Writings and Proposals
Towards a Kurt Schwitters Centre/Museum/the Merz Museum
For the Armitt Trust and Museum, Ambleside, Cumbria
Certain places are imbued with particular resonances due
to the occupancy at one time or another, of remarkable individuals,
cultural shape-shifters whose life and work has inspired and
informed subsequent generations. Barcelona is synonymous with
the visionary mystic architect Gaudi and his Sagrada Familia
Cathedral; Glasgow with Charles Rennie Mackintosh; Stratford-upon-Avon
with Shakespeare; Liverpool with the Beatles; Dublin with
James Joyce and more recently U2, to name but a few. Cumbria
and in particular the Lake District is renowned as much for
its abundance of literary and cultural associations as it
is for its natural beauty. Grasmere has Wordsworth; Sawry
and Hawkshead, Beatrix Potter; Coniston and Brantwood, Campbell
and Ruskin; Windermere, Arthur Ransome, Rydal, De Quincey,
the Arnolds, Coleridge and a host of other Romantic poets;
Ambleside has ..., Ambleside has ...,
well, it has Harriet Martineau and, well, ... a plethora
of shops selling anoraks and walking boots.
Ambleside's most important resident was an exiled German
artist and poet who died in obscurity and poverty in 1948.
He is generally still unknown by local residents and ignored
by those arbiters of taste employed in local government to
promote the arts, culture and tourism in the region, however
since his death in 1948, artists, art critics, historians
and cultural theorists have slowly come to recognise him,
alongside Picasso and Duchamp, as being one of the most influential
and visionary pioneers of modern art in the 20th century.
Whilst the whole of the South Lakes is peppered with tea
shops named after Rabbits, Wordsworth, Gingerbread, Daffodils
and co., at the time of writing there is nothing in Ambleside
which announces, informs, commemorates or celebrates the fact
of the importance of Kurt Schwitters or of his habitation
in the town.
"... the lonely man who was ahead of his time".
- Edward Mullins; The Sunday Telegraph; March 17th 1963.
Kurt Schwitters: In Brief
"One of the most genuine artists of the modern movement".
- Herbert Read.
Kurt Schwitters (born in Hanover in1887 ) was active in all
areas of the visual arts - primarily in assemblage and collage
but also in abstract and representational paintings, reliefs,
sculpture and drawings - as well as diverse disciplines in
the applied arts such as typography, architecture, recital
and performance. His indefatigable creativity also extended
to writing, poetry, drama, prose, art criticism and music.
His work in all these areas defied categorisation as it generally
followed his own ideal of total synthesis in the arts which
he called "Merz" which recognised no barriers between
different genres, between the significant and the humble,
between art and life. Schwitters was ahead of his time and
as such was generally misunderstood in his lifetime, even
by those fellow travellers of Dada , Surrealism and Constructivism,
with whom his work is usually, incorrectly, linked. His life
was consequently an endless struggle against dogma, intolerance,
poverty and finally time itself.
Escaping the Nazis who had dubbed him a "Degenerate
Artist", Schwitters emigrated with his son Ernst to Norway
in 1937, where he continued to work, undertaking his 2nd Merzbau
sculpture at Lysaker until Germany invaded in 1940. Once again
he was obliged to flee, only just securing passage for himself
and Ernst on the last Allied ship to leave Norway to Scotland
where he was immediately arrested as an "Enemy Alien"
and interned in a series of detention camps in Midlothian,
Yorkshire and finally in Douglas on the Isle of Man. On his
release in 1941 he lived in London with Ernst and his newly
acquainted companion Edith Thomas (Wantee) until 1945 when,
suffering from ill health and the high cost of London life,
he and Wantee moved to Ambleside. Despite his failing health
and impoverishment, Schwiitters worked ceaselessly in this
period, painting portraits, landscapes and still life pictures
in exchange for food and for the tourist trade, all the while
continuing to make small abstract sculptures of natural forms
and collages. At Elterwater he embarked on his final Merz
sculpture, the Merzbarn (moved to the Hatton Gallery in the
University of Newcastle in1965). He died in Kendal Green Hospital
on January 8th 1948, leaving the Merzbarn unfinished.
