I am very moved and inspired by my visit to see the exhibition at the Tate Britain ‘Schwitters in Britain’. I had seen a couple of pieces of Schwitters work in collections of the years but I hadn’t really engaged with them and had given more attention to his contemporaries that Schwitters had, in my eyes, sat in their shadows. The exhibition at the Tate has changed that and I am grateful for them bringing his work to my attention.
On display are a lot of Schwitters collages and assemblages made from found materials and occasional use of paint. Some of the collages are made up of scraps of travel ticket, sweet wrappers, images and words from the press and other found containers. The larger assemblages are made with found pieces of wood, rubber circles, card and even one with an asbestos mat with signs of heat use on.
From the exhibition I learnt that Schwitters, like many other intellectual and artists, was exiled from Germany in the 1930’s. He left, escaping the Nazi regime and initially moved to Norway but was pushed further West to Britain with the Nazi invasion of Norway. On his arrival to Britain he was required to spend 16 months on the Isle of Man in a detainee camp before he could freely settle here. He died in 1948 just as he was given citizenship.
Despite his uprooting Schwitters continued to make art and was very prolific throughout his exile, even at the detainee camp where it is reported he made over 200 works. He very much used what materials were available to him and included them in his art – his ‘Merz bild’ – the scraps of tickets and everyday materials were as important in his art as the paint. The sense that access to materials was difficult in this period is reflected in his art but Schwitters was not hindered by this and made some excellent artwork with very little means. There is a wonderful piece in the show of the roof tops of the Isle of Man painted on a bit of lino that Schwitters pulled off the floor.
Schwitters draws our attention to the overlooked and makes what would be thrown away worthy of hanging onto a wall. He subverts the hierarchical order through re-presenting and collaging materials together in a harmonious visual order and personal scale.
Schwitters was a very gifted painter he painted portraits and landscapes alongside making his collages and assemblages. This may have been through a commercial need to make an income but shows his adaptability and his love of art and painting. His style of painting with thick brush marks seems to mirror his assemblages as colour and forms balance together.
I left the exhibition feeling inspired that art can and should be made from whatever materials we have access to and in any circumstances. Schwitters preserved in difficult circumstances and as a result produced some inspired and informative pieces. It is the making of it that is more important and the art will then speak for itself.