Schwitters in Britain

Tate Britain, until 12 May

Although Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948) did not invent the technique or theory of collage, he was one of the greatest practitioners of it, raising it in his work to the level of an independent art form. The Cubists may have made art out of collage first, but for them it was intricately allied with painting, whereas Schwitters made collages for their own sake. They are some of the finest things in this rich and varied exhibition, which focuses on his years in Britain (1940–8), though the full range of his work, including a fascinating selection of paintings and sculptures, is also indicated in this typically large Tate display. Viewing it is a potentially exhausting experience, so best to be selective in what you choose to study.

Born in Hanover, Schwitters was closely associated with Dadaism, the radical and anarchistic art movement founded around 1915–16, though never a recognised member of the group, being too independent and insufficiently political. Nevertheless, he was at the forefront of experimental art, making two- and three-dimensional work from rubbish, which he titled ‘Merz’. Schwitters took the last icebreaker out of Norway in 1940, just ahead of the Nazi invasion, and arrived in Edinburgh, only to be (inevitably) interned as an Enemy Alien.

He was held in a camp on the Isle of Man for over a year before being released, then headed for London where he met such members of the English avant-garde as Ben Nicholson, Jack Bilbo and Herbert Read. In 1945 he moved to Ambleside in the Lake District, but travelled around the country, despite ill health, to undertake portrait commissions. Portraits, landscapes and paintings of flowers (for which he won prizes in local competitions) were an important source of income in his last years. Although he continued to make radical art, not many wanted to buy it, and the BBC refused the chance to record his extraordinary epic sound poem, ‘Ursonate’.

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If the British were slow to appreciate Schwitters in his lifetime — and for many years afterwards — this ambitious exhibition offers belated recompense. The first room contains a selection of early work including ‘The Skittle Picture’ of 1921, a tray of mostly wooden objects, and ‘The Korting Picture’ (1932), a collage including wood, metal and paper on canvas. Here, as elsewhere throughout the exhibition, the small collages — exquisite juxtapositions of printed and coloured papers — are key exhibits. As the great Constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo wrote: ‘It needs a poet like Schwitters to show us that unobserved elements of beauty are strewn and spread all around us and we can find them everywhere in the portentous as well as in the insignificant, if only we care to look, to choose and to fit them into a comely order.’ In effect, Schwitters was widening the boundaries of the beautiful, and identifying beauty in junk and detritus.

In the second room is Schwitters’s travelling trunk with its internally collaged lid, together with an interesting mix of assemblages, such as ‘Untitled (Glass Tower)’ of 1940, and paintings of landscape and people in a fluent Expressionist idiom. Here are pictures of scenery and houses in Douglas, Isle of Man, and portraits of such friends and contemporaries as the painter Fred Uhlman. The painting/collage combines are often strange and unresolved, being neither fish nor fowl, and simply don’t carry the same charge as the collages; ‘Pink, green, white’ (1940) being a quietly potent example. There are superb small reliefs dotted here and there, such as ‘Blue Paragraph’ and ‘Untitled (White Construction)’, which reveal a kinship with Arp, and there’s a fine trio of works in Room 3 around ‘Untitled (Picture with Wooden Knife)’, but the small collages still take the palm. Look at ‘Bassett’, ‘This is to Certify that’ and ‘Everybody’s’.

Room 4 includes a token display of English contemporaries including Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth, Margaret Mellis and John Wells, which provides some idea of the kind of work being produced at the time of Schwitters’s exile, but I’m not sure how helpful it is. What was their relationship to Schwitters? Mellis, for one, was far more influenced by Gabo and Ben Nicholson and admitted she wasn’t really aware of Schwitters’s work until the 1960s. Room 5, however, is central to an understanding and appreciation of his unusual achievement, offering a superb selection of his small portable sculptures made from plaster and found forms, and then painted. These polychrome objects are surprising, inventive and very enjoyable.

Room 6 presents another splendid array of small-scale collages, though at this point in the exhibition the visitor probably needs a break from them. These are intense works which unfold over time and do not readily yield their secrets to the sort of browsing that large exhibitions encourage. Room 7 concentrates on portraits and landscapes, and there follows a final room devoted to Schwitters’s legacy. This can be ignored: the exhibition should end after Room 7. Room 8, featuring displays of minimal interest by contemporary artists, could be elsewhere in the Tate (if absolutely necessary), but it is an insult to attach it to what has been a serious and challenging exhibition. As regards the  catalogue, for once the Tate has produced a reasonably sized paperback easy to handle (priced at £24.99), containing informative essays and a wealth of illustrations — a useful souvenir.

And now for something completely different; well, perhaps not that different, given the surrealist frisson of many of her haunting compositions, and the strange poetry of the light that falls on Stockport. I refer to the exquisite tempera paintings of Helen Clapcott (born 1952), currently on show at Osborne Samuel, 23a Bruton Street, W1 (until 2 March). As Clapcott paints Stockport and lives in nearby Macclesfield, her work is usually shown and snapped up in that part of the country, though it plainly has a wider application and relevance. (You don’t have to come from Manchester to appreciate Lowry.) Clapcott is recording a disappearing landscape: the old mill buildings of Stockport which a myopic Council seems intent on pulling down. She celebrates the industrial architecture of a once-thriving cotton town, the chief symbol of which is the magnificent Stockport Viaduct.

Clapcott paints the great arches of the Viaduct stalking across a post-industrial landscape of motorways, wrecking cranes and smoke. The atmosphere is polluted by cars, while tall chimneys on the horizon belch more noxious fumes. Tower blocks are replacing the working buildings, and piles of lumber and rubble mark the end of Beehive Mills or Hopes Carr. The cool blue-greens that dominate her palette in the tempera paintings are enlivened with sharper pinks and reds in her oil on paper drawings. The studies of roads and roundabouts, towers and pylons, have a manic intensity beneath their poised beauty. Cars dominate and swarm, the red sun turns black over Stockport. An empire of used tyres casually engulfs a derelict factory. There’s more than a whiff of J.G. Ballard in the air, of post-Apocalyptic dystopia. But Clapcott’s art is not all satire: her celebration reaches back to Lowry-inspired rows of terraced houses with comfortably smoking chimneys, and to the excitements and consolations of the local football match. I seem to be the only person writing about Helen Clapcott at the moment: it’s time her remarkable work was more widely appreciated.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated