Posted on September 17, 2014

Kurt Schwitters (foreground) with Edith Thomas and Harry Pierce outside the shippon on the Cylinders Estate in Cumbria in 1947.

Kurt Schwitters and the Merz-Barn.

Schwitters was born in Hanover in 1887 and died in Kendal, Cumbria 8 January 1948. Linked with the DADA art movement that spread throughout Europe circa 1916, Schwitters was an outsider to some degree, persecuted and hounded out of Germany as a “degenerate artist” by the Nazis. He exhibited great perserverance and tenacity in persuance of his work which covered painting, sculpture, installations, archetectural forms, poetry, performance and audio works.He saw his work as a bridge between art and life – and worked resolutely to the notion of “Gesamtkunstwerk” – or “total work of art”. He created work out of his environment and gave his whole creative oeuvre the all encompassing title of “Merz” (taken from Commerz”) and called his built environments “Merzbauten”. Merz , he said, negated borders between art catagories, between the deep and the meaningful and the utterly banal. He produced Merz constructions in Hanover and Norway and his last, and unfinished Merzbauten, which he had considered his best – he died before its completion- was in the Lake District near Elterwater. In a rented barn (called Merz-barn) on a rise of land beneath Loughrigg Tarn the work stood in a vulnerable state until rescued and resited in 1965 to Newcastle University as part of The Hatton Gallery. The site is now owned and managed by The Littoral Arts Trust who are looking to preserve the Merz-barn and its associated buildings in a sympathetic development to encourage visitors to learn about Schwitters and his work.

Martin B O’Connor, Kurt Schwitters and the Merz-barn.

I came to Schwitters early in my work at Art college in the early 1970’s. My tutor was the painter Arthur Berry and it was by an association of the work of Rauschenberg and others, that Schwitters came up in conversation by way of comparison with work in progress in my studio (I was making collage works using blocks of wood and used kiln ceramic insulators with other industrial detritus, bus and train ticket collages on blocks of wood and painting surreal images on canvas – eventually combining elements of the two), that I became inured with the Schwitters oeuvre.

By the time I left collage in 1975 Schwitters was a significant figure for me and I remember visiting an exhibition at Marlbrough Fine Art in the mid to late 70’s where some of the Schwitters collages were available for sale for around £2,000 – I remember thinking of blowing all of my grant on one work – instead I made my own peice entitled “But for £2,000 I could have had you”.


Two works linked by the influence Schwitters ; (left) “Kiln Work” Installation at Burslem School of Art 1972, and (right) The Shaman 2014 oil on paper.

In the interveining years I had often thought about visiting the location of the Merz-barn near Elterwater and had meant for many years to investigate the site. I did not compleate this task until the spring of this year, 2014 – making two trips up from my base in Croston to investigate the barn and its surrounds. I learned about the The Littoral Arts Trust and its management of the Merz-Barn legacy, and of the idea to consolidate and potentially develop the site as a working base for artists and to develop a museum / information centre about Schwitters and his work. I am convinced The Littoral Arts Trust has the right and proper aims for the development of this artistic and historic legacy and that should this be achieved it would prove an outstanding added attraction for the local economy and for the many visitors to the area who may be surprised to find a significant cultural icon located in such an isolated place.

Certainly the Cylinders Estate, with its Merz Barn and adjacent structures, orchard and woodlands makes a significant bid as an important register in the hearts and minds of artists, young and established, as Schwitters is a fulcrum figure in the cultural lifeblood of the creative process that we call contemporary art. Most art students leaving art college will be aquainted with his work, and his life story has a particular resonance today in the seemingly endless populations of the world who, as refugees, are displaced, hounded and stateless. It is this resonance plus the rural location and its elemental nature that attracted me to the location to work and to draw inspiration from the spectaular and in some ways, haunting surroundings. The spirit of Kurt certainly lingers with references all over the site and contributions from visitors and artists who have paid their own homage to the refugee iconoclast. The foot-steps of this German artist, who worked away quietly in failing health the Lake District a mere 67 years ago echo, for me, loud and clear. The stones he skimmed across Elterwater’s often limpid surface ripple through the world with prescience.

The Merz-Barn site of Kurt Schwitters last art work – Ambleside, Cumbria.



The Merz-Barn, the site of Kurt Schwitters last art work, Cylinders Estate, Ambleside.

Representation of the interior of the end wall of the Merz-Barn, now resited in the Hatton

Copy of the original work on the interior end wall of the Merz-Barn, now resited in the Hatton Gallery Newcastle University. Post Residential Notes.


I was working on two new pieces, Absences and Convergences and The Elemental Spirit in and around the shippon near to the Merz Barn where German artist Kurt Schwitters constructed his last major art work before his death in 1948.

Absences and Convergences and The Elemental Spirit.


Absences and Convergences 2014 Oil on 4 canvas panels 76.2 x 406.4 cm
My work at the Merz-barn was based on and around its location – the aim being to produce material that bridges the gap between the landscape and the inner landscapes of the spirit, to investigate the natural landscape in terms of absences and convergences through elemental landscape and abandonment. To visually note “a site of transcendence” as Schwitters refered to his work in the barn, that brings harmony and structure, in art that makes a home for the abandoned, the useless and the banal.

The absences refer to Schwitters, his work in the Merz-barn and the ghost of his continuing presence, even his absence from his grave in Ambleside (his body was dis-intered and reburied in Germany by his son, Ernst) and his former residences in Ambleside itself. The snake-sticks about the barn and Schwitters propensity for the elemental, the ordinary and a quest for the spiritual lends to the image of a shaman, dressed in the post war drab of his time.

The convergences refer to the harmonization of two strands of work – the body painted primitive type images produced in recent times with the natural landscape references which incorporate cyphers for the elements and elemental forces.

Part of this convergence was simply being out in the landscape, to be with its elemental forces and to communicate the spirit of the inner responses brought about just by being amid moss, earth, rock, stream, tree, hill and tarns as well as other plant and animal life and to be aware of how man has used site from its historical use as a gunpowder works through to the horticultural developments in later years and indeed in the presence of Schwitters and the resultant art traffic. I did not undertake body painting (although the weather was idyllic) as the opportunity to work on the other landscape factors took a priority and the bodywork element can be worked at a later date, if I feel the need, back at my studio.

> The Merz Barn – Kurt Schwitters

> Sprengel Museum – The Kurt Schwitters Archive

> Littoral Arts Trust