"But instead of being grateful to this man for the happiness
he gave to us and to all his unregarded objects, for the inexhaustible
wit he applied to the juxtaposition of traffic-tickets, nail-files,
cheese-paper and girls faces, for his many poems, apophthegms.
stories, plays, in which the loftiest sense went hand in hand
with the profoundest nonsense - and were united in deathless
language as boy and girl are united in springtime - instead
of being grateful for all this, we allowed him, a German painter
and poet, to die unrecognised, in poverty and exile, and protected
only by an English girl, Edith Thomas, and an English farmer
by the name of Pierce."
- Hans Richter.
Schwitters and the collage principle
"... their is no term capable of defining the conditions
and potential of art in our century more universally than
that of collage."
- Werner Spies.
Collage in all its guises, as concept and as actual construct,
is the most important cultural idea of the 20th and now the
21st century. Since Braque and Picasso's first moves off of
the flat surface towards the 3-dimensional in 1911 - 12, a
quiet but influential revolution has been spreading throughout
all areas of creativity. Along with Marcel Duchamp and his
"Readymades" and proto-conceptual objects, it is
Kurt Schwitters with his startlingly poetic collages, phonetic
poems and innovative Merzbau sculptures (pre-empting "installations"
by 40 years), who has done most to ignite this cultural fuse.
Through the process of collage, Schwitters, utilising society's
discarded ephemera, bus tickets, newspaper scraps, wrappers,
cloth, wood, etc., defined the creative process not as a separate
sphere but as intimately linked with everyday life as a process
of organic transformation.
"Mr. Schwitters achieved world fame as the artist to
take the first big step into modern art after the introduction
of Cubism by Picasso".
- (?); London Evening Post; 9th January, 1965.
"He is revealed as a master of the 20th century".
(Lady) Marina Vaizey; The Sunday Times; 10th November 1985.
Schwitters' diverse works were and are central in the history
of Modernism in the 20th century. Through his radical imperatives
such as the groundbreaking "Gesamtkunstwerk": the
idea of the complete integration of different forms, he has
been the benign midwife to all subsequent generations of the
avant-garde for over 60 years. His enormous seminal influence
can be seen in all genres of the arts and in the wider contemporary
media landscape. Without Schwitters there would not have been
Conceptual Art, Concrete Poetry, Punk graphics, Pop Art, Performance
Art, Land Art, Nouveau Realism, the Fluxus movement, Arte
Povera or Happenings. Without his phonetic poetry and his
prose there would not have been the bewildering "stream
of consciousness" literary experiments of James Joyce
or the Beat writings of William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and
Jack Kerouac or the fantastical writings of contemporary novelists
such as Mark Danielewski and Ben Marcus or the "psychogeography"
of Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd, nor the "cut up"
lyrics of David Bowie. Pop Art's joyful appropriation of the
banal, the kitsch and the contemporary everyday converted
to iconic status, finds its origins in a picture that many
eminent artists and art historians have defined as the first
Pop Art picture, "For Kate" 1947, a tiny piece incorporating
fragments of American comics made by Schwitters whilst he
lived in Ambleside. (There are other earlier examples of figurative
collage by Schwitters, which might also be considered to be
the rightful precursors of Pop Art). Design's continual Magpie
plundering and re-cycling of stylistic shifts nod homage to
Schwitters' typographic inventiveness of his Dadaist and Constructivist
days. Similarly artists such as Klien, Manzoni, Christo, Beuys,
Kieffer, Tapies, etc., through to our recent Turner Prize
world of high-fliers - are all continually using forms of
collage, materially, conceptually and contextually. Without
his 3 ambitious walk-in sculptures, the Merzbau's (Hanover,
begun 1920, destroyed by Allied bombs in 1943; Lysaker, Norway,
begun 1937, destroyed by fire in 1951; and Elterwater, Cumbria,
begun 1947, unfinished), there would not be the multi-media
installations that are the chosen mode of most contemporary
artists including the "YBA's" (Young British Artists)
such as Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Mark Wallinger, Martin Landy
and Martin Creed, et al. Hirst has admitted that as a student
at Goldsmith's College of Art in the early 1980's the discovery
of Schwitters opened his eyes to the potential of collage
and ultimately was the liberating force which enabled him
to aspire to his ambitious and sometimes controversial works.
