Internee overcame creative restraints

CREATIVITY IN CAPTIVITY: Kurt Schwitters' Untitled (portrait of Fred Uhlman) 1940 � Hatton Gallery, University of Newcastle

CREATIVITY IN CAPTIVITY: Kurt Schwitters' Untitled (portrait of Fred Uhlman) 1940 � Hatton Gallery, University of Newcastle

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SAT in the laundry room of a terraced house in Douglas, a group of men are enjoying Viennese pastries with coffee as they discuss philosophy.

Another man enters and lets out a loud nonsense sound ‘Lanke trrgll!’ The seated men respond loudly, ‘Pi pi pi ooka ooka zueka zueka!’

DOUGLAS ROOFS: Kurt Schwitters' �Untitled (Roofs of Houses in Douglas, Isle of Man) 1941 � Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Hannover

DOUGLAS ROOFS: Kurt Schwitters' �Untitled (Roofs of Houses in Douglas, Isle of Man) 1941 � Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Hannover

The scene is not fictional, but the strange reality that was Hutchinson internment camp in 1941.

The brilliant if odd vitality of the scene is owed to the presence of Kurt Schwitters, one of the most important artists of the 20th century, confirmed in the latest exhibition at the Tate Britain gallery in London.

Schwitters in Britain opened last week, an exhibition of 150 collages, sculptures, paintings and sound poems, focussing on the last eight fruitful years of the artist’s life, spent fleeing Nazi Germany and settling in Britain.

Schwitters is best known as a Dada artist, eagerly taking up the rejection of reason and logic, instead trusting in nonsense, irrationality and intuition.

If reason leads to something as terrible as World War One then reason itself must be rejected.

Schwitters took this further in his 1919 invention of ‘Merz’, which was ‘essentially the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes’.

So in addition to paint, canvasses in the Tate exhibition also feature bus tickets, feathers, spoons, ping pong balls, doilies, a lobster shell and two small china dogs.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, for most people Schwitters’ art was at best simply baffling, but the scorn of others was rather more ominous.  

In 1937 his art featured prominently in the infamous Nazi exhibition of ‘degenerate’ art.

One photograph shows Hitler and his entourage apparently laughing at one of Schwitters’ large canvases on which is written in large letters ‘Take Dada Seriously!’

By this time Schwitters had already ignored an invitation to go for an ‘interview’ with the Gestapo and instead fled, first to Norway and then Scotland.

However, once in Britain he was deemed an ‘enemy alien’ and sent for internment in the Isle of Man.

He arrived in Hutchinson camp, Douglas, in July 1940, joining 2,000 other mostly German and Austrian men behind the barbed wire fence closing in the terraced houses around Hutchinson Square.

Schwitters was among the 10 per cent minority in not being Jewish - a reflection of the extent to which the British authorities erred on the side of caution in interning all foreign nationals when war broke out.

This included even those born and raised in Britain, such as one of the few Italians in Hutchinson camp who swam for Britain in the 1936 Olympics and would proudly wear his Great Britain training top around the camp.

Hutchinson camp soon came to be known as the artists’ camp, containing artists of effectively all of the art styles suppressed in Germany at that time.

Within weeks a camp university had started up with lectures being given on the lawn by historians, architects, linguists, archaeologists and much else besides (including a lion tamer who would carry around a small lasso, ready to impress fellow internees by using it to pick flowers).

Thanks to the understanding attitude of H. O. Daniel, the camp captain, Schwitters was soon found studio space in which to work and take students. But he and his colleagues had to be resourceful to achieve the volume of art supplies they needed; they would dig up clay for sculpture, mix brick dust with sardine oil to create paint and rip up linoleum for etchings.

The exhibition does not comment on the Manx landladies who must have had a shock upon returning to their commandeered homes in 1944 and finding wallpaper ripped down and paintings across the walls.

Schwitters’ very ‘Merz’ extension of this resourcefulness was reported in a note by his friend Fred Uhlman.

It said: ‘The room stank. A musty, sour, indescribable stink which came from three Dada sculptures which he had created from porridge.

‘The porridge had developed mildew and the statues were covered with greenish hair and bluish excrements of an unknown type of bacteria.’

It is probably for the best that there are no porridge sculptures included in the Tate exhibition.

However, Schwitters’ portrait of Uhlman (pictured top right), painted for a fee of £5 in his attic room, has pride of place. It is a striking reminder of Schwitters’ formal artistic abilities beside his more well-known Dadaist work.

Although distressed by captivity, the artist put on a brave face and came to flourish in the Isle of Man, producing more than 200 pieces of art during his 16 months in the island.

He became a veritable camp celebrity, both in his art and his lively personality.

Indeed, the camp was even treated to performances of his 40-minute sound poem, Ursonate (see right for weblink), which caused such an impression on those present that its entirely meaningless refrains were soon adopted as greetings within the camp.

The Tate has on display Schwitters’ appeal for release from October 1940. It states: ‘As artist, I cannot be interned for a long time without danger for my art’. But he had to wait until November 1941 for freedom.

He first went to London but failed to find the reception and income he had been hoping for - in one exhibition of 40 works, priced between 15 and 40 guineas, only one was bought (the same pieces are today being sold for £500,000).

He soon retreated to the Lake District, where he fared little better, having to rely on donations from wealthier friends and the meagre income raised by selling portraits and landscapes to the locals who regarded him as little more than odd.

There he died in 1948 at the age of 60, with his last great work unfinished - the Merz re-working of a barn he had received funding to buy not long before.

Tate Britain’s Schwitters in Britain exhibition allows us to recognise one of the key figures of modern art, and it enables us to improve our understanding of one of the many great ‘aliens’ who once graced Manx shores.

The exhibition opened on January 30 and continues until May 12.

Tickets cost £10 with concessions available. Visit

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