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Kurt Schwitters

  • The artist and poet Kurt Schwitters lived in London between 1941 and 1945, where he stood in contact to émigré and local artists, before moving to the Lake District.
  • Kurt
  • Schwitters
  • 20-06-1887
  • Hannover (DE)
  • 08-01-1948
  • Kendal (GB)
  • ArtistPoet
  • The artist and poet Kurt Schwitters lived in London between 1941 and 1945, where he stood in contact to émigré and local artists, before moving to the Lake District.

    Word Count: 27

  • In 1933 Herbert Read reproduced Kurt Schwitters’s Grey-rose picture assemblage (1932) in his book Art Now. An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture (METROMOD Archive).
  • As early as 1933, Kurt Schwitters was introduced to the art-interested English public by Herbert Read’s book Art Now, an introduction to modern art, which depicted Schwitters’s Grey-rose picture assemblage (1932) (Read 1933, pl. 75). Based in Hannover/Germany, Schwitters belonged to the artistic avant-garde of the Weimar Republic and became known for his spatial installation Merzbau, his collages, sound poems and abstract sculptures.

    In 1937, Schwitters was represented with four works at the National Socialist Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition in Munich. In the same year he emigrated to Norway. In 1938, his works were exhibited in the 20th Century German Art exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in London; Schwitters was described in the short catalogue biography as “One of the Leaders of German Dadism” (p. 43). One of his exhibits, The Golden Ear construction (1935), came from a private collection in London. In the same year, 1938/39, Schwitters’s work was also shown in two exhibitions at the Guggenheim Jeune Gallery, namely the Exhibition of Collages, Papier-Collés and Photomontages and Abstract and Concrete Art. In both exhibitions, Schwitters was placed in the context of contemporary British art (Roland Penrose, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson), but also international Constructivist art (Chambers 2013, 9).

    It can be assumed, that Kurt Schwitters and his work were familiar to the interested art audience, when he arrived in Britain from Norway in June 1940. He was immediately interned and lived from July onwards, together with artists such as Fred Uhlman, Paul Hamann and Georg Ehrlich, in Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man. During his internment, Schwitters continued his artistic production even under adverse conditions. He created sculptures out of porridge – due to a lack of plaster – but also portraits of his interned artist colleagues, with whom he participated in exhibitions in the camp (Powell 2013, 34). Schwitters’s performative readings in Hutchinson Camp are reflected in the novel Die Welt in der Nussschale (The World in a Nutshell) by the writer Richard Friedenthal, who was also interned there (Friedenthal 1956; see Pross 2000, 42).
    Schwitters lived in London from November 1941, initially in an attic flat at 2 St Stephens Crescent before moving, in August 1942, to a house at 39 Westmoreland Road in the Barnes district, on the outskirts of London. Schwitters’s address book shows how the artist tried to build up a professional and private network in the city. It lists such institutions as the Arcade Gallery and the Artists’ Refugee Committee, which were important points of contact for Schwitters to make initial professional contacts and receive support. The address of the sculptor Jussuf Abbo is also listed. Schwitters had written to him in December 1941 after seeing his work at a Free German League of Culture exhibition (Schwitters 1941).

    Schwitters made contact with other exiles, such as the painters László Péri and Jankel Adler, and the filmmaker Stefan Themerson. These friendships found expression in his artistic work. He created the collage for my friend Peri (1941), for example, and dedicated another collage to Stefan and Franziska Themerson in 1943 (Chambers 2013, 9, 18). Schwitters also maintained relations with the Free German League of Culture and attended meetings and events, but distanced himself from the association’s political agenda (Müller-Härlin 2006, 185). In a letter to the League on 1 September 1945, Schwitters wrote: “The responsibility of an artist is only to art. If someone who makes pictures or sculptures were under any other influence than that of the laws of art for the form of his work, then this work would not be art and the person concerned would not be an artist.” (Schwitters 1974, 182)

