DETOX WITH KURT SCHWITTERS

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This Season: Olivia Weinberg picks the collages of a German painter, interned in Britain during the second world war

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

Things—a piece of string, corrugated card, a used envelope, nails, a grubby bus ticket, sackcloth, a yellow dot—have been attached to a wooden board. Fragmented words from bits of coffee-stained newsprint poke through the gaps, teasingly. Splurges of paint sweep across the pitted surface. The result is a carefully assembled composition made from a load of old tat.

In 1919 Kurt Schwitters invented the concept of Merz. The term, like much of Schwitters’ work, is dipped in irony (he saw an advert for Commerzbank and took a bite out of the middle). The process is a sort of anti-ideology, in which boring everyday materials become expressive components of equal weight. "Merz develops the studies for a communal creation of the world," he declared. "Merz detoxifies. Merz is Kurt Schwitters."

Picasso and Braque had been playing around with a similar technique a few years earlier, which they called papiers collés, but Schwitters, says Emma Chambers, curator of modern British art at Tate Britain, "takes collage to a different level" (above, "The Proposal", 1942). He had a sharp imagination that enabled him to look at ordinary objects with fresh eyes, as if seeing them for the very first time.

He was forced to flee Germany when his work was condemned as "degenerate" by the Nazi government. He was one of many German exiles, including a number of artists, to be interned on the Isle of Man during the war. In the camp, he took part in concerts, poetry performances and group exhibitions. "It’s unfortunate", Chambers says, "that the legendary porridge sculptures didn’t survive." 

Released in 1941, Schwitters spent more time in London, and it shows. A Bassetts Liquorice Allsorts wrapper appears in "Untitled (This is to Certify That)", 1942 , as do familiar English phrases and this is the first major exhibition to focus on his extensive British output. The curators, keen to shake things up, have invited two artists, in collaboration with Grizedale Arts, to develop new work in response to Schwitters. The two have taken different approaches—Laure Prouvost has used anecdotal material in which she hops between fact and fiction, while Adam Chodzko pays homage to the "Merz Barn", an architectural construction in Cumbria considered one of the key lost works of European modernism. "I’ve discovered", Chodzko says, "that people make no sense."

Schwitters in Britain Tate Britain, London, Jan 30th to May 12th

AT A GLANCE

Art in the Street: European Posters (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to July 21st). In the 1890s poster mania brought fine art to the masses. This show goes back from Art Nouveau to Russian photomontage, with key works by Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard and Kandinsky.

Inventing Abstraction, 1910– 1925 (MoMA, New York, to April 15th). In 1912, a handful of artists (Kandinsky, Picabia, Kupka, Delaunay) presented the first abstract pictures to the world. A century on, MoMA has a sweeping survey of more than 400 works.

Manet: Portraying Life (Royal Academy, London, Jan 26th to April 14th). Today we call him the father of modern art, but in life Manet’s unusual technique divided the critics. This is the first major exhibition dedicated to his portraits. Better late...

Murillo at the Wallace Collection: Painting of the Spanish Golden Age (Wallace Collection, London, Feb 6th to May 12th). Hugely popular in the 17th century, Murillo’s canvases are powerful, tender and ripe for rediscovery.

Chagall: Modern Master (Kunsthaus, Zurich, Feb 8th to May 12th). Like them or not, Chagall’s floaty figures and flying cows are instantly recognisable. Here are more than 90 lively paintings and works on paper.

ON|OFF (UCCA, Beijing, to April 14th). Fifty young Chinese artists ready to be heard. Expect a lot of energy.

The Bride and the Bachelors: Duchamp with Cage, Cunningham, Rauschenberg and Johns (Barbican, London, Feb 14th to June 9th). With his humour and daredevil ingenuity, Duchamp rewrote the rules. This show explores his impact on four modern greats.

William Scott (Tate St Ives, Jan 26th to May 6th). The 60-year career of a painter whose clean lines and cool colour can make a saucepan look stylish. 

Max Ernst (Albertina, Vienna, Jan 23rd to May 5th). His first Austrian retrospective. On the surface, his paintings are full of colour and spirit; dig deeper and they disclose Freudian metaphors and wicked childhood memories.

Olivia Weinberg is an art critic based in London. She took over as our exhibitions previewer after interning at Intelligent Life in 2010