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THE "EMPTY" GRAVE OF KURT SCHWITTERS: NEO-DADAIST DAY TRIPS FROM GLASGOW TO HITHER NORWAY PART 1.
Scotland's tartan tourist image is very much tied to traditionalist concepts. This contrasts with the strong association between Scandinavia and modernism, particularly in terms of design. Scotland's contributions to modernism – from Alexander Trocchi to Ian Hamilton Finlay - are all too often overlooked. Therefore, I decided to immerse myself in Scotland's largely forgotten modernist and Scandinavian heritage by travelling from Glasgow Central Station to The Lake District.
Recent research suggests that that county of Cumbria which encompasses the Lake District has a particularly strong genetic link to Scandinavia; indeed judged on such indicators the area around Penrith is every bit as Norwegian as Shetland (and therefore far more so than most of the rest of England and Scotland). However, the connection I was seeking to Norway was more recent than what is assumed to be the genetic heritage of 10th century Norse invasions of the Lake District from settlements in Ireland and the Isle of Man. My immediate interest was the modernist legacy of Kurt and Ernst Schwitters. The father Kurt (1887-1948) is the pre-eminent collagist of the 20th century, as well as an important sound poet; while the son Ernst (1918-1996) carved himself a reputation as a photographer and noted collector of Dadaist anti-art.
The Schwitters family came from Hanover in Germany. From 1932 onwards they spent their summer holidays in Norway either on the coastal island of Hjertøya or else in Djupvasshytta. Having fallen in love with the country and finding himself ideologically at odds with the Nazi regime in Germany, Ernst spent much of 1934 and 1936 there. He fled Nazi Germany at the end of 1936, and his father who was branded a 'degenerate artist' by the fascist regime, followed suit in January 1937. They settled together in Lysaker near Oslo. When the Nazis invaded Norway in 1940, Kurt and Ernst Schwitters escaped to the United Kingdom, and following a period in internment camps they settled in London. Kurt met his companion-to-be Edith Thomas in the English capitol, she was nicknamed Wantee. Meanwhile, the Norwegian government-in-exile commissioned Ernst to organize a major exhibition for them, and this was followed in 1944 by his photographic book "This Norway".
In August 1942 Kurt, Wantee and Ernst, moved to 39 Westmoreland Road in Barnes (south-west London). This was followed by a vacation in The Lakes. The name of the road the family lived in was an archaic spelling for the historic county of Westmorland, which encompasses much of the Lake District, and this may account for their choice of holiday destination. In 1945 Kurt and Wantee moved full time to Ambleside, a small town in Westmorland, while Ernst was granted Norwegian citizenship. Despite suffering from poor health, Kurt continued to produce abstract art and collages in the style that had made him internationally famous, but he also knocked up kitsch portraits and landscapes to earn money on which to live.
When I arrived in Ambleside on the fiftieth anniversary of Kurt Schwitters' death, my first port of call was the Armitt Museum, which boasts a permanent exhibition dedicated to this artist. Although I'd seen the major Schwitters retrospective at the Tate (London) in 1985, and the large selection of his works in the Dada exhibition at Centre Pompidou (Paris) in 2005, neither of these quite prepared me for what is on show in Ambleside. While some of the abstract and collage work for which Schwitters is remembered was on display at the Armitt via reproductions, the museum's emphasis was very much on his kitsch money-making portraits of local people. These latter works only become interesting when you tune out from the reality of what's before your eyes and pretended to be looking at mechanical paintings in the style of Francis Picabia. There is something very Dada about travelling some distance to see Schwitters's second-rate representational paintings.
The most exciting Armitt exhibit is Tristram Powell’s 1975 short film "I Build My Time. The last years of Kurt Schwitters". Written and narrated by William Feaver, the documentary features interviews with people who knew the artist at the end of his life. Among the many amusing stories conveyed within it is one about the upset he caused when he won 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize for his pictures in a flower show; local Lake District painters considered him a professional and therefore felt it was unfair he should pocket all the winnings in a competition for amateurs. Another anecdote concerned a local doctor telling a sick Schwitters that he didn't need to make funny noises because he wasn't in pain, to which this world-renowned sound poet replied that he liked making silly sounds.
Before leaving the Armitt Museum I asked for directions to the two local properties in which Schwitters lived, and instructions on how to find his grave in the local churchyard. The museum staff weren't able to provide full directions. I found Schwitters' first abode in Ambleside at 2 Gale Crescent by asking people in the town centre for directions to the street. His other local address at 4 Millans Park turned out to be close to a delightful Italian restaurant, so I stopped to eat before moving on to the churchyard. Fortunately the graves were grouped by date of death, and so it wasn't difficult to find the marker stone for Kurt Schwitters, who'd died from acute pulmonary oedema and myocarditis in nearby Kendal Hospital on 8 January 1948.
Schwitters' Ambleside grave is empty. His remains were moved to Engesohde Cemetery in Hanover on 4 September 1970. His empty tomb symbolises not only the as yet unrealised potential of modernism to create a new world, but also the endless possibilities for remaking both Scotland and Norway. National borders are never fixed, they shift over time. If we have to have nation states then why shouldn't we move the Scottish border south to take in both the Lake District and Berwick-upon-Tweed, while ceding the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland to Norway, and doing so within an expanded notion of Scandinavia that encompasses the whole of Scotland and perhaps even the British Isles?
The exhibition "Schwitters in Exile" will be touring between Tate Britain (London), Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Edinburgh), and Sprengel Museum (Hanover) in 2009/2010.
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