Writings

ART, HISTORY, and HOT AIR in the 21st Century Littoral Arts Trust: a wilful manipulation of Kurt Schwitters’ legacy in Cumbria.

Overview
Since its purchase in 2006 of the Cylinders Estate in Elterwater (Lake District), Lancashire-based Littoral Arts Trust (a registered charity) has raised substantial funding and garnered extensive publicity for its mission to restore the site of exiled 20th century German artist Kurt Schwitters’ last major art work (the Merz Barn 1947) and to promote Schwitters-related events. The artwork itself was removed for safe keeping from its barn at Cylinders to Newcastle University’s Hatton Gallery in the 1960s, although in 2006 it was as though the site’s compact, mostly unaltered, but overgrown features would afford visitors to Cylinders and its few small buildings the opportunity to stand in the footsteps of one of the early twentieth century’s most renowned and influential artists.

So far as can be ascertained from records available in the public domain, Littoral Arts Trust’s funding since 2006 has totalled £859,272. In January 2015 the Trust announced that a further £350,000 of emergency Arts Lottery Capital Funding was necessary as “… the Merz Barn and the buildings on the site are (still) in an advanced state of disrepair”. In 2009 a professional survey of the empty Merz Barn estimated that the cost of repair works to the building would not exceed £30,000.

There may be a disconnection between the funding that Littoral has received since 2006 (much of it from the public purse), the renovation objectives for which much of the money was (and may be) awarded, and the actual outcomes.

Littoral has, in recent years, disseminated an increasingly fabricated and misleading version of Schwitters’ complex history and his art for the purposes of publicity, self-promotion, and perhaps to satisfy the funding criteria of numerous arts and rural development bodies. A re-shaping of the Schwitters’ story and his legacy have been unchallenged by the press and funding agencies, whose editors and adjudicators may not always be well informed on the historical minutiae of the artist and his times. Unfortunately, the Cylinders Estate is now a locus of specious histories, a site of dubious and frequently mythologised pilgrimage, and a venue which inexplicably promotes Schwitters as a leading exemplar of artistic ‘ruralism’, mystifyingly aligned to Littoral’s wider provision as a rural ‘arts, crafts, and agriculture’ organisation. This is no doubt deemed an acceptable strategy by some within the wider remit of Lakeland’s cultural, pastoral and tourism agenda and its aspirations for ‘World Heritage’ status. Schwitters, celebrated for his ‘Merz’ collages made from urban detritus, was never a ‘rural artist’ in the present sense of the term. Schwitters’ name and legacy have progressively been appropriated by Littoral to promote rural arts events at the Cylinders Estate which have no bearing on the artist, and which often pervert understandings of his life and work. Funding bodies no doubt require project justification from applicants seeking grant aid, and to support young artists is – in itself – a worthy cause, but there are no historical records to support Littoral’s disingenuous and oft-repeated claims that it was Schwitters’ wish for the Cylinders Estate to become a place where future artists could stay and work, that the Nazis had tried to kill him and that his exile had links to the death camps and the Holocaust.

The Armitt Museum in Ambleside, five miles from the Cylinders Estate, holds the largest permanent display of Schwitters’ art in the UK, primarily focusing on the artist’s final years in the town. While the Armitt receives no funding, its survival relying wholly on admission revenue and donations, Littoral – in stark contrast – has received and continues to receive substantial public funding yet holds no works by Schwitters. Littoral regularly asserts that ‘…there is no permanent gallery or museum in England devoted to the work and life of Kurt Schwitters’.

Against the wishes of the residents of Elterwater and Langdale, Littoral hopes to develop the Cylinders Estate as a venue reminiscent of a small commercially driven theme park with a ‘rural art museum’, contemporary art gallery, conference centre, ‘meditation’ room, café, accommodation, car park, and replicas of Schwitters’ works. Such aspirations will destroy the historical integrity of the site and transform it into a place unrecognisable, and anathema to, Schwitters.

A likely detrimental impact to the environment and the area, coupled with the historical fictions now advanced by Littoral, have accentuated the need for Schwitters’ legacy in northern England to be substantially re-addressed re-examined -, and for history to be separated from myth, fabrication and misinterpretation at the Cylinders Estate.

