A couple of weeks ago I visited the exhibition, ‘Schwitters in Britain’ at the Tate Britain [catch it if you can, it’s on until the 12th of May]. Previously I’ve been lucky enough to view one or two of Schwitters’ collages and mixed-media works in collections in modern art galleries throughout Europe; every time seeing one of his ‘jewel-like’, multi-layered, aged, delicate and weathered creations and thinking, ‘I’d love to see a collection of his work someday.’ Then on Tuesday 9th April, that day finally came!
Here are a few of my thoughts...
Initially I was surprised by the scale of most of his work, a lot smaller than I had thought, but soon got distracted into the intensity of colours, painterly compositions and shapes, structures and forms. After keeping my ‘drawing a day’ diary for four months now, I am beginning to realise just what sort of things, specifically, that I find aesthetically appealing. Objects with a strong sense of form, shape, design particularly being favoured over those with more ephemeral, less tangible outlines and structure. For example, I think if I was asked to draw ‘light’ I would want to depict it as quite solid shafts and lines as to depicting its softness or affects of light hitting the edges/surfaces of other objects. I digress from Schwitters, but the point here being, that the structure and content of his work is what appeals to me most; the shapes created from his overlapping scrapes of paper as to the actual colour and textures of the paper itself. Schwitters described the use of objects/found-materials in his work as, ‘having equal rights with paint’, which I think echoes a little bit of what I said previously that the structure and content of the work is made from the objects within it acting in a similar way to how paint is normally used to create structure and content.
‘Anything with a stone’ - This reminds me of Kandinsky’s painting ‘Red, yellow, blue’.
It would be easy to make comparisons of Schwitters’ work to Picasso’s early collages so I’m simply going to mention it and then move swiftly on because it is the influence that Schwitters had on his predecessors that is actually a lot more interesting. With Schwitters’ deployment of the theory of Merz as, ‘essentially the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes’ in his art; another crucial stepping stone was laid on the path towards ‘the everyday’ in an ‘as’ art. Influences of which can be seen in Pop Art particularly Richard Hamilton, Rauschenberg and Daniel Spoerri. Consequently, the more I think work I see by artists who were part of Dada (Schwitters, Duchamp, Man Ray etc) the more clearly I can see how much of what they did fed into what later became Pop Art. Pop Art being the more commercial, glossy mass produced younger sibling of Dada but still with its same values of the everyday, play and experimentation with ‘what is art?’ at its core.
There’s a feeling of nostalgia with Schwitters’ work, apart from literally looking worn, stained and aged the colours, textures and patterns in the work feel old-fashioned. They remind me of wooden toys, fairground games or pub signs whose paint is beginning to chip, fade and peel off. The piece titled, ‘Merz Picture 46 A. The Skittle Picture’ does actually comprise itself of wooden playing pieces in a box frame composition and look like the leftovers from some battered old pub game. Play, of course being a factor in the making of Schwitters’ work as, to some extent, must have been an element of chance; after all most of the materials used in his collages were scrapes and throw-away objects. Part of me wonders if this is simply because the content within the collages is itself now old (sweet wrappers, bus tickets, newspapers, metal, feathers etc) and I wonder if they felt as ‘aged’ at the time they were created? A modern-day Schwitters collage would be drastically more intense in its colour palette, textures and surfaces due to the wide selection of materials, glossy papers and printing inks that are commonplace today. Or, perhaps more than likely, he wouldn’t be doing collage from paper scrapes but taking on digital mediums and left overs/waste? Collage from the content not of our bins but our computers recycle bins?! Modern-day Merz.
There were elements to this exhibition that felt a little bit empty, that it was all a little bit ‘nice’ and I wanted to be challenged a bit more, made to think, which the installation of the ‘Merz Barn’ (large scale plaster sculptural works comprising of found objects that filled rooms and created immersive environments for the viewer) did go some way in challenging my expectations as did a surreal performance piece called ‘Ursonate’ but perhaps I was looking for something more, but not really knowing what that was. Neither was I particularly a fond of his free standing sculptures made from stone, wood or bone and plaster. That’s of course completely subjective and it is good to see the other sides to Schwitters’ practice, but they only acted as additions to the painted and collage work which were really the stars of the show and completely captivated my attention.
Equally I was so busy looking at work didn’t pay too much heed to context that the work was made in, for example Schwitters’ time during the war exiled from Germany to be interned on the Isle of Man to his involvement in London art scene and influences that the Lake District had on his work up until his death in 1948. It seems that despite the amount of art I subject myself to seeing that I never really take as much attention and enthusiasm to understanding the context surrounding the work. Retrospectively, I did find something interesting in the way in which Schwitters’ collages made during his time living in the Lake District used more organic and natural found materials in his collages than when he was living in London where the work took on a more urban feel, but I think maybe I would have noticed these differences eventually anyway without having known when/where they were made. I feel the same way about music and that really I am only interested greatly in the music itself and very rarely if at all know anything about the band/artist that produce it. Does it change how I feel about the music if I know the lead singer’s favourite colour is blue? Or that they used to be a furniture maker? Would Schwitters’ have minded if I sort-of ignorantly, if unintentionally, paid no attention to his life and situation he found himself in during his time in Britain? Or maybe that would have been just what he intended, he himself stating, ‘The picture is a self-sufficient work of art. It is not connected to anything outside.’ With that in mind I’ll leave it for you to decide whether I made the right decision upon seeing, ‘Schwitters in Britain’ in noticing less of the ‘Britain’ part and instead focusing more on the ‘Schwitters’.