    Schwitters was promoted in particular by the Modern Art Gallery of Jack Bilbo, who had also emigrated from Germany. The gallery showed five of his works in early 1942 and also integrated him into The World of Imagination group exhibition in 1944. Schwitters had a solo show at the Modern Art Gallery in December 1944, which brought together works from the London years and was accompanied by a catalogue. The text for the catalogue was provided by the renowned art critic Herbert Read, who focused in particular on the use of everyday materials in Schwitters’s work (Read 1944, in Erlhoff/Stadtmüller 1989, 32). The collage For Herbert Read (1944) a reference to the author of his catalogue text, shows Schwitter’s use of tickets, newspaper cuttings, fabrics and scraps of paper. In other collages of the London period, Schwitters also used the tickets he needed to travel from Barnes to central London (Chambers 2013, 14; Orchard 2013, 61). In his solo exhibition at the Modern Art Gallery, Schwitters also showed sculptures that were often composed of found objects, into which everyday objects, leftovers and discarded items were integrated and then painted.

    Schwitters’s work was shown in a number of London galleries and privately organised exhibitions during the 1940s. In June 1942, he took part in the Aid to Russia exhibition, organised by Ernö and Ursula Goldfinger and held at the couple’s private home in Hampstead, but nevertheless open to the public. Four works by Schwitters were shown, together with works by Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst and Henry Moore (Pezzini 2002). In 1942, Schwitters was involved in a group exhibition – 1942 Members’ Exhibition – put on by the anti-fascist Artists’ International Association, of which Schwitters had become a member in the same year (Wilson 2013).
    Schwitters gave three works to the New Movements in Art travelling exhibition, which was shown in London, Leicester, Manchester and other cities and was intended to map the status quo of modern British art. The show was put together by the critic E. Hartley Ramsden, who chose contributions by Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo, among others (Chambers 2013, 10). This placed Schwitters in the context of contemporary British art. Schwitters was in contact with Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. All three belonged to the Association Abstraction-Création, an association of non-figurative artists founded in 1931. In 1942, Ben Nicholson sent Schwitters his 1942 (bus ticket) collage, which referred to works by Schwitters made at the same time with the incorporated bus ticket (Chambers 2013, 10).

    Even after moving to Ambleside in the Lake District in 1945, Schwitters continued to try to remain visible in the art scene. In March 1947, for example, the London Gallery organised two lecture evenings and performative readings at which Schwitters performed his Ur-Sonata and poetry translated into English (Giedion-Welcker 1973, 287). Schwitters attributed the fact that he received little attention and recognition and was rarely able to sell his work to the conservative art scene. In a letter to Hanns Krenz dated 20 August 1947, Schwitters wrote: “He [the Englishman] is a good poet, but a bad painter and sculptor. Even the best, like Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, etc., cannot be compared with the best in Germany or Paris. The world view is conservative, even that of the Labour Party.” (Schwitters 1974, 285) This observation, however, fails to recognise that a new progressive art scene had been forming in the city since the mid-1940s at the latest, with protagonists such as Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Lucian Freud, who were particularly promoted by emigrant gallery owners. Schwitters was not to experience the turn of the London art market towards a continental modernism, which took place from the 1940s onwards. From mid-1947, he devoted himself intensively to a new Merzbau, which was never completed due to his death in January 1948. From the late 1950s Schwitters’s work received widespread attention in London: in 1958 a solo show opened at Lord's Gallery and in 1959 the Arts Council put on a show. In 1963, Marlborough Fine Art gallery in London, founded by two emigrants, dedicated a solo exhibition to the artist and the Kurt Schwitters in Exile exhibition was held at the same venue in 1981. Schwitters’s works was already being collected in England during his lifetime, including by Roland Penrose and E.L.T. Mesens (Chambers 2013, 11). The Tate in London owns works by the artist, but these only entered the collection years, even decades, after his death. With its Schwitters in England show, Tate Britain dedicated a comprehensive exhibition to the artist in 2013, which was subsequently presented at the Sprengel Museum Hannover, in Schwitters’s hometown.

