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


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform


43