cut and paste

What a revelation the current Tate show, Schwitters in Britain, is. Although the main focus is on late work by Schwitters, made after his arrival in Britain as a refugee in 1940, the exhibition does include work from earlier periods in Germany and then Norway, and highlights the breadth and inventiveness of his art throughout his life. There are small, beautifully constructed collages from the 1920s, and larger assemblages using wood and found objects that remain intriguing, and must have been startling when first shown. Abstract paintings in strong primary colours, and recurring use of curving forms. Odd and witty objects that please my eye and make me smile. Aerated V (1941) consists of oil paint, wood and ping pong ball. Another assemblage from 1942 employs red wire and half a spoon. I’ve made a very bad sketch in my notebook of Blue Paragraph (1941-44), an unfolding blue wood shape, a bit like a backwards 6 with a tail, which is mounted on yellow painted wood. You need to see the actual thing. Why am I drawn to it, to Scwhwitters’ work overall? There’s his engagement with language, and I’m trying to read the shape in this piece. The collages layer scraps of newspapers, advertisements, tickets and so on; language butting up against the dominance of the visual. And of course his Ursonate, a hypnotic sound poem, played on repeat in one of the gallery rooms from a recording of Schwitters performing the piece. But I was also thrilled to discover his hand-held sculptures, simple and delicate creations from carved wood or plaster or stone, painted in white and red or other bright, contrasting colours. Dancer (1943) is a beautiful, elegant painted sculpture made from bone and plaster. Juxtapositions and combinations. Art from the everyday. And art as necessity. It is extraordinary to think about his time as an internee on the Isle of Man, having fled the Nazis for a second time after their invasion of Norway, making sculptures from porridge (none on display, unfortunately) as well as painting conventional portraits of his fellow internees. Painting on squares of linoleum cut from the floor, making art from the meagre materials to hand. One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition is a small birchwood sculpture, carved at sea in 1940 during his escape to Britain. The story is poignant; the artifact is pure form, a shape waiting to be held, felt, weighed in the hand. And then I go back to the ever-fresh collages, finding new layers, echoes of exile (stamps, envelopes), and always a wonderful absurd humour.

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One thought on “cut and paste

  1. Pingback: a packed week off – part two | hilaire

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