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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy