An exhibition of the work of Karl Schwitters is currently being held at the Sayle Gallery, Harris Promenade, Douglas.
But who was Kurt Schwitters and why is his rather strange artwork now being exhibited in Douglas?
Kurt Schwitters was born in Hannover, Germany, in 1887.
After a conventional artistic training he was exempted from military service in the First World War due to epilepsy. For Schwitters, as for others, the impact of the war was dramatic and he soon developed his own art movement, which he entitled ‘Merz’.
This consisted almost exclusively of collage and installation art, his own home proving no exception. At the cutting edge of artistic developments in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, he became a target for the Nazi government, which in 1937 ridiculed his art in public exhibitions.
Lumped together with other ‘degenerate artists’ such as van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Chagall and Kokoschka, Schwitters fled in 1937 with his son to Norway, a country whose landscape he loved, and upon the German invasion in 1940 onward to the UK.
On arrival in Scotland he was arrested, interned as an enemy alien and shipped to Douglas, to be housed in Camp P in Hutchinson Square. This was his home for the next 16 months until release in November 1941.
On release he headed for London, but as a middle-aged, near-unknown artist in post-war Britain, life was a struggle.
In 1945 he moved to the Lake District settling in Ambleside. Although his health was deteriorating, he made a modest living painting and selling conventional portraits and landscapes.
In 1947 he began one last great installation piece, the Merz Barn, but at the time of his death in January 1948, it was incomplete. Today Kurt Schwitters is acknowledged as one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century.
For the first time in over 70 years Kurt Schwitters is back in Douglas – at least for a month. The exhibition was opened last week by the President of Tynwald, Clare Christian.
She said: ‘Merz reflected the creation of something new out of the old – a metaphor really for the rebuilding of something original out of the rubble and destruction of the First World War.’
She quoted Schwitters’ own words: ‘Everything had broken down and new things had to be made out of fragments and this is Merz. The word denotes the essential combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes.’
She added: “The Hutchinson Square Camp was brimming with intellectuals, artists and musicians. and became the ‘university camp’ of the island under the leadership of Klaus Hinrichsen
‘The Camp Commandant, Captain Daniel, fortunately had an enlightened outlook and did his best to secure materials that would enable the artistic endeavour of the inmates to continue.’
In welcoming Captain Daniel’s son, Peter Daniel, she said: ‘It’s wonderful to meet someone who has been through what was going on in Hutchinson Square.’
In conclusion, Mrs Christian said: ‘Though Kurt Schwitters wasn’t recognised widely in his lifetime it is a great blessing that fortunately he was absolutely in no doubt at all about his contribution to the world of art. Towards the end of his life he said: “It will be 60 years before people understand who I am.”
‘This year is the 65th anniversary of his death and his prescience is being transformed into a reality through the major exhibitions, which are being held in Britain and in Hannover, which have extended awareness of his work and his influence to a huge audience.
‘Now we have the opportunity to be exposed to the work of Kurt Schwitters, in this exhibition: “Responses to Place”. I hope it will be appreciated and enjoyed by all of those who already know his work, but more particularly that it will introduce many other people to this extraordinary artist and he will be appreciated by a wider Manx audience.’
Prof Fran Lloyd, who has curated the exhibition, spoke of the importance locally, nationally and internationally as well as the legacy of the so many gifted people who were interned in the Isle of Man.
She read a message from Gretl Hinrichsen: ‘My husband, Klaus Hinrichsen, was a 27-year-old art historian when he was interned for 11 months at Hutchinson Camp in 1940. He wasn’t unhappy during this time which was intellectually stimulating and he made a lot of friends particularly with the artists. Once Klaus was released he spent the rest of his life championing the work of these artists and generally raising awareness of internment and the extraordinary creativity it produced.
‘Klaus always believed that had many of the artists who came to Hutchinson not been forced to flee their names and work would now be far more widely recognised and be in the forefront of German art. He would have been delighted with this exhibition and the importance the Isle of Man continues to give to this period of its history.’
Prof Lloyd introduced Peter Daniel, who said it was wonderful to see such a tribute to his father and to be back in the Isle of Man.
Although he did not meet Kurt Schwitters while living with his parents in the Bowling Green Hotel (the officers’ mess) he recounted how Schwitters had collected uneaten porridge after breakfast to build a Merz structure in his bedroom apparently causing the floor to collapse.
The Schwitters exhibition was the culmination of almost two years of planning.
Assisted by the Tate, the Sprengel Museum and the Kurt and Ernst Schwitters Foundation in Hannover, Professor Fran Lloyd of the University of Kingston, London, has assembled an exhibition showcasing the art that Kurt Schwitters produced during and after his internment in the Isle of Man, augmented by the work of other Hutchinson Square artists and archival materials.
The exhibition has been drawn from seven museums and a small number of private collections.
It begins with the collage ‘Opened by Customs’, which echoes the all-too-common experience of those who escaped from Nazi Germany only to find their belongings rifled and stolen by Nazi officials. It ends with his last known portrait of Leonard Wild (a cotton broker from Manchester), a commission completed shortly before the artist’s death, the fee for which paid for his funeral.
Damian Ciappelli, chairman of the Sayle Gallery, said: ‘At the Sayle Gallery, we have two aims: to promote art produced by artists connected to the Isle of Man and to enable visitors to see work which otherwise they would have to go off the island to find.
‘It is rare that we can combine both of these and we are indebted once again to Fran Lloyd of the University of Kingston, London, and David Wertheim of the Arts Council for their knowledge and perseverance in bringing together “Kurt Schwitters: Responses to Place”.
‘We are especially grateful to the Tate and the Sprengel Museum for their help and assistance including loans from their collections and assistance with the installation, as well as the other institutions and private individuals who have been willing to part with their valuable artworks to make this unique and internationally important exhibition possible.
‘Finally I would like to thank our sponsors, The Isle of Man Arts Council, Culture Vannin and Zurich International Life for their generous financial support.
‘We are sure that everyone visiting the exhibition will be in for some surprises and especially look forward to welcoming our young visitors as part of our engagement programme with the schools, the Isle of Man College and the Department of Education and Children.
The exhibition is open to the public free until Sunday, October 27. A programme of related events is available from the gallery.
The picture is untitled (Roofs of Houses in Douglas, Isle of Man), 1941