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Degenerates remembered

Ian Hunter looks at an exhibition and project remembering persecuted artist Kurt Schwitters

January 22, 2013
5 min read

Inside Kurt Schwitters’ Merz Barn, built during the final year of his life in exile and left unfinished

Condemned by the Nazis and with his work included in an exhibition of entartete kunst or ‘degenerate’ art, Schwitters was forced to flee from his home in 1937, for exile in Norway. When the Germans invaded Norway in 1940 he was forced to flee for a second time to Britain, where he arrived in the Scottish port of Leith. He was detained as an enemy alien and interned on the Isle of Man. In the camp he participated in group exhibitions and gave poetry performances. On release in 1941 he became involved with the London art scene, engaging with British artists and critics such as Ben Nicholson and Herbert Read. The latter described him as ‘the supreme master of the collage’.

At the end of the war in 1945, Schwitters relocated to the Lake District. Inspired by the rural Cumbrian landscape, he began to incorporate natural objects into his work. During his brief years there (he died early in 1948), he began work on his last great sculpture installation, the Elterwater Merz Barn, a continuation of the Hanover Merzbau – an architectural construction considered to be one of the key lost works of European modernism. It is generally accepted that, despite his high standing as a pioneering artist of the modernist era, his late period English artworks have not been given due recognition, and nor has the importance of his ongoing legacy and contributions to contemporary art and architecture.

Some 65 years on, a group of artists and Tate Britain now intend to rectify the matter. Tate Britain is planning a major exhibition, Kurt Schwitters in Britain, which opens in late January and runs through to mid-May 2013. Schwitters’ surviving Merz Barn building, in the Langdale valley in Cumbria, has also recently been purchased by the Littoral Arts Trust, which plans to restore the Merz Barn and later create a Kurt Schwitters Museum and contemporary art gallery on the site nearby.

Because Schwitters lived much of the latter part of his life as a refugee, the trust plans to develop a centre at the Merz Barn site for refugee artists, including a study centre, gallery and archive that would feature the work of 20th and 2st-century refugee artists, as well as documenting their ongoing contribution to British art since 1933, when the Nazis came to power in Germany.

Plans also include the creation of a memorial plaza beside the Merz Barn, in memory of the many artists, writers, poets and musicians who Hitler and the Nazis also declared ‘degenerate’. Many of these, including Schwitters, were the leaders and pioneers of the European modern abstract, Dadaist and constructivist art movements, and as such they were also included in the infamous Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich in 1937. It was at this point that Schwitters, like so many other ‘degenerate’ modern artists, fled his home in Germany for exile. Ironically, it was this extraordinary modernist cultural diaspora, forced by the Nazis, that inadvertently accelerated the spread of modern art and architecture, albeit often as sad fragments of human lives and broken artistic careers, to Britain, the USA and throughout the rest of the world.

In memory of these and the many other artists forced into exile, or who were killed by the Nazis, the trust is now about to begin work on the memorial plaza. The intention, when it is finished, is to hold an annual ‘Reading of the Names’ ceremony on the third weekend of October each year. Artists, writers, musicians, singers, dancers, composers and so on from all over the world will be invited to gather together to read out all the names of the many hundreds of their fellow artists who were persecuted, killed or forced into exile by Hitler and the Nazis.

The names will also be written out in white chalk on the individual blue Lakeland slate stones, on the end wall of the Merz Barn. After a few weeks, the Cumbrian rain will have washed them clean and so the process will be repeated over and over again each year.

Although the trust has had its funding axed by the Arts Council, it remains committed to the project and is resolved to see it through, come what may. The aim is to raise about £30,000 through individual donations and sponsorship by April 2013, to help pay for the construction of the memorial. This includes provision for the establishment of an Entartete Kunst and refugee artists archive and study centre. Artists, designers and architects, art students, musicians, students and good friends of liberty and freedom of speech have been invited to come along and, if they so wish, volunteer their labour, time and skills to help with the memorial project.

Although it is not officially open yet, you can visit the Merz Barn if you call the Littoral Arts Trust first for an appointment. Details at www.merzbarn.net

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