(Hirst also spent 2 years making assemblages based on Schwitters'
works, so influenced was he that these works bear a striking
resemblance to the original Schwitters only differentiated
by the inclusion of some contemporary materials such as coloured
plastics). It can be claimed that Schwitters' works pre-empted
all artistic movements since the Second World War and in his
writings he anticipated much that is with us now in our daily
lives as well as speculating on a visionary idea of "Total
Art" that includes and can effect all the senses in real
time; this aspirational manifesto of the hypothetical "Merz
Stage" was proposed in a text written in1921 and still
it cannot be realised.
His ideas have also informed the fast cuts and time shifts
as used so effectively in film, television and video editing.
In radio too his influence was first unconsciously echoed
through the work of the innovative Radio DJ Jack Jackson,
who physically cutup tapes from various comedy shows of the
day and re-spliced them to produce deliberately anarchistic
running gags. By extension and following these experiments,
it could be argued that his legacy also suggested the absurdist
juxtapositions which have been central to the peculiarly British
comedy genre from the Goons via Monty Python's Flying Circus
to the Fast Show. Advertising, animation, magazine design
(and content) have all, consciously or unconsciously, embraced
collage as a paradigm. Assisted by the rapid pace of technological
change the collage principle as Schwitters imagined it, has
also unwittingly produced the ideal visual collage tool, the
computer, with its numerous effects programmes, filters and
PhotoShop facilities, enabling instant juxtapositions. In
contemporary music, from the radical experiments at IRCAM
in Paris in the1950's and continuing through the works and
ideas of John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen and others through
to the likes of contemporary musicians such as Radiohead,
Bjork, Brian Eno and Moby, the use of samplers, sequencers,
multi-speed editing and time-stretching effects has allowed
the collaging together of disparate sonic elements in single
compositions and performances not possible in real time with
To his radical works and visionary ideas is owed much of
the basic cultural assumption that art can exist for any duration,
in any material, for any purpose and for any destination;
through his influence we are now experiencing a culture in
which collage pervades like perfume, seeping into and defining
our daily lives, ignoring any traditional cultural barriers
Merzbaus and The Elterwater Merzbarn
"... one of the key works of 20th century art".
- William Feaver; The Observer Review; 10th March 1963.
"... the Dada equivalent of Durham Cathedral".
"... the most important work of modern British art".
- Andrew Graham-Dixon.
Out of and parallel to the evolution of his collage work
in the early 1900's, Schwitters made 3-dimensional assemblages
constructed of society's waste, wood, wire, sprockets from
wheels, toy hoops, nailed together in relief. These grew into
sculptures such as Gallows of Desire of 1919, which has a
wagon wheel mounted atop a vertical post from which hung a
noose, with a cardboard wall concealing a victim. A year later
he began constructing his first Merz building which resembled
a child's toy church, inside of which the cogwheels of a strange
machine grind relentlessly. This assemblage was the predecessor
of the famous K.d.e.E., the Kathedrale des erotischen Elends.
("Cathedral of Erotic Misery"), his master Merzbau,
which he considered to be his "life's work". Begun
in c1920 in his house it f took 10 years to complete and finally
pierced through two floors of his house and into the cellar,
with as many as eight rooms having been "merzed".
