Pop Art pioneer is back in the picture

A retrospective of German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters will show how he inspired artists from Richard Hamilton to Damien Hirst

Kurt Schwitters, the pioneering German Dadaist now acknowledged as the founder of performance art, was hopelessly misunderstood in his lifetime, at least when it came to the general public.

Even before he came to Britain – fleeing Nazi Germany in 1940 – his epic sound poem, Ursonate or Ur Sonata, comprised solely of abstract sounds was being pilloried in the national press. The BBC's response in 1947 didn't help. When two reporters turned up to his solo exhibition at London Gallery to record a live performance of Ur Sonata (sometimes translated as "a sonata in primal sounds"), they left halfway through without recording it at all. Only 28 people attended the recital and a fellow artist remembers Schwitters' enduring positivity in the face of an evident lack of interest in the room.

The sound poem, and other works created by Schwitters, have all since been fully reappraised and vindicated. In the past few years, a Schwitters revival has gained ground: Jarvis Cocker played Ur Sonata on BBC Radio 6 Music in June last year; Michael Nyman wrote an opera about the artist in 2003 entitled Man and Boy: Dada; Bryan Ferry is a fan; Damien Hirst owns his sculptures and has spoken of the artist's influence on his own early work.

Yet the public is still, by and large, relatively uninformed of the immense imprint left by Schwitters on contemporary British art. Tate Britain hopes to change that by staging a major exhibition, Schwitters in Britain, opening on Wednesday, which will showcase 150 collages, sculptures, paintings and sound poems – some seen in the country for the first time. The exhibition will focus on the years between his arrival in Britain as an "enemy alien" from Germany in 1940 until his death in Cumbria in 1948.

Schwitters developed the concept of "merz" while he was still in Hanover in the 1920s. This was the idea that any object – foraged or found – could be transformed into artistic material if used in the right way by an artist. So a pebble or a piece of corrugated cardboard became as legitimate as oil paint in the construction of an artwork. Emma Chambers, curator of the Tate Britain show, says he referred to string as an analogous line and cotton wool as softness in the formal composition of his work.

While "merz" is hardly a new concept to us today, it was radical then. He carried on his work abroad, first in Norway where he lived briefly after fleeing Germany and then in Britain where he was interned on arrival. During this period on a camp on Isle of Man, he began making work from whatever material he could get his hands on. He dismantled tea chests and tore up linoleum from floors as well as using debris such as stamps and sweet wrappers for his art.

Fellow artists reported the stink emanating from a work that he had made from porridge in the absence of more conventional artist's material. In the exhibition catalogue, Jenny Powell, a co-curator, quotes a friend and fellow artist, Fred Uhlman, also at the camp, who saw the sculpture. "The room stank. A musty, sour indescribable stink which came from three Dada sculptures which he had created from porridge, no plaster of Paris being available. The porridge had developed mildew and the statues were covered with greenish hair and bluish excrements of an unknown type of bacteria."

In the camp, he took part in group exhibitions and also gave poetry performances, producing up to 250 works and giving impromptu poetry recitals that raised the spirits of the other inmates. Chambers says that many on the camp came to greet each other with sections of the Ur Sonata.

On release in 1941, he met Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, exhibiting in shows alongside them, while the critic Herbert Read described him in glowing terms: "Schwitters has shown that it is possible to make art out of anything – so long as one is an artist. Used tram tickets, pieces of cardboards, or corrugated paper… Schwitters has pursued this line of development far beyond that reached by Juan Gris and Picasso. Schwitters is a supreme master of the collage."

Schwitters relocated to the Lake District in the mid-1940s and inspired by the rural landscape, he began to incorporate natural objects into his work. This culminated in the creation of the monumental installation, The Merz Barn, comprised of six room-size sculptures that were made from organic material such as twigs and stones. This was a continuation of the Hanover Merzbau – an architectural construction which was also made from "found materials" before the Second World War but destroyed during the Allied bombing.

His concept of merz developed further and prefigured the British Pop Art movement, especially in his groundbreaking collages. He began incorporating commercial images, some cut out from Life magazine, a publication his American friends sent to him. His legacy, according to Tate Britain director, Penelope Curtis, "begins with Richard Hamilton and continues through to Damien Hirst". Indeed, Hamilton was among those instrumental in the Schwitters revival some years after his death. Schwitters had been working on a wall, built within the Merz Barn, which Hamilton helped to move from the Lake District to the more accessible city of Newcastle.

Years before Andy Warhol's Campbell soup tins, Schwitters incorporated fragments from packaging and newspapers into his collages, which reflected ordinary British life such as London bus tickets, or Bassetts Liquorice Allsorts wrappers used in Untitled (This is to Certify That), in 1942.

Ms Chambers says the public – rather than critical – response to such collages was uncomprehending. "All the newspaper articles talked about his work being made from rubbish. The implication was that his work was also rubbish."

Just before his death, he was in talks with various galleries including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, about staging exhibitions. Yet when he died, his work seemed to die with him. He was rediscovered in the late 1950s when artists began to understand the extent of his groundbreaking concepts. His ideas "had a currency that they didn't have when he was alive," says Chambers. His retrospective now, more than 60 years after his death, has been a long time coming.

Schwitters in Britain, Tate Britain, London SW1 (020 7887 8888; tate.org.uk) Wednesday to 12 May

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit