Simply for pleasure
Marlborough Fine Art with the stops out is about the closest London has come to having an equivalent of New York's Museum of Modern Art; and the best and most historically important of past shows at the gallery are recalled by the number of exhibits and the quality of the catalogue in their current survey of the work of Kurt Schwitters (till 31 October). This is the third major Schwitters retrospective at Marlborough since 1963 and also the most specific, covering as it does only the work of the last decade of his life, from 1937 to 1947. These were the years of his exile in Norway and England, of his greatest impoverishment and ill-health, and his art has been considered to have suffered accordingly. The academic point of the exhibition is very much seen therefore as the critical instatement of late Schwitters — particularly in its most characteristic form of oil-onboard abstract paintings, bedaubed reliefs of rubbish and free-standing sculpture. The catalogue is notable for an article by Professor Dr Werner Schmalenbach, the ultimate academic authority on the artist, in which he admits that in his 1967 monograph he got it all wrong and now sees that the late works are just as important as the more celebrated and popular earlier ones.
Discovering significance in the previously despised late work of artists is a fashion at the moment. The final efforts of Picasso, Picabia, Kandinsky, de Chirico have all found favour in the past year or so and even Gainsborough's portraits were downgraded in favour of his late 'fancy pictures' in the Tate's retrospective; but Schwitters hardly comes into this category. Professor Schmalenbach's retraction is obviously important for the academic record, but artists have demonstrably derived so much from all aspects of Schwitters's work for so long that the late work no longer constitutes a public problem. What still does remain to be fully appreciated is his excellence as a stylistically conventional landscape painter and portraitist. The Marlborough includes three such views of Norway in the show, but hangs them in the humblest place. This most traditional aspect of his work is still widely written off as dalliance or pot
boilerdom, in contradiction even of the evidence of his own writings on the subject.
What Schwitters would have made of all this does not bear reflection. He had the lowest possible opinion of art critics and art
intellectualising and wrote, quite categorically, that intellectual people were 'more stupid than common people'. His own work, in accordance with this attitude, is the essence of simplicity: joyful in its discovery and humour, its delight in colour, formal harmony and different materials; all of it most vividly expressed by his little paper collages. Children love making collages — Froebel introduced it to primary education as early as 1840 — and pleasure radiates from the collages of Schwitters. For the Cubists, who introduced the technique to high art, collage was always at the service of painting; for the Dadaists, of politics; but for Schwitters, more than anyone else, it was an art form in itself, more various in its potential than anything that had gone before. It enabled him to use colour more freely than a painter, materials with more abandon than a sculptor and words with greater licence than a writer. Not surprisingly, from the earliest days his ideal was a macro-collage in which all expressions of art — and indeed science — would come together as the salvation of mankind. Everything he did he considered a step towards this ideal; and to convey the spirit of the enterprise, in which everything he made was part of an ideal whole, he in vented a new word for his work, `Merz' — derived from another word, that above all others suggests interchange, `Kommerz'. Merz was expressed by Schwitters in the form of magazines, poems, sound poems, lectures, jokes and theatrical behaviour. It grew from its origins in paper collage to block three floors of his pre-War Hanover home — the Merzbau — and it was already transforming a barn in Ambleside — the Merzbarn — when he died. Merz was an inexorable growth, physically and intellectually, but its implication is in all the collages, however small — the detritus of daily life rearranged to joyful effect. And that was indeed his definition of pure art, that ii should be 'created simply and solely for the joy of mankind'.
There are 157 items on exhibition at Marlborough and most of them are collages. There is an especially large one built up over a period of 19 years from 1920, which hints at the outcrops of the Merzbau and the Merzbarn, but most of them are note-page size. Professor Schmalenbach still finds them and the rest of Schwitters's late work expressive of unhappiness. The reverse would seem to be the case. His art was clearly his salvation. It remained as humorous and inventive as ever, its metaphorical power, if anything, strengthened. Art, it declares, is a matter of spirit more than materials, content more than form. In such reduced circumstances his collages came into their own. They demonstrate that pictures can be made anywhere. Even in a death-cell Schwitters could have made a picture; and not only that, but one which, through its materials, would have been a more telling witness to the actuality of 20th-century life than any painting. This optimism is the essence of his romanticism, his 19th-century faith in ultimate good; and in nature as the ultimate source of such redemption: 'No man can create from his fantasy alone. Sooner or later it will run dry on him, and only by the constant study of nature will he be able to replenish it and keep it fresh.' He used to go to Norway of his own accord long before he fled there from Germany, and in England he chose to live in the similarly mountainous and romantic countryside of the Lake District. The sculptures and paintings in this exhibition declare this romantic love of nature visually, just as the collages always do in the organic growth of their method. Even his poems, in translation, sound like abbreviations of Hopkins arid it makes it easy to understand why his friends sometimes chided him for being a latter-day Caspar David Friedrich.
It is rather a shock, therefore, to find that the sculpture of this most wholesome, least artificial, of artists has been allowed by his son to be cast in numbered editions of tarted up bronze. Facsimiles of the painted plasterworks, also in bronze editions, at least give an indication of the original, but chi-chi transformations are a spiritual desecration. This sculptural section at the outset of the display commercially tarnishes an otherwise superb exhibition.