Schwitters in Britain at Tate Britain

-This exhibition is now closed-

Tate Britain’s new seasonal exhibition, Schwitters in Britainfocuses on the later works of artist Kurt Schwitters, who is credited as one of the most important figures in European Modernism and was described by contemporary British critic Herbert Read as ‘the supreme master of the collage’.

Born in Germany, Schwitters fled Nazi oppression during the Second World War, first to Norway and then to Britain, where he spent over a year in internment camps before being freed in 1941. The artist lived in London for several years and finally settled in the Lake District, where he died in 1948.

Schwitters’s life of enforced nomadism and relative poverty, coupled with his ‘Merz‘ philosophy of featuring any available materials in his collages and sculptures, give this exhibition the feel of an archaeological dig. Exploring the artist’s work through time, the viewer discovers layer upon layer of material artefacts and historical debris: British newspaper clippings about Churchill’s 71st birthday are inlayed with borrowed graphics and painted card; A travel trunk, surreptitiously lined with materials collected in exile, testifies to Schwitters’s time in Norway; Modernist sculptures of natural material, plaster and paint exist in portable size, as if to be easily carried on the run. The exhibition also references Schwitters’s short-lived porridge sculptures, made during his imprisonment on the Isle of Man, and his large-scale Merzbau works, interior spaces transformed into massive, radical sculptures using unconventional materials and found objects.

These works show Schwitters’s engagement with the materials in his immediate environment, not as a last resort but in an attempt to expose their nature as fragments of a world thrown into tumult by the devastation of war. Yet for all the tragedy of Schwitters’s time and his own personal bad luck, none of the work here is especially anguished or morose. There is a sense of playfulness in his strange sound poem The Ursonate, and humour in many of his collages, such as the aptly named 1947 piece This was before H. R. H. The Late DUKE OF CLARENCE & AVONDALE. Now it is a Merz picture. Sorry!, which features a prominent photo of the Duke overlayed with a number of small collage materials.

The result is a fascinating exhibition, almost as much for Schwitters’s life story as for the quality of the art on show.

The exhibition closes on 12 May.