Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Kurt Schwitters

Kurt rejoined: Schwitters in Lakeland

A greyish day on a Lake District holiday is an opportunity for a pilgrimage to the modest shrine to Kurt Schwitters at the Armitt Museum in Ambleside. (For a previous post on Schwitters, see here.) Some years ago I searched the Lakes in vain for any traces of his presence, but now the Armitt sports a tidy little room with some thirty items. The weight is towards the effective but surprisingly conventional landscapes and portraits that were his bread and butter at the time, but there are a couple of Merz pieces too, plus – holy of holies – the faded sign to the now disembowelled MerzBarn at Elterwater. In the churchyard down the road at St Mary’s survives the headstone to the grave from which Schwitters’s body was removed to Hanover in 1970. Further south at Kendal the Abbot Hall Art Gallery hosts a small wall of Schwitters. All in all, a very worthwhile and tourable grouping of relics.

crossleyBarbara Crossley’s The Triumph of Kurt Schwitters, published in 2005 by the Armitt Trust, does not list or discuss in detail the works of this period, but does chronicle painstakingly his last years in the Lakes, following his release from internment in the Isle of Man in late 1941. Notwithstanding the self-sacrificial love and support of Schwitters’s partner Edith Thomas, it’s depressing to learn of the artist reduced to hanging about an Ambleside café, offering portrait sketches to customers for the price of a cup of tea, or working desperately on the barn, breathless and dying, his hands blue with the cold. It comes as a shock to realise that Schwitters died at the age of sixty. The subsequent neglect of his surviving work, followed by litigious bickering as prices later rose, does not make for good reading either. (Not that things are necessarily more sympathetic today. In the Armitt I was obliged to grit my teeth as some saloon bar know-it-all in hiking boots opined dismissively to his mate that the collages were “just patterns,” and that many of the works were probably labelled “Untitled” because the artist knew no English. )

Reviewing all this, I’m struck once again by the uncanny, almost miraculous even-handedness with which Schwitters maintained the two extreme polarities of his practice: the canon-busting inventiveness by which his collages bypass all expectations and still reach entirely satisfactory solutions, balanced by the comprehensive sanity of the observational work, as witnessed, among others, by the touching little pen and ink study of flowers at the Armitt.

Some of the Armitt and Abbot Hall items show up on the Art UK Schwitters page, but others are missing or beyond the scope of the site, so here are some selected snaps. (Click for enlarged slides. Any objections to my posting these, please contact me.) At the top left of the “YMCA Flag” collage is a portion of the envelope in which Schwitters received news of a grant towards the MerzBarn work from MOMA New York. Sorry about the reflections in this one; I find myself incorporated by the glass.

The taking of these photos coincided with a strange camera malfunction (perhaps more a photographer malfunction, if truth be told) in which entirely unfamiliar images arrived in the camera’s memory, while shots of Schwitters’s works deleted themselves only to reappear at will later. Unnerving. But all quite appropriate to a MerzBarn from which the Merz has been excavated and a grave that no longer holds a body.

The artist as philatelist

“Great adventures have shaken those childhood companions of ours, stamps which a thousand bonds of mystery unite with the history of the world … Here are the stamps of defeats, the stamps of revolutions. Used, mint – what do I care? I shall never begin to understand all this history and geography. Surcharges, overprints – your black enigmas terrify me: behind them are concealed an unknown ruler, a massacre, palaces in flames, and the song of a mob, waving placards and shouting slogans, that marches towards a throne …”

Aragon, Paris Peasant

Plenty of artists and artworks feature on postage stamps, but it’s hard to find a decent piece of art about philately or philatelists. (I exempt mail art and artistamps from the discussion at this point, the relation there being a conceptual game rather than an observation or reflection. Not “about”.) Such Kurt Schwitters collages as happen to contain fragments of stamps and envelopes perhaps begin to say something about the collecting process as retention, accumulation and autobiography, but only in the same way as for bus tickets or small fragments of lino – it was all one to Kurt, bless him.

Google Image suggests that paintings of philatelists (a somewhat specialised genre, admittedly) are mostly chocolate box-academic renditions of eccentric old geezers squinting through magnifying glasses. (Not that there isn’t an undeniable element of truth there, as anyone will know who has ever visited a stamp fair and studied the demography.) But here’s one that I think, for a change, makes the grade: Le Philatéliste, painted by François Barraud in 1929, just three years after the appearance of Louis Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris, whose stamp shop reverie is quoted above. (Not that Barraud was any kind of surrealist, though I notice that one of the editors of my very favouritest anthology of essays on the psychopathologies of collecting, The Cultures of Collecting, 1994, is Roger Cardinal, the Outsider Art man. To be fair, I doubt there are any other such anthologies, but I recommend the book anyway.)

Francois Barraud, 'Le Philateliste'

Francois Barraud, ‘Le Philateliste’

François was just one of the four Swiss Barraud brothers, all painters and all employing a broadly similar style, though generally reckoned the best of the quartet. He died in 1934 at the age of 34. There is a cool neo-classicism in his style that fits the period well, with hints of Maillol or Modigliani.  But there is also a tender and modest humanism, and a hint of Vermeer too. Le Philatéliste is a self-portrait with his wife Marie. The activity of collecting is shown as male, with the wife as supporter, offering her approval. Or does she intrude? Philately has always been an overwhelmingly male form of obsession. The sideways glance with slight frown, animated by the whole diagonal of the composition, introduces a very definite anxiety. The push-and-pull tension is between the woman and the collection. This is a study of desires and sublimations, of the limits of privacy and of the nature of the self. It is a gently uncomfortable image.

(Though an accurate one. As well as the magnifier, note the round-ended tweezers, the black watermark tray, the catalogue and what may be a packet of hinges.)

Hand up. I’d better sign off here with an admission of personal involvement. Some remains of my “other” website still seem to be online here (thanks to the neglect of my previous ISP to remove them), consisting of two terrifyingly forensic studies of hopelessly recondite aspects of the philatelic history of Burma. Yes, we are talking perversion.

The practices of art and philately (considered as an exemplar of “scientific” collecting) seem to be somehow opposed – and thus connected – obsessions. But which is a perversion of which? Each of the other, perhaps. And therefore both, I guess, of some elusive ur-obsession that might even claim a higher ground in terms of authenticity or worth. Or maybe not.

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.