Anyone passing the Sayle Gallery on Douglas Promenade this week could hardly fail to notice the new window display. There in large black letters on a white background are the words: “Kurt Schwitters – Responses to Place. There follows a photograph of a seemingly organic construction, enigmatically titled “Merzbarn Wall”, some pictures of a man with rather strange facial expressions and a simple oval abstract picture. The only familiar thing is a night view over some Douglas rooftops.
But who was Kurt Schwitters and why is his rather strange artwork now being exhibited in Douglas?
Kurt Schwitters was born in Hannover, Germany in 1887. After a conventional artistic training he was exempted from military service in WW1 due to epilepsy. For Schwitters as for others the impact of the war was dramatic and he soon developed his own art movement, which he entitled “Merz”. This consisted almost exclusively of collage and installation art, his own home proving no exception. At the cutting edge of artistic developments in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, he became a target for the Nazi Government, which in 1937 ridiculed his art in public exhibitions. Jewish or not (and he was not) it didn’t matter to the Nazis; if it was unconventional it must be “degenerate”, and if it was degenerate it must be eliminated. Lumped together with other “degenerate artists” such as van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, Chagall and Kokoschka, Schwitters fled in 1937 with his son to Norway, a country whose landscape he loved, and upon the German invasion in 1940 onward to the UK.
On arrival in Scotland he was arrested, interned as an enemy alien and shipped to Douglas, to be housed in Camp P in Hutchinson Square. This was his home for the next sixteen months until release in November 1941. On release he headed for London, but as a middle-aged, near-unknown artist in post-war Britain, life was a struggle. In 1945 he moved to the Lake District settling in Ambleside. Although his health was deteriorating, he made a modest living painting and selling conventional portraits and landscapes. In 1947 he began one last great installation piece, the Merz Barn, but at the time of his death in January 1948, it was incomplete. Today Kurt Schwitters is acknowledged as one of the most influential artists of the 20th Century.
For the first time in over 70 years Kurt Schwitters is back in Douglas – at least for a month. Thursday evening (26 September) saw the opening by the President of Tynwald, the Hon Clare Christian, of the most ambitious exhibition of artwork ever assembled by the Sayle Gallery. This is the culmination of almost two years of planning. Assisted by the Tate, the Sprengel Museum and the Kurt & Ernst Schwitters Foundation in Hannover, Professor Fran Lloyd of the University of Kingston, London has skilfully assembled an exhibition showcasing the art that Kurt Schwitters produced during and after his internment on the Isle of Man, augmented by the work of other Hutchinson Square artists and archival materials. The exhibition has been drawn from 7 museums and a small number of private collections. It begins with the poignant collage “Opened by Customs”, which echoes the all too common experience of those who escaped from Nazi Germany only to find their belongings rifled and stolen by Nazi officials. It ends with his last known portrait of Leonard Wild (a cotton broker from Manchester), a commission completed shortly before the artist’s death, the fee for which paid for his funeral.
Damian Ciappelli, Chairman of the Sayle Gallery says: “At the Sayle Gallery, we have two aims: to promote art produced by artists connected to the Isle of Man and to enable visitors to see work which otherwise they would have to go off the island to find. It is rare that we can combine both of these and we are indebted once again to Fran Lloyd of the University of Kingston, London and David Wertheim of the Arts Council for their knowledge and perseverance in bringing together: ‘Kurt Schwitters: Responses to Place’.
We are especially grateful to the Tate and the Sprengel Museum for their help and assistance including loans from their collections and assistance with the installation, as well as the other institutions and private individuals who have been willing to part with their valuable artworks to make this unique and internationally important exhibition possible.
Finally I would like to thank our sponsors, The Isle of Man Arts Council, Culture Vannin and Zurich International Life for their generous financial support.
We are sure that everyone visiting the exhibition will be in for some surprises and especially look forward to welcoming our young visitors as part of our engagement programme with the schools, the Isle of Man College and the Department of Education and Children.”
The exhibition is open to the public free of charge from Friday, 27 September to Sunday 27 October. A programme of related events is available from the Gallery.