I n 1940, Kurt Schwitters was probably the most avant-garde “enemy alien” in Britain – the German artist worked with nails, pebbles, sounds and porridge (more on the porridge shortly). Interned in the Hutchinson Camp housed in a Victorian square on the Isle of Man, he was a popular addition to a community of German and Austrian artists who had fled Hitler. While he feared that captivity would compromise his art, in fact the situation only served to fuel what he called his “intensification of expression”.
Exile was of a piece with Schwitters’ life story. He was a perpetual outsider; he was oblivious of Die Brücke while studying at the Dresden Academy and he proved too romantic for the Dadaists. His idiosyncratic artistic journey can now be traced through a selection of works – including his celebrated “Merz” collages of ephemera, oil paintings of fluid compositions and a unique and exceptional sculpture – offered at Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Day Sale on 19 March. “The bourgeois love slickness and polish; Schwitters hates them,” observed the critic Herbert Read in 1944. “He leaves the edges rough, his surfaces uneven”. His biography was just as jagged.
A visual arts troubadour, Schwitters packed up his eclectic vision like a guitar in a case and took it wherever he went. From 1937, when he escaped Nazi oppression in Hanover, that path took him to Norway, the Isle of Man, London and the Lake District. Likewise, he crisscrossed the borders between Expressionism, Cubism and Conceptualism.
An itinerant life “certainly wasn’t antithesis to his working practice and creative inclinations,” states Holly Braine, Head of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Day sale. “But that said I think that being interned was extremely challenging. His wife died whilst he was exiled. He talked about that time as wholly challenging and art was a creative outlet. It was about staving off his despair.”
The earliest work in the London sale – a 1921 collage of Turkish and Egyptian tobacco labels – was formerly in the collection of the German art historian Werner Schmalenbach. It is an echo of a happier time, a period when Schwitters enjoyed the liberal freedom of the Weimar era. Later, when the Nazis declared him a “degenerate artist” – they balked at his sound poetry and grotto-like interiors – he joined his son in Norway. There he turned a moss-covered cabin into a work of art, known locally as the “Schwittershytte”. When Germany invaded Norway, Schwitters left again, this time on a Norwegian icebreaker bound for Britain.
His Gebogene Formen (Curving Forms) – a symphony of organic contours which also appears at Sotheby’s – was painted in the Hutchinson Camp, where Schwitters proved to be as resourceful as he was gregarious. One of his fellow internees was the painter and author Fred Uhlman, who recalled Schwitters’ makeshift atelier: “The room stank. A musty, sour, indescribable stink which came from three Dada sculptures which he had created from porridge, no plaster of Paris being available. The porridge had developed mildew and the statues were covered with greenish hair.”
Three of the works at Sotheby’s were the property of Edith Thomas, Schwitters’ companion following his release from internment. The couple met in 1941 in their Paddington lodgings (he knocked on her door to ask how the boiler worked). He nicknamed her ‘Wantee’ because she was always asking if he wanted a cup of tea. She was English and half his age.
“Edith considered herself to be a small-town London girl and she knew nothing about art. She had only heard of Constable and Turner and then this huge German artist suddenly appeared in this tiny house, showing her all sorts of abstract art. She was bowled over by him,” Braine says. A gem-like 1947 collage in the group – a medley of typography and torn paper – is dedicated to her.
In Edith’s correspondence, now in the Tate archives, she details Schwitters’ nomadic intelligence. “She describes him as an intrepid explorer who was just so curious,” Braine explains. “And for him what an extraordinary way to end your life, to fall in love with the person you happen to be put in a house with during the Blitz in London.”
Schwitters’ final harbour was the English Lake District, where he turned an Elterwater straw-barn into one of his “Merzebau” installations, filling it with works such as the 1947 sculpture at Sotheby’s, a composition of stone, bamboo, plaster and nails. “They are so small that they may be easily transported,” Schwitters noted of his sculptures. He understood that his situation could always change. And, indeed, it did. His journey came to a sudden end a year later when he suffered a heart attack. He had been granted British citizenship just the day before.