Tate Britain, 30 January - 12 May 2013
|Untitled (This is to certify that). From Kunsthalle Mannheim. Found here.|
An example of how a thoughtful, productive artist can almost will himself into being interesting, if only because some of his ideas are bound to work.
A dada outsider, if such a thing makes sense, Kurt Schwitters is one of a number of modernist artists who spent significant time in the UK following the rise of Nazism across most of Western Europe.
The British are finally appreciating this wealth of talent, as illustrated in a recent Mondrian retrospective. I hope for similar exhibitions.
Producing art from almost any found materials, Schwitters' work is irreverent but only dimly challenging or political. In some ways he could be a new patron saint for much contemporary British art, and it is interesting to see three newly-commissioned works inspired by this exhibition. Interesting, mostly because the original is much better.
One reason for this is that the German is simply funnier. Some of his collages are brilliant, often ironically commenting on his new, but hardly accepting country, as in 'opened by customs' or his transformation of a photo of the Duke of Clarence. Sometimes they are bitter comments on war, such as 'en morn'. Sometimes they are on the daft internationalist babel-babble side, such as his Ursonate radio performances.
It's otherwise a disappointing selection of work. Schwitters appears to have had something of the profligacy of Picasso, but on the evidence of this, at least by the time he got to the UK, his creative energies were flagging.
Many of these works are too garish, too simple, too uninspired to warrant much attention.
The artist was interested in the same big theme of many other movements in our belated Romantic era - how to live life as if it were an aesthetic experience, as if that were the key aspect of it.
It now seems irrelevant that he was not formally a dadaist. His approach seem completely in line with that movement, stressing the concept rather than the craft of artistic creation, pushing boundaries in order to jolt spectators out of our prejudices, and so on.
If in the end, I was unmoved, presumably that is because art galleries are not obviously the place to learn how best to live, a sentiment with which Schwitters, like many later artists, might have fully agreed. His late Merz Barn in the lake district sounds fascinating; the last in a line of similar architectural projects, sadly unfinished at his death.