Littoral commendably raised funds to save Cylinders Estate from total decay, has raised public awareness of the site, and since 2006 has irregularly opened Cylinders to the public. Nonetheless, the Trust’s ‘go-it-alone’, increasingly grandiose, bellicose, and often misbegotten schemes to promote Schwitters and the site of his last major artwork raise vexatious issues of sustainability, and concerns that the Estate will be subjected to bland, widespread, and hubristic commercialisation within the Lake District’s notional tourist marketplace.

A solution will require the collaboration and co-ordination of all Schwitters venues in the north of England (The Armitt Museum, the Merz Barn, The Abbot Hall Art Gallery, and The Hatton Gallery) and a more environmentally sensitive, low-key and contextually appropriate approach by Littoral.

Prominence should be given to The Armitt Museum and The Hatton Gallery, as long-established primary research and information centres.

Cylinders should be considered as a minor venue accessible for interested individuals or groups. A lower profile in keeping with its location and the wishes of Langdale valley residents would preserve it from further historically and environmentally destructive development. Information for readers who may be unfamiliar with the life and times of Kurt Schwitters, and Littoral Arts Trust

“Kurt Schwitters and Cylinders Estate” 

Schwitters was neither Jewish nor a member of the German Communist Party. Voluntary exile from Nazi Germany afforded him the freedom to continue making and exhibiting abstract art. Although many artists fled from Germany to Britain and North America, for similar reasons, none who were not Jewish were exterminated by the National Socialist regime, because of their art. Littoral Arts Trust has regularly claimed otherwise (see, for example, ITV Border News 30.6.2014 ‘Plans for a £1m Elterwater Arts Centre: “…. the Nazis tried to kill Schwitters”). The no doubt compelling fallacy that Schwitters’ escape to England had links to the politically and racially motivated Holocaust and the death camps is yet another falsehood advanced by Littoral. Schwitters’ exile, first in Norway, preceded the infamous 1937 Munich ‘Degenerate Art Exhibition’ by several months. Although life in National Socialist Germany was extremely difficult for him and his family after 1933, there is no evidence to support Littoral’s claim that the Nazis had tried to kill Schwitters. His departure from Germany with his son seems rather to have been impelled by the latter’s youthful political activities and imminent military call-up. The Nazi authorities never revoked Schwitters’ German passport, nor was his property in Hannover or his bank account confiscated, which would have been the case for an ‘enemy of the state’.

Schwitters spent just two and a half years living and working in Ambleside before his death in January 1948. During that time, remarkably, he produced almost 600 (catalogued) artworks. His health rapidly declining, he spent less than four disjointed months in 1947 working, with assistance, on the Merz Barn installation at the Cylinders Estate. The work, a fraction of what he had envisaged, was removed to Newcastle University in 1966. Despite Littoral’s claims, the Merz Barn is now merely a carcass containing no remaining trace of Schwitters’ hand, but only clues to its former occupancy: a curved ridge of plasterwork added to the north wall after the artist’s death.

There are no historical records to support Littoral Arts Trust’s insistence that “…. Schwitters said he wanted the place (Cylinders) to be somewhere artists could come and find support, and a place to stay and work” (Summerhall TV film posted by The Artists’ Information Company 8.1.2014) and “…. Schwitters said before he died that he wanted it (Cylinders) to be a place for artists to come and be supported” (Summerhall TV film on Merz Barn Facebook 11.2.2015). There are no accounts of any explicit wishes by Schwitters (on his death bed or otherwise) that he wished Cylinders Estate to be developed as a ‘rural art museum’ and a workplace and exhibitions venue for future artists. Nor, it seems, did Schwitters indicate a desire that the Barn might in the future serve any purpose other than to display his own work. (See: The Westmorland Gazette, 10.1.2015, 5.6.2014, and 17.6.2014).

“Littoral Arts Trust” 

Littoral Arts Trust is a company registered as ‘Littoral/Projects Environment’ (Company number 2526443, Charity number 1002365), described as ‘…. an arts research and development Trust, which promotes new creative strategies, artistic interventions and cultural partnerships in response to issues about social, cultural and environmental change’. Major aims of the Trust are to: ‘…. promote the arts and rural regeneration’, to ‘…. cultivate new metaphors for environmental sustainability’, to ‘…. curate critical art interventions in new agricultural contexts’, to ‘…. re-embed the crafts in the discourse of environmental sustainability’, and to ‘…. recover the ideological, social and aesthetic purposes of the crafts’.

