Kurt Schwitters, the pioneering German Dadaist now acknowledged as the founder of performance art, was hopelessly misunderstood in his lifetime, at least when it came to the general public.
Even before he came to Britain – fleeing Nazi Germany in 1940 – his epic sound poem, Ursonate or Ur Sonata, comprised solely of abstract sounds was being pilloried in the national press. The BBC’s response in 1947 didn’t help. When two reporters turned up to his solo exhibition at London Gallery to record a live performance of Ur Sonata (sometimes translated as “a sonata in primal sounds”), they left halfway through without recording it at all. Only 28 people attended the recital and a fellow artist remembers Schwitters’ enduring positivity in the face of an evident lack of interest in the room.
The sound poem, and other works created by Schwitters, have all since been fully reappraised and vindicated. In the past few years, a Schwitters revival has gained ground: Jarvis Cocker played Ur Sonata on BBC Radio 6 Music in June last year; Michael Nyman wrote an opera about the artist in 2003 entitled Man and Boy: Dada; Bryan Ferry is a fan; Damien Hirst owns his sculptures and has spoken of the artist’s influence on his own early work.
Yet the public is still, by and large, relatively uninformed of the immense imprint left by Schwitters on contemporary British art. Tate Britain hopes to change that by staging a major exhibition, Schwitters in Britain, opening on Wednesday, which will showcase 150 collages, sculptures, paintings and sound poems – some seen in the country for the first time. The exhibition will focus on the years between his arrival in Britain as an “enemy alien” from Germany in 1940 until his death in Cumbria in 1948.
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