branded a degenerate artist by the National Socialist Party in his native Germany who hung his works and those of his contemporaries alongside those of lunatics.
The Nazis declared intent to destroy culture threatened Schwitters’ liberty and ultimately his life. He had no option but to leave Germany. To avoid arrest he fled to Norway in 1937. Holed up in a hovel in Moldeiord he eked out a precarious living working on a second Merzbau and attempting to secure portrait commissions and sell his landscapes. As he struggled with the deprivations of exile, separated from his wife Helma, his home and his beloved ‘life’s work’, the Hanover Merzbau, and cut off from the art world, ironically his works were being exhibited to great acclaim in Europe and the USA.
In 1940, as Germany invaded Norway, he was once again obliged to effect a last minute escape on an icebreaker, the Fritjof Nansen, bound for Britain. Having miraculously survived a torpedo attack, he was immediately arrested on arrival in Scotland and interned in a series of detention camps as one of his Majesty’s Most Loyal Enemy Aliens. Schwitters would have appreciated the grim irony of this appellation as His Majesty’s family had been Hanoverian since 1714.
Ultimately even in death his art was misunderstood and his wishes ignored. His funeral on Saturday 10th January 1948, at St Mary’s Church, Ambleside, was a sad affair. In the gloom of a rainy morning, a small gathering of Wantee, his son Ernst and a few other friends who had become close in his last years, witnessed a final rejection. Schwitters’ request for his favourite sculpture Herbstzeitlose (Meadow Saffron) [1926-29] to be placed on his tombstone was denied by the vicar who deemed it inappropriate.
On 18th August 1970 his remains were exhumed from St Mary’s and moved to Hanover where they were buried in Engesohde Cemetary. This time the sculpture was allowed pride of place atop the gravestone. Schwitters had unwittingly accomplished another paradox, to be buried in two places at once.
Alongside Picasso and Duchamp, he is considered to be one of the most important pioneering artists of the 20th century and yet in his lifetime he was generally misunderstood, derided or ignored. His works have influenced every major artist and art movement since the end of the Second World War and his ideas have pre-empted and informed most areas of the contemporary cultural media landscape which we now take for granted. In literature, film, radio, advertising, TV, typography, design, drama, sound and architecture, in all areas of creative expression, his ideas are still unfolding. In the UK despite this enormous legacy, fifty-five years after his death, he is still one of the most disregarded artists of the 20th century.
In a manifesto of 1920, full of passion and highly wrought descriptive passages, he speculated on previously unimagined futures and the myriad cultural possibilities that collage, harnessed to its fullest as event, as spectacle, might bring. Even now, these elliptically described, hypothetical works of complete creative synthesis, which imply the use and effects of all the senses in real time, are still evading technology’s ability to manifest such utopian dreams.
To him is owed much of the basic cultural assumptions that a work of art can exist for any length of time, in any material, for any purpose, anywhere and for any destination. Ironically all but one of his best examples of such works, the Merzbaus, were scattered around Europe and finally destroyed.
It was our famous painter of clouds and landscapes, John Constable, who asserted that he never saw anything ugly in his life. It was Schwitters who demonstrated the potential of such a claim. Schwitters is rightly acknowledged as the master of collage and it is for these miniature masterpieces that he is celebrated. Conjured from fragments of society’s discarded rubbish, these visual poems of lyrical beauty are stamped with a quiet authority. The use of colour is confidently bold and in their composition the startling dynamics and seemingly effortless restraint of placement within the given rectangle signals an inexplicable right-ness, a feeling that this work could not have been made in any other way. The diversity of materials brought together so harmoniously with an elegant economy of means mesmerises. The elliptical sub-plots of the obsessive and the sheer joy that is evident in their making should be a paradigm for art students, professional artists and designers alike. Trawling and scavenging the streets for the expendable everyday of an urban society, Schwitters scanned the mother-lode with the curiosity of a five year old, locking onto nuggets of potential in the dung heap and, over time, transformed his finds into gloriously lyrical meditations on the known and the only imagined. The ‘Archaeologist of the Present’, Schwitters was like a jackdaw, charting his daily journeys, swooping on the humble, the abused and the ignored, with the sharp discerning eye of the skilled designer that he was. Through the fusing of heterogeneous materials such works can be read as diaries or landscapes of their time, intimate snapshots of a culture in flux. These small images, with their palimpsests of newsprint, their sad tickets and grubby receipts, their scraps of fabric, metaphorically emit in throttled voices a scream of resistance and fingertip defiance. All are imbued with the possibility of inner realities, which parallel our wonderment with the world and our own destinies by offering the magical potential of the mundane in juxtaposition. In these collages Schwitters invited us to view the world as if for the first time.
