BY TOM JOHNSON
With the marking of 100 years since the beginnings of Dada, an anti-art movement that sparked from the chaos of the First World War, the peace and beauty of the Lake District may seem an unlikely place to find one of its most intriguing stories. But, beyond a gate in the village of Elterwater is a remote barn that tells the story of Kurt Schwitters, an artist who was forced to flee Nazi Germany, finding refuge in the tranquility of the Lakes.
The barn, known as the Merz Barn, was the space in which Kurt Schwitters built a collage using objects he collected in his rural environment, collating them within a wall on one side of the building’s interior. A replica of this work, called the Merz Barn Wall, can be seen in the Barn today. The name ‘Merz’ is used for the piece because it encapsulates Schwitters’ unique method of creating art from found materials. The roots of the word is in a paper collage which featured a cut up fragment of the words ‘Kommerz– und Privatbank’.
For all the harmony and balance of the Merz Barn Wall, its foundations are in Schwitters early association with Dada, an anti-art movement that avoided such notions as form and beauty. Dada, like Schwitters, used found materials in a playful and subversive way, but as a movement it was much more politically charged. It had sprung as a reaction to World War One, attacking the values and beliefs that led to the conflict. Later, when the Nazi party came to power, Dada works including those by Schwitters, were included in an exhibition called ‘Degenerate Art‘ as examples of challenging art which did not align with the party’s beliefs.
Schwitters was forced into exile, with further difficulties to follow. He travelled first to Norway, and then when that country was invaded by the Nazis, to Britain. Arriving in 1940, he was interned for a year on the Isle of Man, before living in London and then Ambleside in the Lake District. In Germany and Norway Schwitters created what were known as Merz buildings, in which he extended his creation of collages to the built environment. The Museum of Modern Art in New York appreciated the artistic innovation of these pieces, and in 1947 presented the artist with money in order to repair one of them which had been bomb damaged. Schwitters used this gift to start afresh in his new environment in Elterwater. He rented the barn from a gardener who owned land in a place called Cylinders Wood and he began work on the piece. Schwitters did not manage to complete the project because he died in 1948. However he did succeed in building the collage that became known as the Merz Barn Wall.
Recognised as a significant piece of modern art, the Merz Barn Wall was moved to Hatton Gallery in Newcastle in 1966 due to concerns over the fragility of its environment in Elterwater. Unfortunately the recent floods in the Lake District and a storm that hit the Barn are reminders of its vulnerability. While the clean up of the site begins, the story it tells is of a refugee who had the persistence to make art in the most difficult of times, which continues to be of resonance today.