A Trip to the Kurt Schwitters Merz Barn

We all knew it wasn’t there. That it was craned out in 1965 and taken to the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle, only to be interred again behind a partition with mop handles and brooms leaning against it.

And, as he retreated to the rear of the coach Robert Williams, professor of Fine Art at the University of Cumbria had told us as we set out from the Lancaster campus on a Saturday morning in July, that we were off to the middle of nowhere. He’d worn the same expression of steely glee –working to manage our expectations, I suppose- when suggesting the previous day, at conference, that a veil of rain would descend to obscure any visible remnant of what we might hope to see. So . . . we are going to the middle of nowhere to see something that isn’t there any more? But ‘we’ consisted of Fine Art practitioners, educators and researchers most of whom had spent the previous night in the monastic cells of student accommodation at a converted mill: and we were instantly placated with goody bags produced at an event called Dada Day Do, somewhere in the hinterland between Manchester and Salford.

"I see it as a research station, like those in Antarctica"  Ian had said; a location, necessarily remote, where individuals with different skills and expertises come together for a certain period of time, all respecting the delicate ecology that supports their collaborative endeavour. No-one was boring ice-cores perhaps- but January’s Storm Desmond had punched a hole in the end wall and torn off part of the roof. Tendrils of sphagnum moss dripped luxuriant globules of water from the provisional guttering above the barn entrance.

If Schwitters is the presiding genius of the place, Ian Hunter and Celia Larner are his familiars inhabiting the here and now, with a shadowy cast of émigré girlfriends, local farmers and village tradespeople populating the black and white snapshots that seem to isolate them further in a postwar world of rural life.

Ian stood in the barn –hardly more spacious than a garden shed with an anteroom- having changed especially to address us, feet planted so as to anchor his considerable rhetorical skills, neither one caught by the mote of light, perhaps penetrating through the roof or the damaged end-wall, that played along the floor but never threatened the electric glimmer of a low reddish light whose improvised positioning set the tone of a sanctuary.

Finally he spoke of Celia, who had come to greet us all individually while Ian effected his transformation from work-clothes, and to whom we all therefore felt related by the bond of familiarity she instantly established –how Celia had cornered Serota at some regional arts reception and called Ian over to tell Serota what was needed to save the Merz barn and establish it as a unique and sustainable site of research. The way Ian’s Belfast accent enriched the ‘r’ by holding it slightly under his tongue, only to release it to a softened ‘t’ in the way that one who had spent time in America and whose syllables had in consequence begun to dissolve in an involuntary polyglot, would. ‘Serota’ sounded distant and exotic; not a proper name but something like the duende in flamenco . . . a dark and unnamable spirit entering in to performers and participants: we filed outside to tea and biscuits with the soft light of the larches fringing our conversation.

What then is this Merzbau that was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1947 and made in the barn outbuilding we had been standing in? Formally it is a wall relief and an embedding, a building out and an enclosing. It follows the sudden dip and upward trajectory of a hedge sparrow or chiffchaff as it escapes under the low beam of an outhouse with stolen grain. It doubles and then reverses that shallow tangent of freedom like the ‘f’ holes in a violin that, unglued, transmit their resonance optically and in incomplete parabolas. It is a sculpture listed in the memory, the work of an artist. It is something he made on an armature constructed with help from those most ready to assist, most available when needed. It is in some measure offered and in some measure made, with the most exquisite calibration of Modernist sensibility. Work on it ceased. Then the evidence was removed elsewhere.

So what do Ian and Celia as custodians of the place, help us to see? I can’t say exactly; because the experience of being hosted at the Merz Barn –a site rather than a place- speaks to those that practice this making, and for once know that they don’t need to apologise for it. It is no longer forbidden, Entartete kunst.

 * Kurt Schwitters was a German artist associated with the Dada movement who is known for his use of printed ephemera in two-dimensional collage and assemblages, developed in to a continually evolving three-dimensional work he titled Merzbau which was part sculptural installation, part repository of post-Freudian interiority, and part reclamation of Modernist architectural utopianism. As a poet and Dada provocateur Schwitters favoured palindromic given names for his parodic effusions of sentiment, and dispensing with conventional words altogether in his sonorous recitation of the great ‘Ursonate’. (What was included in the British Library survey exhibition Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937 [2007-8] as an original sound recording of the artist made by South German Radio turns out not to have been http://www.ubu.com/sound/schwitters.html; more contemporary performances are available here http://www.kurtschwitterstoday.org/events.html#perf.)

Works by Schwitters were displayed in the infamous Entartete Kunst exhibition held in Munich in 1937, in which the Nazi propaganda machine framed Modernist-inspired experimentation as a form of cultural degeneracy, aligning visual culture with the race theory espoused by National Socialism. Initially escaping to Norway, Schwitters had to flee once more when the Germans invaded that country. Following his arrival in Edinburgh in 1940, a period of internment on the Isle of Man and the remainder of the War years spent in London, he decamped with his partner Edith Thomas to the Lake District.

A unexpected bursary received in 1947 from the Museum of Modern Art in New York prompted Schwitters to begin a new Merzbau in the barn he rented as a studio in the relatively remote location of the Cylinders Estate, near Elterwater. The work remained unfinished at his death in 1948.

In 1965, ostensibly to forestall its complete decay, the wall supporting the Merzbau, along with the artwork, was removed from the barn at the urging of the artist Richard Hamilton (who also, in the same year, undertook the construction of a full-size replica of The Large Glass by Marcel Duchamp).


** The visit was hosted by Littoral Arts Trust and followed a one-day symposium entitled ‘Research Practice Practice Research’ jointly organized by the National Association for Fine Art Education (NAFAE) and the University of Cumbria Arts Research Initiative (ARI). The Merz Barn Trip was led by Jackie Haynes, recipient of the first Schwitters Postgraduate Scholarship awarded by the University of Cumbria Institute of the Arts. Michael Marshall attended as a delegate from BERA Arts Based Educational Research SIG.