In so far as Littoral’s funding can be understood by examining records openly available in the public domain, the Trust’s income from public bodies between 2002 and 2015 has totalled a staggering £1,229,645, of which £859,272.96 has been awarded since the acquisition of the Cylinders Estate in 2006. Frustratingly, much of the Arts Council’s funding, especially, is listed simply with project names and no precise descriptions of the purpose of awards, or expected outcomes. It is thus sometimes difficult to ascertain renovation and maintenance expenditure at Cylinders against programme costs.

Littoral’s claim that they have received no funding for the past three years is disingenuous. While their Arts Council RFO grant was revoked in 2012 (and the directors’ claims in The Guardian, 19.10.2012, to be subsidising Cylinders Estate from their pensions and savings may be correct), the Trust has, from 2012 to 2015, continued to receive funding from the Arts Council (two awards of £48,000 and £38,700), and from DEFRA (£25,255). In addition £24,000 has been claimed as payment in kind for two years’ use of the Wierside Bunk Barn in Chapel Stile, Elterwater (despite accommodation fees being paid by participants at Cylinders events). Between 2006 and 2013, Littoral’s declared expenditure for the renovation of the Merz Barn and the Cylinders Estate, to the Charity Commission, was £261,359. A surprising amount, considering the noticeable decrepitude of much of the site, as verified in Ian Hunter’s statement in the Westmorland Gazette 10th of January 2015 that, ‘…the Merz Barn and the buildings on the site are now in an advanced state of disrepair’.

“Kurt Schwitters and ‘rural art”  Schwitters was never a ‘rural artist’, in the present sense of the term. Neither in the spirit suggested by the Westmorland Gazette’s accounts of a proposed ‘rural art museum’ at Cylinders Estate, nor in the ways that his name and legacy have progressively been appropriated by Littoral to promote rural arts events at Cylinders which have no bearing on the artist, and which pervert understandings of his life and oeuvre. Similarly, Schwitters’ Merz Barn relief cannot be perceived as an exemplar of ‘rural art’ other than by virtue of its intended location. Nor can it be claimed that the work drew inspiration primarily from its rural context. The relief’s softly curvilinear and biomorphic features (in marked contrast to the forms of Langdale’s rugged landscape and executed in a style which Schwitters had been experimenting with since 1930) are rather evidence of his life-long and uncannily magpie-like ability to adapt the artistic zeitgeist of his times to the purposes of his art. Many of his late abstract paintings and sculptures display Schwitters’ enthusiasm for a biomorphic art genre, which was fashionable in the 1930s and 1940s, but is now largely forgotten. A ‘non-geometric abstraction’ (or biomorphic art) was believed at the time to herald a new and important developmental phase in modern art. It is noticeable, for example, in the works of artists such as Arp, Miro and Kandinsky, in the earliest works of Moore, Hepworth, Rothko, Gorky and Pollock, and in traditions which pre-dated them, particularly in Germany where the term biomorphism had a resonance as the consequence of its evocation of Romantic and Vitalist traditions so firmly rooted in German philosophy. Despite the pervasiveness of an international biomorphic style by the 1940s (in design as well as art: witness, for example, the popularity of ‘kidney’ shaped domestic furniture into the 1950s), its formal characteristics seem nevertheless to have been so ubiquitous in the visual languages of the period that the genre failed to achieve a status above the commonplace and was never accredited (unlike, for example, Expressionism and Surrealism) in Modernism’s accepted canon of ‘isms’. Biomorphism today is thus a term only infrequently and inaccurately used to denote irregular form languages evoking organic nature. That is why it is now so easy to assert that the Merz Barn drew inspiration mainly from its environment and was somehow at-one with the English tradition of the Picturesque (a mainstay today of Lakeland’s tourism industry), and why it is unsound and misleading to promote Schwitters’ Merz Barn as a leading example of what is now termed ‘rural art’.

