Friday, 8 March 2013

MERZ!! Its Schwitters in Britain!

The current ticket exhibition at Tate Britain focuses on the late work of the Modernist Kurt Schwitters, particularily his time spent in Britain in the final years before his death here in 1948. The German artist who coined the term Merz is most famous for his pioneering collage works using any materials that he found around him. He was the first artist that I remember inspiring my own work, in a project on urban decay, when I was a 17 year old at college.

The accompanying leaflet includes a quote from him in 1919:
The word Merz denotes essentially the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes, and technically the principle of equal evaluation of the individual materials...
A perambulator wheel, wire-netting, string and cotton wool are factors having equal rights with paint.

The first room briefly runs through his work during the period before he departed Germany for Norway in 1937 when the Nazi party were condemning work such as his as degenerate art. The second room first looks at his work in the three years before he then went onto Britain when the Germans invaded. The room ends with work from his time interned in a camp on the Isle of Man, including the next three works (below) that I kept walking back to look at again:

Untitled (Picture with Wooden Ring), oil & wood on plywood, 1941

Aerated V, oil, wood & ping-pong ball on plywood, 1941
These three artworks, all from 1941, show Schwitters' incredible versatility. With materials in short supply he could use any to create both flat and 3D surfaces, such as in Untitled (Picture with Wooden Ring) and Aerated V (both above) respectively. Untitled (Portrait of Klaus Hinrichsen) (below) is an example of his technical ability to paint representationally.

Untitled (Portrait of Klaus Hinrichsen), oil on wood, 1941
In Untitled (Lovely Portrait) (1942) (below) there is this contrast in one artwork. The beautfully painted face contrasting with the abstract shapes that the figures body merges into.

Untitled (Lovely Portrait), oil on canvas on wood, 1942
I also like the way Schwitters includes cute features in his work, such as the mouse in (the top right hand corner of) Anything with a Stone (1941-44) below:

Anything with a Stone, mixed media, 1941-44
Although I must admit to not being so much of a fan of the free-standing sculptures by Schwitters that I have seen, an exception to this is the strange Dancer (1943) (below):

Dancer, painted bone & plaster, 1943

Untitled (Portrait of George Ainslie Johnston), oil on cardboard, 1946
I like it when artworks have any kind of story behind them, as does Untitled (Portrait of George Ainslie Johnston) (1946) (above). On the paintings descriptive text there's this great quote from Schwitters that shows he still had a sense of humour despite having recently been very ill:
I am painting my doctor, Doctor Johnston, in return for the pains he took to save my life. Now he does not like to sit for me so I play chess with him. That means a double effort...
The problem is: shall I let him win, as his expression is then friendly, but people may think that I am a bad chess player, as the game is pictured in the painting... or shall I let myself win, but then his expression is unfriendly, and people think I am a bad painter!

The last two rooms of the exhibition are devoted to two contemporary artists, Laure Prouvost and Adam Chodzko. Their displayed work responds to Schwitters' history and legacy for their 2011 commission from Tate and Grizedale Arts. Below is a still from the Prouvost installation that included a series of objects and a video. I like some of the interesting and quirky ceramics, but it is the personal, touching, funny and yet slightly disturbing film that lives longer in the memory.

Laure Prouvost commission (2011)

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