Russian Revolutionaries, Wartime Reflections and Martin Green on the groundbreaking work of artist Kurt Schwitters

By David Pollock

Throughout August Summerhall is one of the pre-eminent places to see art in Edinburgh, and particularly art from the 20th and 21st centuries with an outsider sensibility and a lack of mainstream recognition. This year, our flagship show Free the Pussy! – curated by Tamsyn Challenger – goes hand in hand with a ten-day residency by Russian art collective Pussy Riot’s ‘Riot Days’ show, with the art exhibition displaying work made in response to Pussy Riot’s 2012 imprisonment, created by artists including Yoko Ono, Judy Chicago, John Keane, Billy Childish, No Bra, Carolee Schneemann, Challenger herself and many others.

John Keane also appears with his own solo show Life During Wartime, which follows his career from the time he was the Imperial War Museum’s official war artist of the Gulf War of 1990-91, through further conflicted-related work involving Israel and Palestine, Russia, Angola and Rwanda. Elsewhere, an exhibition of the little-seen drawings and sketches of Orson Welles has been curated by film director and historian Mark Cousins; A Lady’s Not a Gent’s and Elsa in Philadelphia examines the feminist legacy of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and Marcel Duchamp’s appropriation of her work; 1968 is a documentary exhibition of a tumultuous year’s social and political upheaval; the performance art group Bbeyond’s work will be catalogued; and there will be showings from the private collections of Richard DeMarco and Robert McDowell.

In celebration of the 70th anniversary of the death of German artist Kurt Schwitters and the very full life which went before – particularly his final years, between landing in Leith as a war refugee in 1940 and his death in Cumbria eight years later – the show Kurt Schwitters Has Left the Building: Story and Dispersal, Legacy and (Re)possession offers responses to his work. One of the artists involved, the Coventry-based Martin Green, explains further:

“This is the 70th anniversary of Kurt Schwitters’ death, he died in 1948 in Ambleside in the Lake District. This exhibition looks at his legacy and the responses to that legacy, a joining together of three different ways of keeping it alive. David Rushton, the other artist involved, has made a model of what he imagines the MERZ Barn (Schwitters’ studio in Cumbria) would have looked like when Schwitters was there. When you go to the MERZ Barn now, it’s just a shell; the actual artwork is in the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle. There will also be three original Schwitters pieces which Robert (McDowell, owner of Summerhall) has bought.”

Which work of yours will be in the show?

“I’m not making art objects as such, I’m making a palette. What you’re going to see is lots of different objects that could be used to make art in their own right. David has set up an artist-in-residence scheme in Sanquhar in Dumfries and Galloway, and he’s built a bothy, a gallery and an office space, which he’s called MERZ because it’s very much the same size and scale as the original MERZ Barn, in Elterwater in the Lake District. He invited me to come and be artist-in-residence, so I spent about two weeks there and a lot more time researching. What I’ve ended up doing… at the moment I don’t know what the pieces I’ll put into the show will look like. What I do is make lots and lots and lots of pieces, and the more recent sculptures have had hundreds of elements to them, so I suspect that this one will be the same. The format in which I place things isn’t important to me, I always do that in response to the environment, and it will be made in response to my relationship with Kurt Schwitters.”

Can you tell us more about how your work relates to that of Schwitters?

“One of the things that I do, which he also did, is collect found objects from city streets or rural areas. So what I’ve made for Summerhall is a ‘palette for the return of Schwitters’; a thirty-box palette of contemporary found objects, with the notion that if Schwitters ever walked back into the room he would find some materials that explained that seventy-year gap between 1948 and 2018. I have the soles of abandoned trainers, BT wire that you find inside green boxes on the street, nitrous oxide canisters which I’m wrapping up in snippets of photographed newspaper, betting shop pens, paint that’s peeled off buildings, found carpet pieces… I’ve been collecting medicine packet signatures, because Schwitters was in quite poor health and one of the things that contributed to his later poverty was doctor’s fees, so it’s ironic that he died in January 1948 and the NHS came about in July of that year.”

What’s the fascination with found objects?

“Well, you gain an insight into a place by what you find on its floors. Schwitters left Germany in 1937, he was one of the degenerate artists in the exhibition that Hitler did in the mid-30s. He went to Norway until 1940 and then landed in Leith, was interned on the Isle of Man for around 17 months, then lived in London and finally Ambleside. The whole time he was travelling he was making, so the boxes I’ve made are small and transportable, you could take some with you if you had to move quickly. He had a lot of found objects when he landed in Edinburgh in 1940 – what some people might call rubbish – but he was very selective about what he kept, and it was used to make abstract collages. To make ends meet he also painted traditional landscapes and portraits, and the three portraits in Summerhall are ones which he drew between 1945 and his death in 1948 of people in Blackpool.”