“Contextually misleading symposia and workshops” 

Littoral’s annual Kurt Schwitters in England events at the Cylinders Estate (especially at their outset) have promoted and delivered some contextually appropriate and scholarly (invited) talks, but such contributions are now persistently accompanied – in Schwitters’ name – by workshops, demonstrations and artisan sessions which have no contextual relationship to the artist: baking, bothies, ‘herdy’ huts, charcoal burning, yurts and benders, scything, straw bale pig houses, haymaking, pods and snaths, coppicing, barrel and swill basket making, steam bending, field craft events, and so on. As a typical example, the 2012 Kurt Schwitters Autumn School included an unrelated daytime seminar addressing

Schwitters was never a ‘rural artist’, in the present sense of the term. Neither in the spirit suggested by the Westmorland Gazette’s accounts of a proposed ‘rural art museum’ at Cylinders Estate, nor in the ways that his name and legacy have progressively been appropriated by Littoral to promote rural arts events at Cylinders which have no bearing on the artist, and which pervert understandings of his life and oeuvre. Similarly, Schwitters’ Merz Barn relief cannot be perceived as an exemplar of ‘rural art’ other than by virtue of its intended location. Nor can it be claimed that the work drew inspiration primarily from its rural context. The relief’s softly curvilinear and biomorphic features (in marked contrast to the forms of Langdale’s rugged landscape and executed in a style which Schwitters had been experimenting with since 1930) are rather evidence of his life-long and uncannily magpie-like ability to adapt the artistic zeitgeist of his times to the purposes of his art. Many of his late abstract paintings and sculptures display Schwitters’ enthusiasm for a biomorphic art genre, which was fashionable in the 1930s and 1940s, but is now largely forgotten. A ‘non-geometric abstraction’ (or biomorphic art) was believed at the time to herald a new and important developmental phase in modern art. It is noticeable, for example, in the works of artists such as Arp, Miro and Kandinsky, in the earliest works of Moore, Hepworth, Rothko, Gorky and Pollock, and in traditions which pre-dated them, particularly in Germany where the term biomorphism had a resonance as the consequence of its evocation of Romantic and Vitalist traditions so firmly rooted in German philosophy. Despite the pervasiveness of an international biomorphic style by the 1940s (in design as well as art: witness, for example, the popularity of ‘kidney’ shaped domestic furniture into the 1950s), its formal characteristics seem nevertheless to have been so ubiquitous in the visual languages of the period that the genre failed to achieve a status above the commonplace and was never accredited (unlike, for example, Expressionism and Surrealism) in Modernism’s accepted canon of ‘isms’. Biomorphism today is thus a term only infrequently and inaccurately used to denote irregular form languages evoking organic nature. That is why it is now so easy to assert that the Merz Barn drew inspiration mainly from its environment and was somehow at-one with the English tradition of the Picturesque (a mainstay today of Lakeland’s tourism industry), and why it is unsound and misleading to promote Schwitters’ Merz Barn as a leading example of what is now termed ‘rural art’.

