Last edited 20 Mar 2022

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Kurt Schwitters

The last work of one of the world’s leading proponents of inter-war avant-garde art presents a building conservation challenge in a beautiful valley in the Lake District.

The Merz Barn.jpg
The Merz Barn in around 2006. The installation that Schwitters was working on there has since been moved to a gallery at the University of Newcastle.

Born in 1887 in Hanover, Kurt Schwitters, studied art there and subsequently in Dresden. He first exhibited paintings in 1911. In common with many who survived the first world war, Schwitters was a changed man. He is most closely associated with the Dada movement, which reacted against the absurdity and horrors of modern warfare, and the constructivists; and he had links with the De Stijl movement, centred in the Netherlands. Following a disagreement with the Zurich Dada movement he effectively became a one-man artistic movement.

He wrote poetry, such as ‘Anna Blume’, which he performed in his ‘resonant’ style. He developed collage with found objects as the components. It was a torn-off piece of newspaper with the word MERZ (from an advertisement for the Commerz Hanover Commercial Bank) that provided the name of his artistic movement. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Schwitters was an active participant in the development of European modern art. He attended the Dada and constructivist congress in Weimar in 1922, and he reportedly participated at the opening of the Dessau Bauhaus in 1925. He can surely be described as a polymath, producing artworks, collage, poetry, sculpture, architecture, graphic design, music and criticism. ‘Merz means to create connections, preferably between everything in this world,’ he said.

Although he was not Jewish, the rise of the Nazi party in Germany led to hostility towards the modern and, particularly, abstract art which he created. This culminated in the notorious Entartete Kunst exhibition of ‘degenerate’ art in Munich in 1937, at which a Schwitters work is seen behind Adolf Hitler in a famous photograph taken at the opening.

Until then Schwitters had been developing the first Merzbau, an installation within the rooms of the family house in Hanover, described as ‘one of the most compelling art works of the 20th century [1]. The building was destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944. By that time, Schwitters had left Germany with his son Ernst and moved to Norway. There he constructed a second Merzbau in a former subterranean potato store near Molde, which miraculously survived decades of abandonment. It is now a conserved small timber hut, with newspaper cuttings and the like decorating the interior.

The Nazi invasion of Norway in April 1940 led to Schwitters escaping to Scotland in June of that year. He was interned, ultimately on the Isle of Man. There, undaunted, he attempted a further Merzbau experiment in the attic room of the former lodging house where he was housed, using leftover porridge scavenged from the camp kitchen dustbins. Following his release, he contacted artists such as Paul Nash, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. His influence and importance was recognised by the influential critic and curator Herbert Read in 1944.

Schwitters first came to the Lake District in 1943 on holiday, and moved there with his partner, Edith Thomas, in 1945. He survived by making landscape and flower paintings to sell to visitors and local people, and painting portraits. He met Harry Pierce, a plantsman and would-be landscape designer who had worked with Thomas Mawson. Pierce bought part of a redundant gunpowder works in Elterwater, and attempted to develop it as an experimental fruit farm.

On the site was a former shippon (barn); a 20th-century metal barn (subsequently demolished); a small storage hut known as the Drawing Office; and a gunpowder store. Pierce offered Schwitters this latter small building to create the Elterwater Merz Barn. Schwitters’ health was not good, and working in the damp, cold building must have contributed to his deterioration. Prior to his death he had started to renew his pre-war contacts, and was offered a grant by the Museum of Modern Art in New York to develop the Merz Barn project. He died in January 1948, one day after his application for British citizenship had been approved. The installation in the gunpowder store remained unfinished. John Elderfield’s magisterial life of Schwitters [2] showed his reconstruction of the proposed whole installation, derived from his understanding of Schwitters’ letters.

Schwitters’ influence and name started to disappear from the canon of modern art, although the artist Richard Hamilton was an enthusiast. While teaching art at the Newcastle School of Art, Hamilton and others, such as Kenneth Rowntree and Victor Pasmore, arranged for the incomplete work to be saved. This was done by removing the entire external wall of the building to which the artwork was attached, and taking it by low-loader across the Pennines to the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle. There it was dropped in through a hole in the roof as that building was being constructed. There the work remains, and has since been conserved as part of the refashioning of the gallery within the University of Newcastle.

The Littoral Arts Trust first became involved with Schwitters around 2000. Its ambition was to reconnect Schwitters and his Merz Barn to British art. Through the generous support of many, the trust was able to raise sufficient funds to purchase the former Harry Pierce estate in around 2006. There are plans for a series of events celebrating the 100th anniversary of the first Merzbau project in Hanover at the Elterwater site in 2023.

In developing its strategy for saving the buildings on the estate to set the context in which Schwitters had worked, I was appointed as the trust’s buildings conservation consultant. With colleagues I carried out fabric condition surveys of the extant buildings and made recommendations for their repair. The roof of the Merzbau itself was renewed and the existing vernacular ground drainage around it improved. Subsequently the historic greenhouse was rebuilt using local craftsmen, and local craftsmen rebuilt the ruin of the Drawing Office.

The largest building on the site, the Shippon, is believed to have been used during the gunpowder- making days as a store. The building has basic amenities, and during the time of the trust’s occupation of the estate has been used as a gallery, workshop, bunkhouse, restaurant and, above all, a place to keep warm, with its woodburning stove. A small building known as Jack’s Cottage has provided administrative accommodation and occasional overnight accommodation for members of the trust and their visitors.

In the years spent in consideration of the future of the site, the purposes and needs of the various buildings have been discussed at length. There have been discussions with the Lake District National Park Authority and various partners for some years, hoping to develop a Schwitters study centre. The principal Schwitters archive is held at the Sprengel Museum in Hanover, whose website [3] is a wonderful resource for those who might be interested to find out more about this remarkable man and his legacy, both in a quiet village in the Lake District and throughout the world.

  • [1] Garrard, E (2000) Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau: the Cathedral of Erotic Misery, Princeton Architectural Press
  • [2] Elderfield, J (1985) Kurt Schwitters, Thames & Hudson
  • [3] The Sprengel Museum contains the Kurt and Ernst Schwitters Foundation.

This article originally appeared as: ‘Kurt Schwitters in Elterwater’ in Context 169, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in September 2021. It was written by Andrew Shepherd, an architect and membership secretary of the IHBC.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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