Schwitters in Ambleside

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A blog post by Barbara of Milady’s Boudoir alerted me to the Armitt Library in Ambleside. So it was on my list of places to visit during our recent holiday in the Lake District. It’s an interesting little place. A library on the top floor and museum on the ground floor.

The Armitt Library was founded by Mary Louisa Armitt in 1909 and formally opened following her death in 1912. It was intended as a resource for the local scholarly community and incorporated the Ambleside Book Society founded in 1828 and the Ambleside Ruskin Library, which dates from the 1890s. The reference library on the first floor is free to use and houses a wealth of books on the local area and its history.

The main exhibition was about the life of Beatrix Potter and her drawings of fungi. It was well curated and reading about Beatrix we were also able to learn a few things about life in the Lake District at the beginning of the 20th Century. But my main motivation for visiting the museum was to see the permanent exhibitions of works by Kurt Schwitters, the German abstract artist who lived in and around Ambleside for the last few years of his life.

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Originally on the fringes of the German Dadaist movement, Scwitters invented the concept of Merz

‘the combination, for artistic purposes of all conceivable materials’.

He used any materials he could find – paper, cardboard, scraps of print, bits of wood, string, cotton wool, bus tickets and anything else that came to hand – incorporating them into abstract collage, installation, poetry and performance.

Learning that he was wanted by the Gestapo for an “interview” in 1937 he fled to Norway but when the Nazis invaded in 1940 he had to flee again, this time to Britain. Initially he was interred as an “enemy alien” in Scotland and then the Isle of Man. He was released in November 1941, moving first to London and then, in 1945, settling in the Lake district. He died in 1948.

Although his real interest was in creating his three dimensional collages, he was an accomplished figurative artist and used to paint portraits of local people and landscapes of the area to try and earn a few bob. The Armitt have managed to collect several of these and have others on loan and they constitute the main part of the exhibition, although they also have a few example of Merz.

This is his painting of Bridge House in Ambleside, a tourist attraction now owned by the National Trust and which stands almost directly opposite the Armitt.

bridge-house by Scwitters

This is my photograph of the building

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I enjoyed looking at the paintings as they gave an insight into the artist who had to reel them off to make some money. However,it’s his Merz works that single him out as a significant artist. His collages didn’t impress the locals. But he did manage to win prizes in the local art show for some of his conventional paintings of flowers. 

Flight”(1945). From the Abbot Hall collection.

Kurt Schwitters - Flight

Kurt Schwitters – “Throw them up and let them sing”

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Kurt Schwitters, London 1944 (Source: Wikipedia)

Neglected for many years, the name of Kurt Schwitters has started cropping up all over the place. Tate Britain are due to hold a major retrospective between 30 January and 12 May next year of the work he produced during his  limited time in Britain as a refugee from Nazi Germany. But his work has been quietly celebrated for many years at the Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal, close to where he made his final home and created his last masterpiece.

Originally on the fringes of the German Dadaist movement, Scwitters invented the concept of Merz

‘the combination, for artistic purposes of all conceivable materials’.

He used any materials that came to hand – paper, cardboard, scraps of print, bits of wood, string, cotton wool, bus tickets and anything else that came to hand.  Schwitters considered them to be equal with paint. He incorporated these found objects and everyday materials in abstract collage, installation, poetry and performance.

The term Merz  originated from a fragment of found text from the sentence Commerz Und Privatbank Schwitters used in his picture Das Merzbild.

Learning that he was wanted by the Gestapo for an “interview” in 1937 he fled to Norway but when the Nazis invaded in 1940 he had to flee again, this time to Britain. Initiallly he was interred as an “enemy alien” in Scotland and then the Isle of Man. He was released in November 1941, moving first to London and then, in 1945, settling in the Lake district.

Without any income he often had to sleep rough and tried to earn money by selling portraits and landscapes. However, when he received a grant from the New York  Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) he started to create his last great work of art, the Mertzbarn near the tiny hamlet of Elterwater in the picturesque Langdale valley. However, his health was failing and he died in Kendal, on 8 January 1948, a few days after he’d been granted British citizenship. The wall of his Mertzbarn was removed and is now displayed in the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Although he was unappreciated for many years the Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal had the foresight to obtain a number of his works for their collection. They include some characteristic collages and a sculpture created using found objects. But the collection also includes some figurative works, portraits and landscapes, that he sold to make some money when he had no other source of income.  We were able to see all of them during our recent visit to the gallery in a special exhibition shown in conjunction with a film – Throw them up and let them sing by Helen Petts, made in response to Schwitters’ life, which was commissioned for the Cultural Olympiad – the arts festival of the 2012 Olympic Games.

My favourite of the works from the collection was a small oil painting including found objects -“Flight”(1945). It’s only 43cm x 35.5cm but was quite striking .

Kurt Schwitters - Flight

The title of Petts’ film is a quote from Schwitters describing what he did with his ‘merz material’ when creating his collages.

The film

“explores landscape, rhythm, texture, sound, improvisation and walking, using footage shot in locations that were a major inspiration to Schwitters: Norway, where he holidayed and first escaped to as a refugee from Nazi Germany and Loughrigg Fell, Rydal Terrace and the Merzbarn in the Lake District, where he spent the last few years of his life.”

Helen Petts kept a blog while she made her film which can be viewed here.

Throw them up and let them sing can’t be viewed on line, but Helen has posted a video showing the Merzbarn wall.

Finally receiving greater recognition, as well as the Tate retrospective a campaign has been launched to create a memorial in Elterwater close to the Merzbarn.

A large selection of his art works can be viewed here.