Writings and Proposals

Towards a Kurt Schwitters Centre/Museum/the Merz Museum
For the Armitt Trust and Museum, Ambleside, Cumbria

Background: Place

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 traditional instruments.

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 or categories.

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".
- ibid.

"... 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 it.

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 see it".

Proposal

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 park".

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 texts.

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 include:-

"I Build My Time" with William Feaver and Edith Thomas
"La Clef de l'Horloge" by Marcel Broodthaers
"DADA Manifest"
"Unsinn gegen Dummheit - und trotzen Kubst Zum 80, Geberstag von Kurt Schwitters. Ein Portrait ans Erinnerungen" by Werner Schmalenbach
"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
"Fantasia" Disney
"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 collage principle.

To acquire copies of his writings including his poems, dramas, short stories and theoretical tracts.

To establish links with Universities and other educational institutions.

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 Building

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 year.

"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.

 

 

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