Hidden in this architectonic Cubist formal shell were labyrinths
and grottoes of the most unholy gutter relics and objects
of his and others of personal significance, including locks
of hair and a vial of his urine, all of which were classified,
i.e. the Nibelungen Hoard, Goetheo's Grotto. Rhur Region,
Art Exhibition and Sexual Murder Den. This example of seminal
environmental art was unfortunately destroyed in the Allied
bombing raids of 1943.
Having fled Nazi Germany in the winter of 1936 -37 and during
his 3 years of forced exile in Norway, Schwitters embarked
on his 2nd Merzbau in a garden studio in Lysaker, near Oslo.
This structure resembled the Hanover Merzbau with its Dadaistic
grottoes and whilst the structure was completed by 1938, the
total work was
unfinished on his departure in 1940 escaping the German invasion
of Norway in April that year. Once again Schwitters was forced
to abandon the Merzbau and flee, finally escaping to England
where he endured 17 months of interment as an "Enemy
Alien". Children playing burned down the Lysaker Merzbau
accidentally in 1951. There are no surviving photographs,
drawings or anecdotal descriptions of this apart from his
son Ernst's recollections.
Following his release from Hutchinson Square Camp in Douglas
on the Isle of Man in 1941, Schwitters joined his son Ernst
in London and attempted unsuccessfully, to establish himself
as an avant-garde artist. Struggling and in ill health he
moved to Ambleside in 1945 with his partner Edith Thomas (Wantee)
who he had met on arriving in London. Wantee was to be the
most important person in his remaining years, his companion
and nurse. Inspired by Ambleside and the landscape and sensing
that he had very little time left only spurred him on to work
more ferociously. In 1947 whilst painting a portrait of Harry
Pierce, a landscape gardener resident in Langdale, Schwitters,
having become friendly with Pierce, was offered the use of
a barn on his estate. An award of $1,000.00 from the Museum
of Modern Art in New York, offered originally to support a
plan to re-cycle the remains of the Hanover Merzbau, were
used to finance this last project, the Merzbarn as he dubbed
The barn was located on the site of the former Ambleside
Black Powder Works on a landholding named "Cylinders"
in Elterwater in the Langdale Valley. When Schwitters was
well enough he would travel there daily by bus from Ambleside
and work on the raw stone walls of the barn with plaster,
stones and wood gathered nearby. Relief parts were reinforced
with garden canes, string, wire, small branches and anything
else that came to hand. Other elements that he introduced
into this organic relief were a wedge of slate, a small metal
window frame, the rose of a child's watering can, twigs, a
piece of the rim of a cartwheel, a section of guttering, a
china egg, a piece of an oval gold framed mirror, a metal
grid, a piece of metal strip, a rubber ball, roots and some
gentians - Schwitters favourite flower. He worked feverishly
in all weathers with a candle for light and a paraffin stove
for warmth. Despite his worsening health and the toll of the
sometimes appalling weather, Schwitters was ecstatic with
his new Merzbarn; having conceived of it becoming another
total environment, "his life's work", he deluded
himself into believing he would be able to complete it in
3 years. Sadly he was never to complete his dream. In a letter
of December 9th 1947 to his son Ernst, he acknowledged that
he could die quite soon. In mid-December he suffered a severe
attack of cardiac asthma, became progressively weaker and
sank into deliriums and was finally moved to Kendal Green
Hospital where, on January 8th1948, he died, with Wantee and
Ernst at his bedside, destitute.
By 1960 the Merzbarn had fallen into a bad state of repairs,
it needed a new roof and the exposure to the elements caused
Mr Pierce great concern. The decision had to be made: move
the Merzbarn or allow it to decay. After discussions with
Wantee and Ernst, Pierce offered the Merzbarn for sale to
the Tate Gallery. Following their inspection the Tate decided
it would be too expensive a task. Subsequently the Arts Council
approached Richard Hamilton who was lecturing at Newcastle
University, to inspect the barn and advise them. Hamilton,
considered by many as the Father of British Pop Art, having
been heavily influenced by Schwitters' work, recommended that
the relief remain where it was, be restored and maintained.
