Schwitters’ family connection to war-time international politics discovered at the Armitt Museum, Ambleside

Schwitters’ family connection to war-time international politics discovered at the Armitt Museum, Ambleside

Kurt Schwitters, artist, creator of Merz*, and pioneer of the European avant-garde, who spent his final years in Ambleside, continues, 60 years after his death, to be full of surprises.

The discovery at the Armitt Museum and Library in Ambleside of a previously unknown ‘collage’ by his son Ernst, on the reverse of one of his local portraits, has highlighted a remarkable connection.

The recently discovered ‘collage’, composed of cuttings relating to the Nazi occupation of Norway, culled from a range of European newspapers with various painterly hand additions by Schwitters, had been concealed for decades on the reverse of his father’s 1946 portrait of an Ambleside grocer, Charles Simpson. The work is held by the Armitt on long loan through the generosity of Mr. Simpson’s family.

The work is one of a series of four known newspaper collages, made by Kurt Schwitters’ son Ernst during a period working for the exiled Norwegian Government in London. Kurt and Ernst Schwitters had travelled to Britain from Norway in 1940 whilst in exile from Germany during the Second World War.

Initially they were interned on the Isle of Man, and on release in July 1941 moved to London. Kurt Schwitters first visited Ambleside on holiday in 1943. He later suffered a stroke and ill health prompted a permanent move to the Lake District where he was to leave a unique legacy.

In 1942 Ernst Schwitters was given a position in the Propaganda Ministry of the Norwegian exile government, which had also fled before the German advance in 1940. By the end of the war he held the position of exhibitions director and returned to a liberated Norway in 1945.

It is believed that Kurt Schwitters fashioned ad hoc portfolios using his son’s newspaper collages as protective boards for Schwitters’ own collages and materials, which he brought with him to the Lake District in 1945 and re-used them in his portrait painting. Living in quiet anonymity in Ambleside, poverty-stricken, in rapidly declining health and acutely aware of how little time he had left to live, he continued to create works at a prodigiously remarkable rate. Landscapes, still lifes, drawings and commissions for portraits, jostled with an outpouring of abstract collages and assemblages.

It was initially believed that the newspaper collages were the work of Kurt Schwitters who retained a deep affection for Norway, its landscapes and people. As a polymath who recognised no barriers between genres he found interest and potential in the humblest of materials: using the detritus of everyday life, combined with more traditional techniques, to create magical transformational works:

‘Out of parsimony I took whatever I found, because we were now a poor country. One can even shout out through refuse, and this is what I did, nailing and gluing it together…… it was a prayer about the victorious end of war, victorious as once again peace had won in the end; everything had broken down in any case and new things had to be made out of fragments.’

The fact that the newspaper collages are the work of Ernst is perhaps not so surprising. From his earliest years he had spent much time in his father’s studio and created his own works there. His father’s influence on these and in his later career as a photographer represents a very tangible link between the two. In 1934 the sixteen year old Ernst, under pressure from his fellow students to join the Hitler Youth, instead left school to join a socialist resistance group, taking on assignments as a courier and spending much of his time in Norway. The influence of Norway and its landscapes first experienced during childhood holidays developed into a deep connection and eventually became his adoptive home.

Whilst most surviving works by Kurt and Ernst Schwitters are held in numerous private collections and major art museums, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, in the UK the Armitt holds the second biggest collection of KS works outside the Tate in London.

The Armitt in Ambleside is one of Britain’s rarest small museums. The collection based on its association with some of this nation’s most influential and radical 19th and early 20th century thinkers, lies in a small town whose prosperity was based on water power, mills and latterly tourism, yet became home to so many powerful Victorian intellects that it was once described as “an unwalled university, all dedicate(d) to plain living and high thinking”.

The Armitt was born out of radical ideas from which emerged amongst other things the nation’s biggest conservation movement, The National Trust. Central to them was the artist, philosopher and philanthropist, John Ruskin, living just a few miles away in Coniston. His influence on each and every one of the founding members radiated out, weaving an unbroken web of ideas.

Six works from the Armitt’s substantial Schwitters collection will be included in Tate Britain’s forthcoming exhibition Schwitters and Britain from January 2013, moving to Hanover later in the year. It will include the recently acquired Ambleside Bridge House 1945. The Armitt Trust works to actively promote Kurt Schwitters and his links to Ambleside, to elevate the life and work of this visionary artist to its rightful place alongside the likes of Wordsworth and Ruskin as uniquely important and hugely influential figures in our cultural evolution.

* Schwitters invented the term Merz in 1919, to describe his own artistic practice. It began its life as a fragment of a word – it had clearly fallen off the back end of “commerz”, commerce in German. Schwitters opted for the fragment, and tacked it to other words, depending upon the nature of the game that he was playing with his art.