“Contextually misleading symposia and workshops” Littoral’s annual Kurt Schwitters in England events at the Cylinders Estate (especially at their outset) have promoted and delivered some contextually appropriate and scholarly (invited) talks, but such contributions are now persistently accompanied – in Schwitters’ name – by workshops, demonstrations and artisan sessions which have no contextual relationship to the artist: baking, bothies, ‘herdy’ huts, charcoal burning, yurts and benders, scything, straw bale pig houses, haymaking, pods and snaths, coppicing, barrel and swill basket making, steam bending, field craft events, and so on. As a typical example, the 2012 Kurt Schwitters Autumn School included an unrelated daytime seminar addressing Littoral’s annual Kurt Schwitters in England events at the Cylinders Estate (especially at their outset) have promoted and delivered some contextually appropriate and scholarly (invited) talks, but such contributions are now persistently accompanied – in Schwitters’ name – by workshops, demonstrations and artisan sessions which have no contextual relationship to the artist: baking, bothies, ‘herdy’ huts, charcoal burning, yurts and benders, scything, straw bale pig houses, haymaking, pods and snaths, coppicing, barrel and swill basket making, steam bending, field craft events, and so on. As a typical example, the 2012 Kurt Schwitters Autumn School included an unrelated daytime seminar addressing ‘…. issues about rurality, food sovereignty, agriculture, environmental sustainability…. and artists’ projects related to initiatives…. addressing new aesthetic and critical interventions into rural and agricultural policy agendas’. At the same event Prof. Ute Meta Bauer’s Kurt Schwitters Annual Lecture was mystifyingly prefaced by daytime workshops on traditional woodland coppice skills, dry stone walling, the ‘construction of temporary sleeping shelters in the woods at the Merz Barn Project’, and unsuccessful attempts to ‘weave a 60m(sic) diameter bamboo geodesic dome’. Even more inexplicably, her evening lecture was preceded by a film on apple baking. It is as though Littoral‘s ‘rural arts, crafts and agriculture’ agenda is now so ingrained at Cylinders (the historic fabric of which also risks arguably inappropriate and widespread structural change) that a wholly misleading contextual framework engulfs Schwitters’ legacy. As most attendees at so-called ‘Kurt Schwitters DIY Schools’ are young artists and no doubt impressionable students, it is to be regretted that such fictions now comprise a substantial part of study and learning at Cylinders, often leaving visitors and temporary residents at the site with mythologised and disingenuous versions of Schwitters and his times. A Central Lakes Neighbourhood Forum convened on 15.7.2014 in Langdale Village Hall offered residents the opportunity to hear and discuss Littoral’s development plans for Cylinders Estate. Those proposals were overwhelmingly opposed by Chapel Stile residents on the basis of a likely further detrimental impact to the environment, notwithstanding Littoral director Ian Hunter’s inaccurate and misleading claim that “the Tate and the Arts Council have aspirations to build a museum on the site”. When queried about that claim, Tate director Sir Nicholas Serota later commented that such aspirations may be in the minds of Littoral Arts Trust, but they are not ones which Tate necessarily shares. A day-long symposium (‘Housing Merz in the 21st Century’), funded by the Arts Council at Tate Britain’s Clore auditorium on 27.11.2014, offered a full programme of topics – sometimes with abstruse guidelines, such as ‘repositioning the regional and rural as new artistic and critical wild zones’. Some interesting national and international speakers had the opportunity to outline their experiences of managing like-minded projects, but unlike the Lakes Neighbourhood Forum, the Tate symposium offered little time for general discussion, comments from the audience or meaningful feedback. A Schwitters authority later reported: ‘…. very interesting speakers, but 99% of peripheral interest so not much nitty-gritty. The actual theme of the future of the Cylinders site was barely touched upon…. lots of hot air and a team of airy-fairy consultants…. where do they get the money to pay them, I wonder; but little in the way of concrete information’. Following a keynote address at the symposium by Ed Vaisey MP, a Merz Barn Facebook posting by Celia Larner (co-director) on 2.12.2014 stated: ‘…. when Ed (Vaisey) congratulated Ian (Hunter) on the carefully crafted speech the latter had written for him – which he used word for word – Ian said “Ah, then you liked the bit about the £2million?” causing Ed to do a rapid double-take before realising it was a joke!’.

“The ‘Degenerate Art Memorial”

