To learn more about the history of the Merz Barn and Kurt Schwitter's journey from Nazi Germany to the Lake District, click on the gallery to the right and ‘show caption’ for each slide.
About Kurt Schwitters
The pioneering German artist Kurt Schwitters arrived in England in 1940, following persecution and exile by the Nazis, eventually settling in Ambleside in the Lake District. Schwitters was an innovator in many art forms, but it is perhaps through his architectural installations known as the 'Merzbauten' (Merz Buildings), that his influence on modern art and architecture was most strongly felt.
Born in Hanover, Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948) worked across many different art disciplines and maintained an extraordinary output of work. Richard Hamilton, Sir Peter Blake, Eduardo Paolozzi, Robert Rauschenberg and others also readily acknowledge Schwitters’ influence on the development of Pop Art in the early 1960s. Schwitters’ influence on the development of contemporary art, sculpture and architecture continues to be widely acknowledged.
Denounced by the Nazis as an Entartete Künstler (degenerate artist) Schwitters was forced to flee his home in Hanover in 1937 and seek refuge with his son in Norway. After the Germans invaded Norway in April 1940 he was again forced to run and, for a second time, had to abandon most of his life’s work. Arriving in the UK, he was largely unknown and unrecognised as an artist, and lived a hand-to-mouth existence during the war, first in London and later in Ambleside in the Lake District, where he struggled to earn a living by painting portraits of local people and Lake District landscapes. Undaunted, Schwitters continued working on the pioneering art projects that he had begun in Germany and in Norway, and during his last years in England maintained a very high output of creative work.
Life in the Lake District
In 1946 Schwitters rented as his studio a small farm shed on Cylinders Farm, a piece of land in Langdale that had once formed part of the Elterwater Gunpowder Works. There, Schwitters began to construct his greatest lifework, known as the 'Merz Barn', using found materials and a construction technique invented for his two earlier ‘Merz’ installations, one at his home in Hanover, the other in Norway, neither of which survived the war.
What is a 'merz'?
A merz can roughly be described as a ‘psychological collage’, which contains fragments of found objects, some with autobiographical elements. The Merz Barn in Elterwater, which was built during the final years of Schwitters’ life, and, although unfinished at the time of his death in 1948, is now regarded as one of his greatest pioneering work. Financed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, this was the last of Schwitters’ projects, and shows an artist clinging on to his personal iconography, after years of suffering the transience and displacement of an exile.
The Merz Barn today
Following years of neglect, the surviving Merz Barn wall artwork was rescued by artist Richard Hamilton in 1965, and removed for safe keeping to the University of Newcastle. Although abandoned for forty years, the shell of the original Merz Barn building remains largely intact and with evidence of Schwitters’ working techniques and materials still visible on some of the barn walls. After Schwitters’ death, photographic records show that the Merz Barn contained many other individual artworks, some partly unfinished, and others littering the floor. These include a collection of smaller sculptures, mainly painted slate stones and wire and plaster table sculptures, which, it is believed, were produced at the same time as he was working on the Merz Barn.
As part of the exhibition ‘Modern British Sculpture’, the Royal Academy has reconstructed the Merz Barn in its front courtyard. A video detailing this process can be found here.
Cylinders Farm in 1948
Photo courtesy of the Pierce Family
With thanks to the Littoral Arts Trust
Further information about the Merz Barn Project can be found at www.merzbarn.net
Read an article on the construction of the replica Merz Barn on the BBC website here.
© Royal Academy of Arts, 2011