Lakes tribute for artists who fled Hitler

To the Nazis they were 'degenerates', but among Germany's Modernists was a titan of contemporary art

Mike Glover
Sunday 14 October 2012 01:10

They were artists without honour in their own land. Derided and abused, Germany's Modernists suffered public scorn and ridicule because their idea of art did not fit with Adolf Hitler's manic hatred of anything considered un-Aryan. Branded "degenerate artists", their work was paraded for the Third Reich's censure and they were banned from producing similar, or in some cases any, work at all.

Now, at last, a campaign is to be launched to raise money for the world's first memorial to the artists driven into exile by the Nazis. However, the permanent tribute, costing around £30,000, will not be sited in Germany but in a secluded glade, near a dilapidated barn, in an isolated valley in the Lake District.

The barn was the last workplace of the most revered of the refugee artists, Kurt Schwitters, widely considered a titan of 20th-century art, comparable in influence with Pablo Picasso and the radical French artist Marcel Duchamp.

Schwitters invented the art form known as Merz (the art of everything). He pioneered collage, was an innovative graphic artist and typographer, performance artist and poet, as well as landscape and portrait painter. His use of recycled debris in his collage and sculptural installations was particularly antagonistic to the Nazis, with their championing of traditional art forms. Along with other "degenerates" his work featured in mock exhibitions staged by the Nazis. He fled Germany, first to Norway and then, when Hitler invaded, caught the last fishing boat out of Scandinavia, survived a torpedo attack and landed in Scotland.

Like other "degenerate" artists, he became part of the movement that spread Modernism throughout the Western world. He died in 1948.

The Lakeland memorial will comprise a glass top over the treated, upturned complex root structure of a fallen tree. Jill Rock, the artist who will produce the work, plans to call it "Roots of Modernism".

Ian Hunter of Littoral Arts, which owns the Cylinders Estate where Schwitters produced his work, in what he called the Merz Barn, near Great Langdale, and where the monument will be sited, said: "As far as we know, there is no formal memorial or designated public place in which to honour or remember all the artists who were interned, executed, or forced to flee their homes and studios."

The Littoral Arts Trust, which looks after the barn and sponsors the project, aims to raise £30,000 by next April. Volunteers are being sought to help with the memorial, and other work proposed at the site.

Launching the international appeal for funds this Saturday, Professor Ute Meta Bauer, Dean of the School of Fine Art at the Royal College of Art, London, will give the annual Kurt Schwitters memorial lecture at the barn. She will also inaugurate a yearly reading of the artists' names ceremony. "The Merz Barn project presents a wonderful opportunity for artists, architects and curators, and art students to ... study and learn from one of the great seminal experimental Modern art projects," she said.

Poignantly, the Royal College was evacuated to Ambleside during the Second World War, but Schwitters was ignored by them when he moved to the area.

Professor Richard Demarco, of the European Art Foundation, said: "Kurt Schwitters was the towering genius of 20th-century art, one of the greatest artists who ever lived. Yet he eked out an existence in the Lake District, leading to his early death. It was a great tragedy."

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