The Forbidden Works
Throughout his life as he ceaselessly created the small abstract collages, perversely and concurrently, he also drew and painted bold and assured landscapes, portraits and still life studies in a wholly representational manner. These works, especially those made during his periods of exile in Norway and later in the Lake District, have received little attention or respect. It seems that critics and commentators, having accepted that his collages are the attention-grabbers, are embarrassed and confounded by his less ‘cool’ traditional works. In the countless studies of his works and in exhibitions they have been barely mentioned. For too long these ‘forbidden works’ have been overlooked, ignored or disparaged as being mere potboilers, hastily executed in exchange for food or money.
We come to a final paradox. How do we judge these works alongside the body of radical, transformative, abstract and jaw-dropping Merz works which spearheaded a legacy of cultural change which affects our lives daily? Given that his collages and Merz installations have stolen the show, it is difficult to see his naturalistic works in isolation, in their own right, without the tainted baggage of prejudiced mediations. How too do we reconcile ourselves to the fact that these traditional, representational portraits, landscapes and still life studies, which hark back to a cosy, nostalgic past world, have been created by the same man?
While Schwitters admittedly placed greater importance on his abstract works and ideas, he nevertheless gave equal reverence to his representational works. He was a good painter, bold and expressionistic in approach and style. He painted with feeling rather than thinking. True, he was obliged to paint commissions and landscapes for money in order to live, but it must be remembered that he had painted naturalistically, impressionistically, all his life, not simply for his bread and butter. Hundreds of his naturalistic works from 1905 until his death have survived and been documented. His lifelong interest in nature and natural lyricism he saw as a nourishment and crucial link with the past. His commitment to these works was genuine and necessary. At heart Schwitters was a Romantic, and the extraordinarily beautiful landscapes of Norway and the Lakes excited and seduced him. In such surroundings, away from the cauldron of world politics and war, he enjoyed a blissful freedom. His portrait commissions introduced him to people and provided him with company and contacts. Anecdotal evidence reveals that he relished such work and recognised no distinctions between the Merz works and the traditional; he considered both to be worthy, and spiritually valuable. As he once said, “No man can create from fantasy alone. Sooner or later it will run dry on him, and only by constant study of nature will he be able to replenish it and keep it fresh.”
On closer examination his landscapes are quite simply, honest, innocent, perfectly composed and, contrary to received opinion, without a trace of kitsch or sentimentality. The Norwegian landscapes tend towards epic vistas, dramatic and theatrically contrived dream versions of reality whereas the Lake District pictures are more concerned with capturing the actual. All are modern and yet at the same time they smack of the past. They are emotional and atmospheric responses to reality rather than slavish depictions of reality. In the Norwegian works, dextrous broad and sweeping brushstrokes, expansive and free, shoot and slide across the canvases, pulling the viewer’s eyes from foreground to horizon. Paint is loaded in thick impasto, echoing Lovis Corinth and Kokoshka and anticipating Auerbach, Hodgkin and Oulton amongst others. Elements of detail seem to float, etherealising out of vapour or looming out of mountain masses. An organic indefinable essence seeps from within the pictures. Strange blends of colours blur, swaying drunkenly, surfaces shimmer like an ice-haze.
