Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Kurt thoughts: Britters in Schwitain

From notes made on my way round the Schwitters in Britain show at Tate Britain:

Constant tensions between colour and texture, forms and references.

Colour – So much brown! But the landscapes and portraits too, even in the skin tones, appear predominantly brown. Seems regressive – the dull cubist palette of Picasso & Braque. But his colour cheers up a bit once he is released from the internment camp!

Forms – Constructivist? How much chance? What laws do his compositions obey? Any?

References (found material) – Social & personal history. He claimed to sit light to the original significances of found material and of elements of text. But it clearly wasn’t so. (An abundance of bus tickets indicates a prevalence of buses. In London, judging by the collages, he ate an awful lot of Liquorice Allsorts. He does not appear to have eaten Kendal Mint Cake during the Lake District period.)

Untitled, 1942

Untitled, 1942 (Note Liquorice Allsorts)

[Thought: a philatelist notices an extremely rare stamp glued into a Schwitters collage … Thought: British Counter-intelligence analyses his British collages, suspecting them to be coded messages.]

In the collages the upside-down elements (writing, images) are sometimes quite dominant. Did Schwitters work both/all ways up until the final resolution?

His process? Tension between congruences and incongruences. Exercises in daring. Relentless oddness. Defies Ben Nicholson’s tastefulness. Nicholson called Schwitters “an ass and a bore”. (Nicholson could be, in Sven Berlin’s words, “a cold, spiteful little sod”.)

The later paintings and small sculptures move towards a more lyrical, clean, hard edged colourfulness, lose their grubbiness, even take on a strange hint of style. But this threat of taste is always carefully recuperated by some element or small fragment of anti-taste. Allure, then deflection. A sideways step.

Lovely Portrait, 1942

Schwitters, ‘Lovely Portrait,’ 1942

Schwitters, portrait of george Johnston, 1946

Schwitters, portrait of George Johnston, 1946

Asger Jorn, 'The avant-garde doesn't give up painting,' 1962

Asger Jorn, ‘The avant-garde doesn’t give up painting,’ 1962

In Untitled (Lovely Portrait), 1942, Schwitters paints over an existing Victorian portrait, leaving only the face from the original. See Asger Jorn’s interventions (“defigurations”). But unlike Jorn, Schwitters did not disrespect the original, given that he was a conventional portraitist himself. See also Joyce Cary’s Gully Jimson (The Horse’s Mouth) buying an old Rembrandt to paint over in place of a new canvas. Also, Duchamp’s “anti-readymade” notion of using a Rembrandt as an ironing board – though that works only as an idea, not as an object. The portrait painted over by Schwitters as an anti-readymade?

[Thought: in 1943 in London Schwitters was in contact with Jankel Adler. Adler was in close contact with Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde. They could have seen Schwitters’s work on show alongside Adler’s in 1944. Could Schwitters have met the Two Roberts? If so, they may hardly have understood each other.]

Despite the two new works in this show (elaborate, self-indulgent, ignorable) commissioned to honour the “Lake District legacy” of Schwitters, there is no such legacy. One wet Lakeland weekend some years ago, I failed to find any trace of his time in Ambleside. (Though recently the Armitt Collection has started to pull things together.)

Before I viewed this show, I thought that I understood Schwitters’s work. Now I find that I don’t. But I like it all the more for that.

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