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Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) has long been a favourite artist of mine, so it was a treat to find that an exhibition of his work was taking place at the Dukes. I arrived at the show with high expectations but upon entering the exhibition space was initially disappointed to find that the show consisted of prints rather than originals, and contained more of his expressionistic work than his wellknown collages. I had expected that due to him spending his final years in Ambleside, Lakes, that the local connection might have resulted in some originals being present. However, this malaise was short-lived and I soon found myself immersed within not just the art, but the artist, and feeling deservedly foolish about my initial skepticism.
Biographical texts on different epochs of his life interspersed the visual works, providing insights into the contexts of the images and really bringing home the reality of the man. When looking back on historical artists it is all too easy to view them as two-dimensional caricatures or as collections of plates in library books. The biographical pieces served to peel back this facade and illuminated Schwitters as a human being.
Recurring themes in his story are persecution and ill health – strokes, seizures and broken lungs. In 1937 he fled his native Germany where the Nazis had labelled him a ‘degenerate artist’. His work was publicly mocked, and soon the Gestapo wanted to ‘interview’ him. Hearing of this, he left for Norway where he remained until 1940 when the Nazis followed.
He fled once more to Scotland, where rather than being granted refuge, he was sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Man. He was kept there as an ‘enemy alien’ with 1200 other German and Austrian refugees, intellectuals and artists for almost a year, surrounded by barbed wire and with scarce materials for his work. As a compulsive creative this led him to painting on old packing crates and cardboard, using a mangle to make prints and (bizarrely) sculpting out of leftover porridge, which molded terribly and dripped through the floorboards into rooms below.
The paintings from this period displayed in the exhibition are expressionistic in character and it is suggested that this stylistic change was a result of his persecution by the Nazis, for when not just one critic but an entire nation derides one’s work it is bound to leave a lasting effect. The inclusion of these works in the show provides insight into another side of Schwitters – no longer just the artist, but the martyr. A touching film on the Holocaust featuring tales told by its survivors ran throughout the experience, reinforcing the historical significance of his oppression.
As I left the space a film screening ended next door, forcing me to wade slowly through a sea of pensioners. It was then that it occurred to me that any member of this anonymous crowd could have been as effected by the war as Schwitters was. Any one could have been persecuted in the same way; could have fled torment across oceans and islands. And it was this realisation, more than anything, which humanised the artist. He’s not a footnote, a shadow or an obituary. He was one of us. And what’s more, he spent the final years of his life not far from here and you could pass by his ghost on the pavement any day of the week. His works are not just images, they’re symptoms of humanity under pressure, and creativity persisting in spite of every opposition.