    Word Count: 1327

  • Kurt Schwitters, Red Wire Sculpture, 1944, Metal, plaster, stone, ceramics, dried fruit, wood, painted (Tate Collection, T05767, Photo © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)).
    Kurt Schwitters’s London address book, undated [1941/1945] (Sprengel Museum Hannover, Kurt Schwitters Archiv, Hannover, Leihgabe Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Hannover). On the right is the address of Abbo’s studio at Lambolle Road and a reference to the Abbo family in Sussex.
    Letter [draft?] from Kurt Schwitters to Jussuf Abbo, London, 23 December 1941 (Sprengel Museum Hannover, Kurt Schwitters Archiv, Hannover, Leihgabe Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Hannover). Schwitters writes: “I found you in the exhibition of the German League of Culture and am glad to have you in London. You remember our meetings in Berlin and at the Hanoversche Secession. I come from Norway, where I have been resident for 11 years. When and where can I see you one day?”
    Leaflet advertising the December exhibition held at the Modern Art Gallery on Masterpieces by Great Masters, also featuring Paintings and Sculptures by Kurt Schwitters, Modern Art Gallery Ltd., 1944 (Tate Archive, TGA 9510/4/8/1, Photo © Tate, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)).
  • Chambers, Emma. “Schwitters und England.” Schwitters in England, edited by Emma Chambers and Karin Orchard, exh. cat. Sprengel Museum Hannover, Hannover, 2013, pp. 6–19.

    Dickson, Rachel. “‘Our horizon is the barbed wire’: Artistic Life in the British Internment Camps.” Insiders Outsiders. Refugees from Nazi Europe and their Contribution to British Visual Culture, edited by Monica Bohm-Duchen, Lund Humphries, 2019, pp. 147–156.

    Erlhoff, Michael, and Klaus Stadtmüller, editors. Kurt Schwitters Almanach, vol. 8. Postskriptum-Verlag, 1989.

    Exhibition of 20th century German art, exh. cat. New Burlington Galleries, London, 1938.

    Friedenthal, Richard. Die Welt in der Nußschale. Piper, 1956.

    Giedion-Welcker, Carola. Schriften 1926–1971. Stationen zu einem Zeitbild, edited by Reinhold Hohl, Verlag M. DuMont Schauberg, 1973.

    Müller-Härlin, Anna. “‘Remember Hannover, Berlin, Paris’: Kurt Schwitters’ alte und neue Freunde in London.” Merzgebiete. Kurt Schwitters und seine Freunde, edited by Karin Orchard and Isabel Schulz, exh. cat. Sprengel Museum Hannover, Hannover, 2006, pp. 182–195.

    Orchard, Karin. “‘British made’. Die späten Collagen von Kurt Schwitters.” Schwitters in England, edited by Emma Chambers and Karin Orchard, exh. cat. Sprengel Museum Hannover, Hannover, 2013, pp. 56–65.

    Pezzini, Barbara. “‘For an appreciation of art and architecture’. The Goldfinger Collection at 2 Willow Road.” Apollo, vol. 153, no. 470, 2001, pp. 55–59.

    Powell, Jennifer. “Unter Freunden. Schwitters im Internierungslager.” Schwitters in England, edited by Emma Chambers and Karin Orchard, exh. cat. Sprengel Museum Hannover, Hannover, 2013, pp. 32–35.

    Pross, Steffen. “In London treffen wir uns wieder”. Vier Spaziergänge durch ein vergessenes Kapitel deutscher Kulturgeschichte nach 1933. Eichhorn, 2000.

    Read, Herbert. Art Now. An Introduction to the Theory of Modern Painting and Sculpture. Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1933.

    Schwitters, Kurt. Letter to Jussuf Abbo. Kurt Schwitters Archiv (Sprengel Museum, Hannover, 23 December 1941, London).

    Schwitters, Kurt. Wir spielen, bis uns der Tod abholt. Briefe aus fünf Jahrzehnten, edited by Ernst Nündel, Ullstein, 1974.

