It seems apt, for Kurt Schwitters, to be the pioneer of an underrated art form: the collage. Whilst some of his contemporaries may be more recognisable to the average person, Schwitters’ influence is often overlooked. In fact, he was a revolutionary Dadaist; making art out of anything and everything, he created the concept of Merz, ‘the combination, for artistic purposes of all conceivable materials’. So, when you question ‘is this art?’ with reference to 21st century artists, you have the likes of Schwitters to blame. Interested more in the aesthetics of his work, Schwitters himself would dissuade viewers to look for a deeper meaning than a record of modern culture at the time. However, what is interesting about the visual arts is that, like poetry, the audience can interpret the meaning as they wish.
Schwitters proves his technical ability through his portraiture work. Yet, it is the collage that really makes you think. You peer closer to inspect the materials, the texture, the composition. The apparent juxtaposition of various papering is sometimes amusing, such as an untitled piece with an early portrait of the artist himself (1937-8). Others seem to suggest a sense of despair and melancholy, for example, En Morn (1947) which included the words ‘these are the things we are fighting for’ alongside scraps of newspaper, chocolate wrappers, and bus tickets. He extended this work beyond the flat surface with collages of objects such as Merz Picture 46 A. The Skittle Picture (1921). As you walk around the Tate Britain gallery space, you can’t help but wonder beyond the pure visual surface to depict a meaning.
Other highlights of the exhibition include the cabinets of articles and letters, which include rejection letters. These provoke a feeling of hope due to his obvious success, with the knowledge of his reputation and influence in the art world today. The sound poetry Ursonate (1922–32) plays alongside shots of Schwitters reciting the piece. This complements the visual components of the exhibition, whilst also giving further insight to the history behind the work.
Fleeing from Germany and eventually ending up in the Isle of Man, Schwitters was detained in a camp there as an enemy. This gives practical reason for Schwitters’ need to create from found objects and scraps, given that there were limited resources. He also created pictures of his confined surroundings. However, he continued to push the boundaries of what it means to be a painter, even after his release in 1941. He created sculptural work such as Untitled (Opening Blossom), dated 1942-45 and Painted Stone (1945-47) which again looked at the idea of surfaces and texture, and showed the abilities to be free of apparent limitations of the medium of paint, as something which must be two-dimensional.
The Merzbarn is the crescendo of the exhibition and epitomises how radical Schwitters’ artistic practice was during this time. He started creating the piece in 1923, and on his third attempt at its manifestation; it was still unfinished when he died in 1948. It shows Schwitters as a true artist, whereby art is his lifeline. His passion for creation was all-consuming. Such a grand installation shows how inspirational a figure Schwitters has become, and this is translated by the end of the exhibition through the exhibition of inspired work from Adam Chodzko and Laure Prouvost. Whilst Chodzko takes on the more architectural and environmental, exploring the contextual side of the work, Prouvost shows a video installation and creates a narrative based around a grandfather figure, looking at the way an artist has no control over interpretations of their work.