The Council on reviewing the implications of this also decided
it would be too costly an undertaking. In 1964 as Newcastle
University, considering how to spend the 1% of its new building
budget on a sculpture commission, was advised by Hamilton
to invest in the Merzbarn. Pierce agreed to sign it over as
a deed of gift, and the task, legally and physically began
of moving the Merzbarn to Newcastle. It was moved in 1965
- 66, at a cost of £5,000.00, 120 miles to the Hatton
Gallery at Newcastle University .
The Merzbarn is still in the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle,
a place that has no associations with Schwitters. It is displayed
out of context, offered as a mere fragment without relevance
to its surroundings. Soon after its installation Hamilton
himself stated that "... the greatest Merz piece by Schwitters
is ill-housed in its regional home since so few people will
That the Armitt Trust pursue funds and support for the design
and building of a new Museum extension, the centrepiece of
which will be the Elterwater Merzbarn by Kurt Schwitters the
German artist and former resident of Ambleside. The Merzbarn
is the last surviving example of his 3 environmental, walk-in
sculptural installations or Merzbau's as Schwitters termed
them. It is currently inappropriately housed in the Hatton
Gallery at the University of Newcastle.
It is the intention of the Armitt Trust to approach the Hatton
Gallery with a view to negotiating the recovery or return
of the Merzbarn to its morally fitting home in Ambleside,
in pursuance of Schwitters' own wishes that "...the new
Merzbau will stand close to nature, in the midst of a national
To create, alongside the Merzbarn, a new exhibiting area
or areas capable of variable adaptation to accommodate a programme
of exhibitions and events which will examine his work, the
work of his contemporaries, his life in exile, particularly
his last years spent in Ambleside, and his legacy. Alongside
these a series of rolling commissions will be offered, inviting
contemporary artists, writers, film makers, poets, sculptors,
multi-media artists, typographers, photographers, etc., to
make correspondences and responses to Schwitters and the collage
principle, to make connections between his known past and
possible futures suggested by the implications within his
The new building will also serve as centre for the study
of Schwitters and his legacy.*
It will house an archive open to all scholars of Schwitters,
an information "cell", fully equipped with computers
linked via the Internet to all of the Museums, galleries and
centres of international research into the artist and his
work. The archive will also hold documents, letters and articles
relating to his life and work in Ambleside as well as taped
anecdotal oral recollections given by some of those who knew
him. It is intended that the archive will also have copies
of films about Schwitters and related subjects, these should
"I Build My Time" with William Feaver and Edith
"La Clef de l'Horloge" by Marcel Broodthaers
"Unsinn gegen Dummheit - und trotzen Kubst Zum 80, Geberstag
von Kurt Schwitters. Ein Portrait ans Erinnerungen" by
"Remerz" video "by Nicola Gerry
"Kurt Schwitters Film" by Siri Taylor
Other films that may be considered are those that Schwitters
particularly enjoyed seeing; this information comes from Wantee's
reminiscences of their time in Ambleside where they went to
the cinema (now Zeffireli's) once a week:-
"National Velvet" with Elizabeth Taylor
"A Night at the Opera" with the Marx Brothers
"Rembrandt" with Charles Laughton
"Modern Times" with Charlie Chaplin
"The Moon and Sixpence"
To acquire copies of various TV and radio documentary programmes
about Schwitters and other artists from various broadcasting
companies and networks including Border TV, the BBC and others.
For instance; A programme made by Border many years ago as
part of their series "Outside Looking In"; Radio
3's broadcast of Dr Klaus Hinrichsen's "Interned with
Kurt Schwitters" (broadcast 30th March 1986); "His
Majesty's Most Loyal Enemy Aliens" two part programme
about the Hutchinson Square Camp in Douglas on the Isle of
Man, including anecdotal stories about Schwitters, made by
Border TV; "The Works : The Schwitters Scandal"
broadcast on BBC 2 on October 31st 1996.
