Merzbarn – the final studio and personal manifesto that modern artist Kurt Schwitters left to his adopted home in Cumbria, is now under threat from property developers. Can the artist’s work, who paved the way for Pop Art, be preserved?
There’s a particular spring light in Cumbria: billowing whites, yellows and ochres so serene you feel your pulse begin to slow as soon as you pass Kendal. We planned to start and finish a brisk 10km hiking circuit from The Drunken Duck Inn, the UK’s original gastropub located on the fringes of Ambleside. So we decide to follow our nose to Little Langdale, but having no competent direction sense (desire outweighing any attention to detail), immediately end up on the wrong side of the Lingmore Fells, a narrow ridge of hills that separates Little from Great Langdale lakes. The beauty in rambling is that it doesn’t matter where you go if the conversation is pithy and the landscape dramatic, so we carry on north towards Elterwater; passing verdant fells and scattered farmhouses devoid of occupants save the expressionless sheep that pepper the hillsides.
The inevitable drawback to idle rambling is that as soon as you decide you want to stop, you realise you’re lost and potentially miles from anywhere useful. A cursory look at Google maps highlights Merzbarn a couple of miles up the road: seminal 20th century German artist Kurt Schwitters’ final home and studio space in the UK. It’s easy to forget this place exists, but it gives our journey a new sense of purpose.
Though never fully embraced by the movement, Schwitters is an important figure in Dadaism. His mashup style of collage, painting, sculpture, writing and performance in part created a connetive tissue for Pop Art to emerge. Schwitters didn’t prioritise one form – to him they were necessary components of a one-man movement he invented called Merz, a derivative of kommerz.
Merz was fully realised whilst Scwitters was still living in Germany. Crafted in his parents’ home, Merzbau became a living manifestation of Schwitters the philosopher: the giant, walk-in collage littered with off-cuts, pictures and debris making the forgotten, the broken and castaway feel heroic.
Schwitters’ found-object approach was revolutionary in Germany, beginning 17 years before Robert Rauschenberg would begin experimenting with his ‘Combines’ phase in New York. Imperfections of any kind were going to mark you out in the Nazi-occupied Hanover of 1937. Sure enough his original Merzbau was destroyed in an Allied bomb raid; but by then Schwitters had already self-exiled in England. On arrival, his personality and outlook were deemed too abstract for surrealists, and would be too acerbic as to be easily welcomed into the British modernist movement dominated at the time by Hepworth, Moore and Nicholson.
After a short, protracted stint in London, Schwitters made Ambleside, Cumbria his home with Merzbarn providing his shelter and creative outlet until his death in 1948. The barn is untouched and dilapidated as Schwitters left it, beyond a couple of artist interpretations of Schwitters’ work contained within. Though conceptually rich, there’s something inherently sad and underwhelming about the unfinished site; the one finished collage wall was discovered by Richard Hamilton in the 60s and gifted to Hatton Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne. It is further saddening to learn that the site is being threatened by developers, with arts institutions curiously avoiding requests to save it. And now it has run out of money. The site receives no public funding, rather kept alive through the various lifelines of artists [including Zaha Hadid, Damien Hirst and Anthony Gormley] and the stewardship of the Littoral Arts Trust. What a shame for an artist who left such a rich cultural legacy to the region, ignored by the institutions he sought refuge in and recognition from.
“Britain has a moral responsibility to safeguard the work of Kurt Schwitters"
The timing is crucial too: as we hit the 70th anniversary of the refugee artist who died penniless and unappreciated, the guardians of the artist’s estate find themselves in a similar mire. Ian Hunter, Director of Littoral Arts Trust explains, “Britain has a moral responsibility to safeguard the work of Kurt Schwitters. But Arts Council England has rejected our funding applications five times, so we are forced to sell Merzbarn on the open market.”
“We’re in our 70s and 80s; and have put everything into this project, including Celia’s [Celia Larner, Chairperson of Littoral Arts Trust] pension and selling of one of our homes. There has been no public funding since 2011 and we have now run out of options.”
Whilst no one can demand a legacy, it raises the question on the duty of care arts organisations should offer to preserve cultural heritage. Much like a Joseph Cornell box, Merzbau was an archive of Schwitters’ ideals. And whilst the Merzbarn didn’t reach completion, it is a tribute and mausoleum to a pioneer. For the arts world to turn its back on Schwitters is to eschew the cultural significance to one of Modernism’s heavyweight outsiders. A refugee artist who had lost his internal sanctuary and artistic legacy; and never quite found the means to recapture its magic.
Location: Langdale, Cumbria