The Lakeland scenes are, like the portraits, still life studies and the drawings, closely observed fragments of time and place captures with certainty and compassion. With Wantee he had finally achieved a measure of tranquillity and calm in a landscape of outstanding beauty that he loved. New troubles were threatening an uneasy peace in a world recovering from the ravages of war and Schwitters’ health worsened. Schwitters knew he was dying and had little time left. He worked feverishly in his remaining three years in Ambleside, painting, making collages and travelling in all weathers to Elterwater to work on his last great work, the Merzbarn. Physically unable to undertake the more unwieldy assemblages he concentrated more on the drawings, portraits and landscapes.
Views of Ambleside, Rydal, Grasmere and Loughrigg show a man at peace, resolved. They are ardent, numinous, light filled, celebratory paintings, sometimes a little clumsy or hastily executed, but genuinely felt. He was connected and felt rooted, grounded at last. His portraits too show signs of great care and loving attention against areas of thinness, as if he were impatient to focus on and capture the details that revealed the essence of his sitters. Jackets and backgrounds are scrubbed in, suggested, whilst tie-studs, eyes and bouquets are drawn out in thick encrustations of spiralling, twisted, extruded growths. These details glow like coral in clear water or like stars. There is an emotional rawness and beguiling humanity to these portraits. Schwitters captures the vulnerability and sensitivity of his subjects who are ordinary people, proud, hardworking, honest folk. The handling of paint suggests a softness and subtlety of character. The drawings exemplify confidence, clarity and concision. Finely observed and drawn at speed, they are pared down to only what is necessary. There is no gratuitous showmanship. In all these Lake District works there is a warmth that is lacking in the bolder Norwegian works, revealing Schwitters as a modest and gentle man who loved the world, and who strove throughout to understand and convey to us its wonders.
An eternal optimist, he was beleaguered in a world of negativity. As the world around him was disintegrating Schwitters obstinately aspired for the best. He was confident that despite the widespread apathy to his work, he would be acknowledged as a great master of 20th century art. In 1931 he wrote: -‘I know that I am an important factor in the development of art and will remain important for all time. I say this with such emphasis, so that later on people will not say : ‘The poor man had no idea how important he was. – No, I am not stupid and I am not shy either. I know very well that for me and all the other important personalities of the abstract movement the great time is to come when we will influence a generation, only I fear I will not experience it personally.’
The final paradox still remains. Internationally he is remembered, respected and justly acknowledged as a visionary pioneer of modern art and his influence has been duly credited. Since his death there have been major exhibitions of his work somewhere in the world, every day. Meanwhile here in the UK and especially in the Lake District where he lived, worked and died, he is generally still unknown or unforgivably ignored. Apart from small collections of his works in Ambleside’s Armitt Museum and Library and Kendal’s Abbot Hall Art Gallery and Museum, there are no signs of his ever having been here. Whilst there is a plethora of shops and cafes bearing the names of the Lakes poets and Beatrix Potter’s rabbits, you will find none bearing his name. The local Tourist Information Bureau has no brochures about him. There is no street named after him and commemorative blue plaque on his house or at the empty barn at Elterwater.
The Armitt Museum is working hard towards reversing this pitiful situation. Its intention is to establish a new museum and study centre in Ambleside to be devoted to his life and work and to the ‘collage principle’, a world class building for a world class artist, a home in the heart of the Lake District, where he found inspiration and finally peace. With your support we hope we can finally elevate the life and work of this visionary artist to its rightful place alongside the likes of Wordsworth and Ruskin, uniquely important and hugely influential figures in our cultural evolution. Schwitters believed that art it: – ‘a spiritual function of man which aims at freeing him from the chaos of life’. In these times of political uncertainty and dogmatic fundamentalism, we need art to remind us of the ethical and moral values, which are necessary for securing a future worth living. Schwitters, the forgotten man, deserves our attention more than ever