To acquire copies of any sound recordings of Schwitters,
particularly those of him reciting his poems and any sound
works relating to or inspired by him. The National Sound Archive
in London has 24 acetate tapes of Schwitters reciting the
whole of his "Ur Sonate" and "Anna Blume"
and the Tate have recordings of Schwitters made in 1929 of
Schwitters reading the "Ur Sonate".
To establish and reinforce links with all institutions such
as the Sprengel Museum in Hanover and The Kurt Schwitters
Archive which is housed there, the Museum of Modern Art in
New York, the Mappin in Sheffield, the Tate Gallery in London,
University of California LA Library (where Schwitters' friend
Kate Steinitz worked and where there is an archive of Schwitters
material collected and donated by Mr Elmer Belt), Abbot Hall
Art Gallery and Museum in Kendal, etc., and any other institution
that houses or promotes the work of Kurt Schwitters and works
of art, sound, text, etc., that supports or demonstrates the
To acquire copies of his writings including his poems, dramas,
short stories and theoretical tracts.
To establish links with Universities and other educational
Establish a publishing imprint to disseminate information
and research works, catalogues, artists' publications, archival
and documentary publications, etc.
To promote and elevate the name and works of Kurt Schwitters
to a wider international audience and in doing so also promote
the town and environs of Ambleside.
* Towards the collection of archival material; could we track
down the Kurt Schwitters Wreath, made in 1987 by several artists
in homage to Schwitters, including Peter Blake, Tom Phillips,
Ian Walton and myself?
The architecture and design of the new building should reflect
the work it houses. The exterior should be as impressive as
the interior and the works within. Whilst being functional
and appropriate to its contents and its functions, the building
should also be sensitive to its surroundings. It should also
be as aspirational , brave, radical and as visionary as Schwitters
was himself. The architecture should reflect the man, his
work and his dreams.
In recent years we have witnessed the potential influence
that well conceived, appropriate yet radical architecture
can have on its environs. The Pompidou Centre in Paris, the
Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the Sydney Opera House and the
Eden Project in Cornwall, the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual
Arts at the University of East Anglia, the Temple Bar Development
in Dublin, for example; all have regenerated communities,
encouraged financial investment, generated income and employment
for the local economy and engendered a new sense of pride
in local communities whilst also attracting visitors from
around the world. In all instances the actual buildings themselves
have come to be seen as being as important and as revered
as the exhibits, events and activities within.
And yet most of these buildings were originally opposed by
various vigourous factions, most notably local inhabitants
who historically go into automatic xenophobic mode, objecting
to anything that is new, foreign or unknown. In most instances
they have been proved wrong, the buildings having become shrine-like
in their appeal internationally, attracting millions every
"The Eden Project in Cornwall has generated £111
million for the local economy in eight months according to
a study published yesterday. Since it opened in April it has
attracted more than 1.7 million visitors."
- report from the Guardian towards the end of 2001 (?)
Very personal opinion:-
Yet another catalogue-derived, nostalgia-driven, stone-clad
emulation of a Lakeland farmhouse, cobbled together to fit
the chocolate box Arcadia that is the apex of indigenous architecture
of our small-minded local planning board would be a gross
mistake, aesthetically, contextually and in the long term,
financially The kind of building that we are aspiring to needs
to make one's jaw drop!
Benefits to the Local Community
Provide employment - in planning, surveying, engineering,
construction, servicing, promotion and staffing.
By becoming synonymous with one of the most pioneering cultural
figures of the 20th century, it would serve to give Ambleside
generally and the Armitt Museum, St Martin's College and Lancaster
University particularly, a far higher cultural profile than
they have ever had. The potential international links to be
made, culturally educationally and financially, are inestimable.
Appeal to and attract a potentially wider and culturally
more sophisticated audience and visitor base from a greater
number of international destinations than before.
Through the potential of increased visitors, it is hoped
to encourage a resurgent Ambleside; making the residents feel
better about themselves, their history, their surroundings
and their place in the United Kingdom.
Russell Mills, Ambleside, April 2002.