Littoral director Ian Hunter’s inaccurate embellishment “…the Nazis tried to kill Schwitters” (see above) was perhaps tastelessly expressed to partly justify grant-aided rural tourism expenditure (£30,459.96 in 2012 from Rural Development Programme for England) for ‘the repair of the barn and the creation of a surrounding piazza to include a platform for a memorial to all artists persecuted by Hitler as ‘degenerate’, including Schwitters’. In 2015 the Barn remains, by Mr Hunter’s admission, “…. in an advanced state of disrepair” (see above). The piazza now adjacent to the west wall of the Barn, titled ‘Merz Platz’, and the ‘memorial’, have arguably destroyed the historical integrity of the building; notwithstanding structural changes made to the west wall of the Barn in the 1960s when Schwitters’ relief was removed. By way of introduction to this ‘Entartete Kunst Memorial Plaza Project’, Littoral’s website makes the wildly inaccurate claim: ‘…. Hitler regarded all abstract modernist artists, along with Jewish people, Gay, Romany/Gypsies and people with mental disabilities etc (sic) as sub-humans and who should be exterminated. And many were put to death in the notorious death camps; Auschwitz, Belsen, Dachau, Theresenstadt etc (sic)’. Germany’s National Socialist government deemed ‘modern art’ to be part of an overall assault on ‘German art’ and culture by a Bolshevik, and largely Jewish, movement of artists who were working in tandem to destroy German and Western civilisation. Significantly, in Germany there is no monument to the ‘degenerate’ artists of the 1930s. This is perhaps explained by the unfeasibility of any memorial aimed to honour, collectively, a group of artists so diverse as to include those who were Nazi sympathisers, others who went on to join – or were already members of – the Nazi Party and some who subsequently sought (and were given) employment by the regime. Unlike artists who chose exile, such as Schwitters, many decided to stay in Germany, observing an ‘inner-emigration’. The German national weekly newspaper Die Zeit, widely regarded for its journalistic quality, predictably failed to publish a Littoral Arts Trust article about the Cylinders Estate ‘Degenerate Art Memorial’. The memorial sculpture itself, titled ‘The Roots of Modernism’, is no more than an up-turned tree root which had lain on the Estate for decades. The roots of Modernism in fact are to be found in the ideals of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, and the flowering of the Modernist movement in the early twentieth century is usually ascribed to a period having commenced in the 1860s. By 1947, when Schwitters commenced work on the Merz Barn, what is now understood as ‘Modernism’ was long since dead: despite Littoral director Ian Hunter’s claim that the Barn is “the epicentre of Modernism”. Littoral’s tenuous grasp of history has misleadingly assigned Modernism’s ‘roots’ to Schwitters and a medley of German artists: many of whom Schwitters would not have regarded as his colleagues. It was Germany’s National Socialists who persistently sought to fossilise sentimentalised myths into overblown monuments.

“Development plans for Cylinders Estate”

A professional fabric survey by ADW Shepherd, published on 19.3.2009, estimated that the cost of repair works to the empty Merz Barn would depend on how they are procured. He stated that costs would be fairly minimal should repairs be carried out by volunteer labour. If professional contractors were to be engaged, Mr Shepherd estimated that all works to the Barn could be carried out at a cost within the range of £25,000 to £30,000 plus any VAT and professional fees liability. The report included a further requested estimate for the construction of a contemporary, glazed, ‘study/meditation’ room, with power and lighting, attached to the exterior east wall of the Barn at a cost of £45,000 to £55,000 excluding VAT, Local Authority Planning and Building Control and any professional fees. Despite assurances from Littoral in 2012 that the Barn would be repaired with the aid of the above-mentioned £30,459.96 Rural Development grant, the east wall of the building is now externally buttressed with temporary wooden and metal props, as though to prevent collapse. ADW Shepherd’s survey nevertheless noted that: ‘…. the wall…. is a modern intervention from 1947 in a single thickness of calcium silicate bricks…. it is very thin for its height and should be said to be structurally unstable, but it has performed through all weathers since 1947! Repair needs will be fairly minimal by way of some pointing up of settlement cracks and repair of the rotted timber lintel over the slot window opening formed in the wall. Some protection of the exposed ends of the roof purlins would be desirable….’ The Westmorland Gazette reported on 17.6.2014 that a meeting had occurred between Littoral Arts Trust and representatives of the National Trust, the Arts Council, Cumbria County Council, South Lakeland District Council, Lakes Parish Council, and the Lake District National Park Authority, with a view to exploring how substantial additional funds might be raised to give Cylinders Estate and the empty Merz Barn a ‘major overhaul’. It is reported that a Schwitters information and visitor centre (preferably subterranean) is envisaged, close to the Barn. An additional two-storey ‘rural art museum’ and contemporary art gallery is proposed on the footprint of the Estate’s long-since demolished Dutch barn: perhaps to include a café, a bookshop, replicas of Schwitters’ works, a conference centre and sleeping facilities for visitors. Major utilities and access work would no doubt be necessary, as will a car park. Text: Lloyd Gibson, Russell Mills 2015 Research: Russell Mills (Artist), Lloyd Gibson (Artist), Deborah Walsh (Curator of the Armitt Museum and Library, Ambleside)