The Autumn Crocus

Fragments from the life and work of Kurt Schwitters

By Michael Kemp

We enter the rich man’s house. It is to be an Evening of The Arts. My wife is there with me, as is my mistress, both playing with the same long trail of cord decorated with oriental bells. Corkscrew raven hair mingled with white straw blonde. Tall fluted glasses of wine set out on trays. We are the outsiders. We are the malcontents, the agent provocateurs. We sleep thru’ polite recitals of Brahms and Schubert, and eventually take our place behind the shadow of the grand piano. Our vocal incantation slowly begins: “Tata tata, tui E tui E; tata tata, tui E tui E; tata tata, tui E tui E…”

At a given signal, concealed cabbages and cauliflowers are dramatically produced from under black capes, and are jettisoned, to go sailing thru’ the rarefied air into the very midst of the assembled haute bourgeoisie. A man looking remarkably like DH Lawrence jumps to his feet and shouts out “Auteur, auteur”. I wake with a start…

(Meanwhile, 36 years earlier)

Kurt Schwitters boards a train to Norway. It is in the nick of time — his work having already been burnt by the Nazis in their notorious “Auto-da-fé” event of 1934. Yes, probably time to move on. He arrives in the small town of Lysaker, near Oslo. The weather is fine. Although Norway shares a similar latitude with Alaska, and even Siberia, the weather is still fine. He takes a lungful of clean fresh air and begins painting, begins sculpting, begins collecting discarded tickets on the streets of Lysaker. He starts work on the second Merzbau (the first — entitled “The Cathedral of Erotic Misery” — having been left behind in Hanover).

What is Merz? And what is a Merzbau? Merz (taken from a chance sighting and appropriation of a German bank letterhead “Kommerz und Privatbank” (“Commerce and Private Bank”) was Schwitters’ own personal take on Dada, a melding of art and non-art. A unification. Let’s ask the man himself: “Merz is consistent. Merz cultivates nonsense. Merz builds the new from fragments. Merz develops the studies for a communal creation of the world. Merz detoxifies. Merz is Kurt Schwitters…”

His original Merzbau was a residential house, transformed, piece by piece, into a baroque cave or grotto, spilling out into unexpected dimensions, featuring found objects, sculptures, sweetpapers, Merz pictures, the detritus of everyday life, mysterious talismans and totems. Red wires and half spoons. Anyway, in Lysaker, life is generally good for Schwitters. He creates “Isbreen under Snow”, “Opened by Customs” and “Partial View from Skodie, near Alesund”.

But the Hitler Gang aren’t far behind. They invade Norway in April 1940, a bitter blitzkrieg by air and by sea, bombing major ports, including Oslo, and burning defenceless Norwegian villages. Schwitters flees to Scotland on an icebreaker. He is carrying one small wooden sculpture in one pocket, which he continues to carve, and two live white mice in the other. Scottish Customs officials are bemused, and he is interned for seventeen months. For being a German national (nothing to do with the mice).

Kurt Schwitters ends up in the Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man in July 1940 where he continues to sketch and paint as best he can in the circumstances. Art materials are scarce, so he improvises in heroic fashion: making paint from the dust of bricks mixed with oil from sardine cans; and ripping up the lino from the camp floor to create lino-cut prints. During this time (according to fellow detainees) he sleeps under his bed, occasionally barks like a dog, and fashions Merz sculptures out of cold porridge (due to the wartime scarcity of Plaster of Paris). He also writes a short story “The Flat and Round Painter”…

“Once upon a time there was a painter-chap who painted his paintings in the air — not plain flat figures with flat paint-brushes on flat canvas, but he painted round figures round in the air…”

Schwitters is finally released from internment in November 1941.

He moves to London and finds himself an attic flat in Paddington. He also finds himself, by chance, a young lady named Edith Thomas, whom he rechristens “Wantee” (“As beautiful as the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table”) who becomes his constant companion for the rest of his life. (“He knocked on her door to ask how the boiler worked, and t hat was that. She was 27 – half his age. He called her “Wantee” because she was always offering him tea…”).

Scouring the streets with Wantee — chance encounters on railway platforms — London fogs and unfamiliar billboards — “What You Want is Watney’s” — thunderstorms — air raid shelters and blackouts — bombsites and unrecorded lives, frozen in mid-collapse — racks of demob suits in charity shops — old ration books — “My Goodness, My Guinness”.

Eye teeth, ochre and sea shells — leafy gardens in Barnes — glass flowers and piano rooms — opening blossoms — togetherness — Wantee in a Merz collage with stamps and sailing ships — Untitled (Ty. P. Hoo Tea) 1944.

In 1945 the war ends, and Schwitters and Wantee move together up to Ambleside, in the Lake District. A landscape with trees. He begins work on a final Merzbau at windswept Elterwater, again filling it with all manner of art and non-art (which, as you now know, is Merz) and creates “Landscape in the Lake District with Power Masts 1947”, the memorably-titled “This was before H.R.H. The Late Duke of Clarence & Avondale. Now it is a Merz picture. Sorry!” — and many other works, titles often referencing local surroundings, such as “Kirkston Pass”, “Landscape from Nook Lane”, “Rothay Valley II”, “Rydal Water”, and “Smithy Brow, Ambleside”.

Made in Britain.

But his health is failing (the wounded hunter), a fall, a broken femur, the doctor is summoned “You don’t have to keep making these noises, Mr Schwitters” (silence) “but i LIKE making these noises, doctor…”

URSONATE de Kurt Schwitters

Fümms bö wö tää zää Uu,
pögiff,
kwii Ee.
Oooooooooooooooooooooooo,
dll rrrrr beeeee bö
dll rrrrr beeeee bö fümms bö,
rrrrr beeeee bö fümms bö wö,
beeeee bö fümms bö wö tää,
bö fümms bö wö tää zää,
fümms bö wö tää zää Uu:
Fümms bö wö tää zää Uu,
pögiff,
Kwii Ee.
Dedesnn nn rrrrr,
Ii Ee,
mpiff tillff too,
tillll,
Jüü Kaa?

Wantee — accidental muse and bringer of sweet tea — rearranges a few found objects on the rough mantelpiece — gazes momentarily into the future — at us looking back at her — and then quietly closes the Merzbau door.

Schwitters in Britain
Tate Britain: Exhibition

30 January – 12 May 2013