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Blog Building of the Week

Schwittershed

Kurt Schwitters’ last work and his new Tate exhibition

  • The entrance to the Merz Barn. (Photo: Jane Hyslop) 1 / 4  The entrance to the Merz Barn. (Photo: Jane Hyslop)
  • Kurt Schwitters’ artwork in the Merz Barn when it was in situ. The piece is made from plaster, paint and objects that Schwitters found nearby, including stones, twigs, a metal grill and a tin can. (Photo: Jane Hyslop) 2 / 4  Kurt Schwitters’ artwork in the Merz Barn when it was in situ. The piece is made from plaster, paint and objects that Schwitters found nearby, including stones, twigs, a metal grill and a tin can. (Photo: Jane Hyslop)
  • The path through the woods to the Merz Barn. (Photo: Jane Hyslop) 3 / 4  The path through the woods to the Merz Barn. (Photo: Jane Hyslop)
  • The Merz Barn nestled in woodland. (Photo: Jane Hyslop) 4 / 4  The Merz Barn nestled in woodland. (Photo: Jane Hyslop)

Building of the week this week is a barn. Well, more of a shed really. But it’s known as the Merz Barn, the building in which Kurt Schwitters, the celebrated German artist conected to Dada, produced his last major piece of work, deep in a wood in the Cumbrian countryside in North-West England, before his death in 1948. It was the culmination of the eight years he spent in Britain, which are now being celebrated in a major retrospective Schwitters in Britain, that opens at Tate Britain in London today.

The artist, credited both as the progenitor of installation art and for inspiring Pop Art, is most famous for his Merzbau, an in-situ artwork which he worked on between 1923 and 1933 in Hanover, and which gradually spread over six rooms of his house there. He left Germany in 1937, after his work was labeled “degenerate art” by the Nazis, moving first to Norway. But when this was occupied by Germany in 1940, he was forced to escape to Britain, where he was at first interned. On his release in 1941, he moved to London, becoming involved in the art scene there, and then at the end of the war, relocated to the Lake District in Cumbria.

There he began to work on a new Merzbau – the original work having been destroyed in a bombing raid on Hanover by the RAF in 1943. As the site for this, he chose a small building – originally a gunpowder store – buried deep in the English countryside.

Helped by a grant of $3,000, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which freed him up from eking out a living painting portraits, Schwitters began work on it in the bitter winter of 1947, but was to die after working on it for only three months in January 1948, one day after he had learnt that his application for British citizenship had been accepted. In that time he completed one major wall, just a fragment of the Modernist grotto with which he had planned to transform the space. 

This work, and the building that housed it, became known as the Merz Barn, but for years afterwards it was almost forgotten and fell into decay. Then in the mid-1960s, the British Pop artist Richard Hamilton arranged for the original completed wall-work to be removed for safe-keeping to the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle (it is replaced at present in the building itself by a full-size photograph).

The Merz Barn has since been bought by the LITTORAL Arts Trust who have launched an international fundraising campaign to fully restore it – including a plan to reconstruct a replica of the artwork back in-situ - and to provide for its sustainable future development. Up to now key project funding has come from the Northern Rock Foundation, Arts Council England NW, various artist donors (the Merz Barn Fundraising Campaign) and Science Ltd (Damien Hirst). At present also, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs has stepped in with a one-off grant to make urgent structural repairs.

Because of the ongoing restoration, the building is open to the public only at specific times of the year, or by appointment. But the LITTORAL Arts Trust specifically told uncube that anyone in the architecture world who might be interested to visit the Merz Barn site is very welcome: visitors can easily stay nearby, and architecture students are also welcome to come on study trips. An international research project The Merzbauten - Kurt Schwitters' contribution to Modern Architecture is also planned over the next three years, whilst this year a series of events will be taking place included a seminar on the future of the Merz Barn, scheduled for May. For full details, to make an appointment or to contact the LITTORAL Arts Trust for further information, please go to the Merz Barn website. 

But if you're not immediately fancying a trip to the countryside in the present weather, here is a link to a visit recorded to the Merz Barn, including some clips of Schwitters reciting his sound art. Otherwise visit the Tate exhibition – with over 150 collages, assemblages and sculptures, using found material from peppermint wrappers to bus tickets, it traces how Schwitters’ exile in Britain fed into his body of work, which culminated in this old shed in a wood.

Schwitters in Britain

30 January – 12 May 2013

Tate Britain
Millbank
London
SW1 4RG

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