'Forgotten' artist who fled Nazis is honoured at last

Lakeland barn decorated by Kurt Schwitters to be recreated in forecourt of the Royal Academy
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The Independent Culture

A rusty, rustic barn is to be replicated on the neo-classical forecourt of London's Royal Academy as part of a tribute to the work of the all-but-forgotten genius Kurt Schwitters.

The German-born artist, who fled to Britain via Norway after the Nazis denounced his work as degenerate, transformed a humble farm shed in a Lakeland field into a work of art after he was released from internment. Now a replica of the barn is to be rebuilt in honour of a man described as one of the fathers of modern British art.

Despite being largely overlooked since his death in 1948, Schwitters has had an enormous influence on contemporary artists, including Sir Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton, as well as on prominent Americans such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly.

Born in Hanover in June 1887, Schwitters attended Dresden's Academy of Art, where he produced an extraordinary range of collages, paintings, poetry, performance, audio arts, theatre, photography, sculpture and installation projects.

He left Germany for Norway after he was denounced by Hitler's regime, only to have to flee once more when the Germans invaded in April 1940 – again abandoning most of his work. Arriving in Edinburgh in June 1940, he was interned on the Isle of Man for 18 months as an enemy alien.

On release, he eventually settled in Ambleside in the Lake District and worked on the farm shed in Langdale in 1947. He transformed the interior with his artwork, and had plans to turn what has become known as the Merz Barn into a grotto with columns and internal walls.

When Schwitters died, aged 60, in January 1948, the barn was unfinished and fell into disrepair until the Tate and other galleries decided to rescue the work. Eventually, in 1965, Richard Hamilton arranged for a crane to lift the whole wall artwork into the fabric of the Hatton Gallery at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

In 2006, with funding from the Northern Rock Foundation, the Littoral Arts Trust acquired the Merz Barn and is now working with a team of international art experts to document and restore it. Ian Hunter, the director of the trust, said: "After being overlooked for almost 60 years, this artist is about to take his rightful place within the pioneering narratives of modern British art."

The replica will be built with authentic materials by a team of Lake District famers and dry-stone-wallers under the direction of joint curators Penelope Curtis, director of Tate Britain, and Keith Wilson of the Royal College of Art. Damien Hirst has been a major supporter of the project.

Complete with rusty nails and grass roof, it will be seen by the million visitors who are expected to attend Modern British Sculpture, the first exhibition for three decades of 20th-century works by UK-based artists. The exhibition, due to open in the new year, will also include works by Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Anthony Caro, Julian Opie and a 1991 Hirst piece, called Let's Eat Outdoors Today, which has never been previously displayed.

Modern British Sculpture is at the Royal Academy, London, from 22 January-7 April