    Vinzent, Jutta. “Muteness as Utterance of a Forced Reality – Jack Bilbo’s Modern Art Gallery (1941–1948).” Arts in Exile in Britain 1933–1945. Politics and Cultural Identity (The Yearbook of the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies, 6 (2004)), edited by Shulamith Behr and Marian Malet, Rodopi, 2005, pp. 301–337.

    Vinzent, Jutta. Identity and Image. Refugee Artists from Nazi Germany in Britain (1933–1945) (Schriften der Guernica-Gesellschaft, 16). VDG, 2006.

    Wilson, Sarah. “Kurt Schwitters in England.” 2013, Tate, Accessed 20 February 2021.

    Word Count: 362

  • Sprengel Museum Hannover, Kurt Schwitters Archiv, Hannover.

    Tate Collection, London.

    Tate Archive, London.

    Word Count: 13

  • My deepest thanks go to Karin Orchard from Sprengel Museum Hannover who provided me with images and permission for Schwitters’s address book and letter. I am grateful to be able to reproduce Schwitters’s work in the Tate Collection under Creative Commons license.

    Word Count: 44

  • Burcu Dogramaci
  • Norway (1937–1940); London, GB (1940–1945); Ambleside, Westmoreland, GB (1945–1948).

  • 3 St. Stephen’s Crescent, Bayswater, London W2 (residence, 1941–1942); 39 Westmoreland Road, Barnes, London SW13 (residence, 1942–1945).

  • London
  • Burcu Dogramaci. "Kurt Schwitters." METROMOD Archive, 2021,, last modified: 20-06-2021.
  • László Moholy-Nagy
    PhotographerGraphic DesignerPainterSculptor

    László Moholy-Nagy emigrated to London in 1935, where he worked in close contact with the local avantgarde and was commissioned for window display decoration, photo books, advertising and film work.

    Word Count: 30

    Jussuf Abbo
    SculptorGraphic Artist

    The Berlin sculptor Jussuf Abbo emigrated together with his family to London in 1935, where he received a limited number of commissions and participated in a few group exhibitions.

    Word Count: 28

    Herbert Read
    Art HistorianArt CriticPoet

    The British art historian Herbert Read established himself as a central figure in the London artistic scene in the 1930s and was one of the outstanding supporters of exiled artists.

    Word Count: 30

    Freie Deutsche Kultur

    The Free German League of Culture was an association of emigrant artists and authors who organised exhibitions, concerts and lectures. The events were announced in the Freie Deutsche Kultur newsletter.

    Word Count: 30

    Aid to Russia

    The Aid to Russia exhibition was organised in 1942 by the emigré architect Ernö Goldfinger and his wife, the painter Ursula Goldfinger, at their house in Hampstead.

    Word Count: 26

    20th Century German Art

    The 20th Century German Art exhibition of 1938 gave visibility to artists who had been defamed at the Munich exhibition Entartete Kunst and were persecuted by the National Socialist regime.

    Word Count: 29

    Ludwig Meidner, Drawings 1920–1922 and 1935–49, Else Meidner, Paintings and Drawings 1935–1949

    In 1949, a joint exhibition of works by Ludwig and Else Meidner opened at the Ben Uri Art Gallery. It was the first solo exhibition of the artists in London.

    Word Count: 29

    Modern Art Gallery
    Art Gallery

    The Modern Art Gallery, founded by the émigré painter, sculptor and writer Jack Bilbo, was a forum for the presentation of modern art, specialising in the work of emigrant artists.

    Word Count: 30

    Faber & Faber
    Publishing House

    Faber & Faber shows the importance of publishing houses as supporters of contemporary art movements and of the contribution of emigrants, helping to popularise their art and artistic theories.

    Word Count: 29

    Marlborough Fine Art
    Art Gallery

    Marlborough Fine Art was founded in 1946 by the Viennese emigrants Harry Fischer and Frank Lloyd in the Mayfair district, focused on Impressionists, Modern and Contemporary Art.

    Word Count: 26