Kurt Schwitters

KurtSchwittersThose of you who read this blog on a regular basis will know that my university students are taking part in the Design Museum’s competition called The Design Factory. This year the brief investigates hand made and high tech – the uses of craft and industrial processes. So we’ve been working on all kinds of mark making with guest illustrators and recently had a freezing, snowy day of exploration at Tate Britain where, amongst other things, we saw the Kurt Schwitters exhibition.

Schwitters worked with the Dada movement which informed much of what he did technically and emotionally. Dada was an avant garde movement that was primarily concerned with responding to the first World War. This has been called the first mechanised war and it brought home to many people that perhaps machines – tanks and large artillery peices – were not so helpful to mankind after all. As well as this Dada was appalled by the so called “common sense” that sent thouands of young men to pointless deaths. If this was “sense” and “logic”, they argued, then they preferred nonsense and illogical responses. Much of Dada’s output looks like nonsense – it is mixed up, hard to understand and anarchic. But this is the point. When you realise that something is nonsense you have to think about what is the sense. And if that sense makes no sense, then perhaps the nonsense is the better option! The creative art forum, they found, was the best place to undertake their critique.

So Dada used (mixed up) collage, nonsense poems constructed of sounds, performances with crazy masks….Anything that drew attention to the “normal” ways of making art. Schwitters himself devised a way of working called “Merz” in which he made everything from graphic design to large scale sculpture.

I read comments on Facebook the day I went to see the exhibition and was astounded at the anger, disgust and lack of understanding that Schwitters had aroused! Who were all these Philistines shouting that Tate shoudn’t waste time and money on this exhibition?

I didn’t like all of it. I found the paintings of Schwitters dull and lumpy and a bit like a 2D migraine! But the exhibition as a whole was fantastic and interesting. We had gone there with the main purpose of investigating materials and techniques and of exploring the divide between craft and industry. So for us the exhibition was a gold mine. The collage pieces of Schwitters in particualr were both philosophically interesting – he said they meant nothing – but also aesthetically pleasing. Some of the collages were framed really well with huge borders to focus the attention to the detail. And Schwitters is most famous (infamous?) for making collages with found objects from everday life like bus tickets and canned food labels. Some of the collages were very much about form and texture – how can torn paper make you think of pine trees? Others included old prints of sinister figures in long coats, making you wonder what the story was (there was none!?). So just on the level of how juxtaposed images make the viewer feel, there was much to discuss and explore.

Another fascinating thread, however, was just how much Schwitters had inspired Pop Art. The piece seen here at the top of the post, EN MORN [These are the Things we are Fighting For] 1(947), highlights Schwitters’ fascination with the everyday. Here is the magazine girl, the canned peach label and chocolate wrappers. So very like the Pop Art of Eduardo Paolozzi…..but wait, what’s this? Poalozzi saw this piece in exhibition the same year that he made his own cheesecake girl, fighter plane and fruit label version, I was a Rich Man’s Plaything (1947). You can see that work here on the Tate Gallery website.


Going round the exhibition made me feel that Schwitters had been a really nice, genuine guy despite the hardship of having to flee the Nazis and have his work called “degenerate”. Hearing the Dada poem broadcast from a nearby room made me wonder what all the shouting was about….perhaps the same reaction that people had had originally!

My students enjoyed the section about Schwitters and his peers when he was in an internment camp on the Isle of Man. When the sources of ordinary found objects dried up he returned to regular figurative works as well as helping to publish the camp newspaper and art magazine. The drive to make art must have been so strong that Schwitters ended up tearing up lino on which to paint and he made sculptures from porridge. Nice! My colleague and I wondered if we could get away with imprisoning our students to help them develop skills of improvisation….probably not!

The point that I took away from the show was that using found objects from our everyday lives both questions the status of “art” but also makes our own unimportant daily habits important. The sub-title of the top image – that these ordinary things are worth fighting for in a war or elsewhere – sums up how it is the little things that make us who we are. Settled in Britain after his release, Schwitters had ephemera, like labels and magazines, sent by his friends from the USA so his art and design also helps us move into that perpetual celebration of Americana that was Pop Art and is now just our regular lives.

The exhibition is on until May 12th 2013.

All you young design starters out there in the GDP community try to go to see this if you are in the UK and see what great things can be done with not much. And if you don’t like it don’t be a Facebook complainer – work out why you don’t like it and try to make something to confront it.

Images courtesy of the Tate Press Office.

Top: Kurt Schwitters, EN MORN, 1947, © Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris / DACS 2012

Bottom: Kurt Schwitters, UntitledQuality Street, 1943, © Sprengal Museum, Hannover / DACS 2012

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