LONDON (Reuters) - Sheep bones, nails, pegs, a scrubbing brush, a metal toy - all, according to avant garde German artist Kurt Schwitters, are on a par with paint, and all appear in collages and sculptures in a London show dedicated to his time in Britain in the 1940s.
Schwitters remains a relatively obscure figure in his adopted country, where he fled Nazi Germany and remained until his death, aged 60, in 1948.
“Schwitters in Britain” at Tate Britain aims to bring his works to a wider audience, although he is already acknowledged in the art world as a major influence on Pop Art and on famous figures like Richard Hamilton and Robert Rauschenberg.
He was also part of the Dada movement and a pioneer of both installation and performance art, most notably in his “Ursonate” poem which he developed between 1923 and 1932 and which consisted of repeated sequences of “pre-linguistic” sounds.
Curators and journalists discussing the show, which opens on January 30, jokingly refer to Schwitters’s art as “rubbish”, and his use of everyday fragments was born out of a desire to create beauty from the ruins of German culture after World War One.
In 1919 he created the radical new concept “Merz”, a one-man movement and philosophy which he described as “the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes, and technically the principle of equal evaluation of the individual materials...”
Works on display in the opening room of the show, designed to introduce visitors to his ideas and artistic career in Germany, include “Merzbild 46 A”, or Merz Picture 46 A, a collection of wooden pegs and other objects stuck to cardboard.
His most famous work before fleeing Nazi Germany in 1937 was probably “The Merzbau”, an architectural concept that took up several rooms in Schwitters’s Hanover home. It was destroyed by a bomb in 1943.
Schwitters was dismissed as “degenerate” by Hitler’s Nazis and featured in an exhibition aimed at mocking modern art. He went first to Norway, and, when that was occupied by German forces, took the last boat out, arriving in Scotland in 1940.
As an “enemy alien” in Britain, he ended up in a prison camp on the Isle of Man where he joined other eminent artists, musicians and academics and painted portraits of several of his friends which hang in the Tate Britain show.
It was a prolific period for Schwitters, and included sculptures made out of porridge instead of plaster of Paris which produced an unpleasant smell and were covered in mildew. They have not survived, Tate curators confirmed.
On his release he met and exhibited alongside leading figures in British abstract and surreal art, but always struggled to make a living from his art.
In 1945 he moved to the picturesque Lake District in northwest England, where he sought to make ends meet by painting portraits of locals and landscapes in a period of his career looked down upon by some in the art establishment.
Several of his later collages featured brightly colored cuttings from magazines and food packets sent from the United States.
One, “En Morn”, features the printed words “These are the things we are fighting for”, an apparent reference to the contrast between perceived post-war plenty in the United States and a rationing system still in place in Britain.
His last sculpture and installation was the “Merz Barn”, a continuation of his Merzbau project in which he attempted to transform a stone barn into a work of art by adorning its walls with natural materials from the surrounding area.
Schwitters completed only one wall of the planned grotto by the time of his death in 1948, and nearly 20 years later it was moved to a permanent home at the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle.
* Schwitters in Britain is organized in association with the Sprengel Museum in Hanover where it will tour in June. Tate Britain tickets cost 10 pounds, and the show ends on May 12.
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato