Chapter 4: After Schwitters’ Death

Above: Cylinders in January 1948, photo Ernst Schwitters. Kurt Schwitters Archive, Sprengel Museum Hannover, courtesy Kurt and Ernst Schwitters Stiftung, Hannover

The Merzbarn after Schwitters

This part of the story deals with what happened immediately after Schwitters left the scene and the actions of the various people involved in the aftermath of his death,

Schwitters died on 8 January 1948, his son Ernst and Wantee at his bedside.

First though, the sequence of events of Schwitters’ death.
Schwitters left the barn for the last time early in December 1947, having been, according to an account by Mr Pierce, working briefly on a portrait of Mrs Pierce, which was not completed. He collapsed, and was in bed on 9 December. He did not return to the Merzbarn. Before long he was admitted to hospital in Kendal, then still known as the Workhouse Infirmary. He died there on 8 January 1948, his son Ernst and Wantee at his bedside.

Mr Pierce takes action

At that time the barn was a working studio, with the usual mess of finished, half-finished and barely started art work. There seems to have been no prior preparation for what would happen to the barn should Schwitters die with the work still in progress, despite how likely this would have been appearing towards the end. Under the terms of the lease agreement and Schwitters’ will the ownership of the fixed artwork clearly passes to Mr Pierce, and the portable works are divided between Ernst and Wantee. There is nothing in the agreement about what to do with the incomplete and hardly started elements. Shortly after Schwitters’ death there is evident disagreement among the people most closely involved with his work on the Merzbarn about what should be done next. There is some documentation extant to shed a little light on what happened.

At the end of January 1948, three weeks after Schwitters died, Mr Pierce told MoMA in a letter
“We have already cleared away some of the hopelessly incomplete portions so that what is left may be presented as a finished portion, unspoilt and with nothing to detract attention from itself. The incomplete portions had no meaning in themselves, and were far too unfinished to shew the intentions of the whole, which can be better comprehended by notes and sketches set down from memory of what Schwitters himself said.”

This action evidently caused considerable distress to Wantee, who in a letter to Ernst dated 1 February 1948 , said:
Mr Pierce has acted rather badly I think. He came to see me the same day and told me he had made a big decision and hopes he had done the right thing. The unfinished new wall has rather worried him. He felt that it spoilt the view of the most important work in the barn and decided to pull it down. Whatever one feels is now too late. I have no doubt that his intention was good, but after we have spent two afternoons there, discussing which was best, I find this decision a little unfounded.
The fourth draught has been returned to them [a further payment from MoMA], and as Mr Pierce seems to be taking charge of the Merz barn I would like to with-draw my suggestion of finishing the incomplete work which was unfortunately not finished then, although I was planning to help Mr Pierce by loaning him pictures or small sculptures.
I have decided to take most of the things with me to London, leaving the sceneries with Bicky [their friend Mr Bickerstaff], and a few portraits of local people in view of the Grasmere exhibition in summer.
Mr Pierce is collecting the pictures for the barn tomorrow. In view of what has happened I have chosen 12 of the best bigger pictures for the barn, and another 12 for storage only.
I have no doubt at all that Mr Pierce means well and of course the main wall does show to better advantage. His decision nevertheless has shaken my faith in him after all, the work which he has destroyed was a symbol of Jumbo’s last hard struggle and energy.

What did Harry Pierce do?

Having ‘taken charge’, Pierce set about his objective of making the Merzbarn exhibitable, both to promote Schwitters’ art and to seek some prospect of the enterprise making an income to support itself. He planned to develop a café to provide for visitors, and to charge an admission to visit the Merzbarn. With this in mind it was necessary to change the barn from a studio into a gallery, or what would nowadays be called a tourist attraction or visitor centre. This was seen to necessitate making changes to the artwork as left by the artist, as well as to the barn.

From extant correspondence and from the accounts of several people who spoke with Harry Pierce we know that he did some work on the Merzbarn after Schwitters’ death. He explained to me that he had both removed parts of the artwork that were left when Schwitters stopped work on it, and that he had added to what remained.

Mr Pierce explained to me that he had both removed parts of the artwork that were left, and added to what remained.

This raises the question of what is and is not the artist’s own work, and there is more to that than might meet the eye. In the later period of his work Schwitters was ill and could not do much of the manual labour. He remarks in correspondence that “Wantee, several boys, Mr Pierce and son help me. I can’t climb on the ladder any more or carry stones, or sand down plaster.’ (October 1947), and so we know that there were several hands involved.

How much he did, and what exactly, is a beguiling question I shall attempt to answer, going on the available evidence.

What had been provisionally set out but was removed?

The evidence is scant. Ernst Schwitters photographed the interior of the Merzbarn shortly after his father’s death in January 1948, of which four images are in the Sprengel archive (reviewed in Chapter 2) . Apart from those I can rely only on various accounts that include: Schwitters’ own correspondence in which, from his sickbed, he describes and diagrams his plans; reported conversations with people who were there at the time, notably John Elderfield’s account of his interviews with Harry Pierce; my own notes and recollections of conversations in 1965 with Pierce, Jack Cook and in 1966 Edith Thomas; and the few surviving accounts by visitors. All these are sketchy, some mutually conflicting, with little reliable contemporary documentation to illuminate them.

So the extant evidence of what Schwitters left in the barn is slender, and one must be careful not to be guilty of bending it to suit one or another prior assumption, or the desire to illustrate a theory or prejudice. Both Elderfield and I, on different occasions, had the opportunity to stand in the barn with people who had been directly involved, and seek to interpret and record their descriptions of what had been there at the end. It seems to me, drawing on these and other accounts, that the situation was something like the following.

The Merzbarn as we now know it occupied the west wall, the plasterwork extending a small distance from the corner on to the south wall. A column-like assemblage of some materials, possibly stones or blocks but could have been anything, stood near the north-west corner of the room, leaning from base to top (by the account I had from Mr Pierce) towards the skylight in the corner of the roof. A provisional low wall of concrete blocks ran diagonally, its top sloping upwards, across the room from near the door in the direction of the opposite corner. By Mr Pierce’s gesture, it was not more than four feet at its highest. This wall did not continue across the room, but ended where it turned left towards the south window. It was not exactly clear where this wall ended, but it stopped far short of the West wall.

Above the low wall a series of lengths of string was attached at one end to the wooden branches that make up the armature of the sloping ridge that forms the top of the plastered area on the west wall, and at the other to the stone wall where it meets the door jamb to the left of the door opening. The traces of the ends of string still exist in the barn in Elterwater and in the artwork in the Hatton, spaced out along the top of the plasterwork from one end to the other, and at the door, spaced up the wall, fixed with dabs of plaster. What cannot be definitively stated is how the strings ran from the one fixed point to the other, but one can speculate. They may have been in simple corresponding order, the lowest at the door leading to the left-most on the ridge ahead and so in sequence so that the top string at the door reached to the right-hand end of the ridge. This would draw out, allowing for some sagging, something like a hyperbolic paraboloid shape. This was the impression I had from my conversation with Mr Pierce, and which I attempted to illustrate in this drawing made at the time of my conversation with him in 1965.

The Merzbarn as described by Mr Pierce. Hypothetical drawing, Fred Brookes 1965

My knowledge was very limited at that time, since when I have learned much more about the state of the barn at the end. While working on this account, I built a model of the barn to try to understand what had been there. It soon emerged that the biggest error in my understanding was to put the web of strings the wrong way round. It became clear that the strings were aligned in the opposite sequence, the lowest point at the door linked to the far right on the top ridge, the highest leading to the left-most on the ridge.

Schwitters’ own tiny diagrams in his letter of 20 September suggest a scheme for developing the interior space, but apart from the scant photographic evidence I do not know if any of the more extended ideas had been sketched out in situ. It seems that there were other bits and pieces, loose or grouped together, perhaps experiments with generating new forms by putting together found materials and objects.

It is clear that Schwitters had plans for the articulated interior space to contain places for smaller individual artworks to be accommodated, built in to the proposed walls, and we have reports and photographs of some of these artworks being in the barn, together with other found objects that might have found a place in the construction, had it developed. Mr Pierce told me that Schwitters had spoken of his intention to include electric lighting, though this was not available at the time.

All we know for certain is that Mr Pierce removed several parts of the work that were then extant. He took down the unfinished diagonal wall (what Wantee describes as ‘the unfinished new wall’) that in his last spell of work Schwitters had caused to be put up on the south, left-hand, side of the barn. The wall appears in the January 1948 photographs by Ernst, and is referred to in Pierce’s and Wantee’s correspondence. Wantee’s proposal herself to complete these parts of the artwork that Schwitters had started and left unfinished was not followed through. Both Pierce and Ernst turned that idea down. Pierce removed the wall, together with the unfinished wood and plaster forms that are shown lying on top of it in Ernst’s January ‘48 photographs. He took down the web of strings that appear in the photographs and of which physical remains still exist in the barn and the Hatton, and removed what he later referred to as the ‘column’ that stood on the right somewhere under the skylight. This took place in January 1948, with Jack Cook and possibly Bill Pierce assisting in the work.

What wasn’t there, but was added after Schwitters’ death

A more difficult question remains, not what was taken away, but what was added after Schwitters left off work in the Merzbarn about the 9th of December 1947. We know the concrete floor that lies in the barn now was laid, reportedly by Bill Pierce, after the removal of the diagonal wall, the column and the strings.

A more difficult question remains, not what was taken away, but what was added.

Both Harry and Jack told me, and other interlocutors, that they had added the plaster spur that runs from the right-hand end of the west wall, to indicate to visitors that the artist had intended, had he lived, that the work would extend on to the north wall of the barn. Schwitters may or may not have intended exactly what was produced, but it is certain that he was not there to direct this addition, which still remains in place there as the barn stands today. The story of that part is clear enough.

Less certain is what else was added in the period between Schwitters’ death (or indeed in the period following his collapse on 9 December, after which he did not visit the barn again), and the opening of the barn to public view in the late spring of 1948.

It seems to me to be the right-hand section of the west wall of the Merzbarn that is most in question in this respect. The whitening of the central area has at the right a more or less vertical edge. I am looking at the area to the right of that, where today there are several features: a curved ridge rising from the floor and sweeping up and across the wall, forming a containing boundary to the artwork at that end. Within the embrace of that curve the wall is plastered over, and three circular forms are prominent, plastered over iron rings fixed to the wall. One of the circular forms has a large prominence, a wooden knob-like object wedged in to the wall and also covered with plaster. The plastering in this whole section is rough and raw, there is none of the finished plaster or paint that is found in the central area. The image below left, probably dating from the late 1950s, shows this section well. Comparison with the photograph (centre) taken by Ernst shortly after Schwitters’ death, creates room to speculate about the extent to which “some additions were made …”. It is clear that there is a good deal of difference in the state of the artwork between the two. In Ernst’s picture, the right-hand section, shown in part, is clearly in an earlier state at the time Schwitters left it than we see it now. The lower ridge curving up to the right is not present. Parts of the bare stone wall that are now covered with rough plaster are visible and the uppermost of the three iron rings can just be seen, hung in place before it was plastered over. The top ridge also looks different from what we see in the later image.

Ernst’s photograph, shot in January 1948 can I think be taken to show the state of the work as it stood early in November 1947, when Schwitters’ was last there. During the later time of his work, it is evident from this and other sources that the strings, diagonal wall and several pieces of wood and plaster construction took place at the other side of the barn. Comparing this with Mackereth’s photograph in early October (right), it is clear that by November nothing much has happened to the right-hand section of the Wall in the last month other than some infilling of the plasterboard strip that leans against the wall, and completion of the long wedge-shape pointing down to the left, before the whiting was applied.

In November a new factor came in to play. Schwitters learned that the grant from MoMA had been increased from $1000 to $3000. Already weakened by ill health, he suffered a fall in the middle of the month, and he was spending time on small sculptures and portrait commissions at home. It seems fair to assume that his enthusiasm was bolstered by MoMA’s award, that he felt this offer was going to make possible his bigger plans for the Merzbarn, and so when in the barn, his focus was on the development of the new work on the south side, the diagonal wall, the strings, the new sculptural pieces, that are visible in the January 1948 photographs. In her letter to Ernst, Wantee says “… the work which he [Pierce] has destroyed was a symbol of Jumbo’s last hard struggle and energy” suggesting that in his last weeks his attention was focused there, rather than on the right-hand side which was already, at least provisionally, set-out.

If that end of the west wall was still in an early state of development at Schwitters’ death, one can speculate as to how Mr Pierce may have considered what he should do. We know that he and his son Bill were seeking ways to make the Cylinders estate viable (Pierce had agreed a lease with Schwitters at the relatively steep rate of £52 a year, though it is not recorded that he paid it.) In line with this overall objective, Pierce’s intention was to make the Merzbarn an attraction, to house the work itself, to present an exhibition of other works by the artist, including the possibility of sale, and to provide a café to serve visitors. To this end he had by April 1948 cleared the provisional work on the left-hand side, and the ‘column’, emptied the barn completely and laid a new concrete floor, then assembled an exhibition in the barn, and done building work at the east end of the barn to include a box office.

By April, he had cleared the provisional work, laid a floor and assembled an exhibition.

As we know, the decision that Mr Pierce took to remove the provisional wall and other south side works upset Wantee, and she shortly left the scene, returning to London on 7 February. Pierce’s plan for a gallery-café evidently needed the space, but also needed the main wall of the artwork to be sufficiently completed to be exhibitable to the public, not in a provisional state. Mr Pierce, I think, decided to do what work was necessary to achieve this, not only installing the floor but also securing the unfinished part of the west wall.

It is reasonable to conjecture that, after the artist’s death and Wantee’s departure, Mr Pierce, with his son Bill and Jack Cook, did such work as he saw necessary to put the Merzbarn in to a state that could be publicly exhibited. Mr Pierce described to me in 1965 that he had added the ‘spur’ to the north wall. At a later date Wantee explained to Gwendolen Webster that Pierce had added ‘swathes’ of plasterwork in this area. In the Abbot Hall exhibition catalogue of 1979 Mary Burkett says “Harry Pierce later explained how after Schwitters had died, he himself had attempted to add a little to it on the north wall, on the lines that Kurt Schwitters had said he intended”, and quotes Pierce:

Some additions were made in an attempt to interpret what Schwitters had explained were his intentions, but his ideas ever varied as his work progressed, and the interpretation of his vision cannot be considered to be what he would have done.

My own conclusions have hardened over time, and I now think that there was more rather than less added at that time. Among the factors that prompt this view is the ‘handwriting’. The plasterwork in this area is rough and ready. Apart from the more worked-up relief piece with a protruding wooden prong that noses in to the whitened area, the plastering looks in the main like first coat application, with some loose overworking on the containing ridge and the three circular forms. Now, we know that numerous different people were acting as assistants to Schwitters, who was much disabled by illness at this time. As Schwitters wrote “Wantee, several boys, Mr Pierce and son help me” and Jack Cook was in there too. Inconsistency of the handwriting is to be expected. What is more, the opportunity to examine the evidence today is confused by the fact that additional hands have been involved in restoration since this area of the work was originally made, including my own. Taking all that in to account, it still seems to me that a case can be made that the character of the plasterwork, the ‘handwriting’ of the plasterer, in this right-hand section, is different from that of the equally rough parts within the whitened area. Taking on that proposition for a moment, the interesting hypothesis arises that after Schwitters left off work on the Merzbarn Mr Pierce took on what Schwitters had provisionally laid out and plastered up the right-hand section to the state we see it now.

When was this happening, if it happened? Wantee writes, on 5 February 1948 a couple of days before she left, “I am not yet able to say definitely what Mr Pierce’s intentions are as regards the barn”. At that point Wantee was fully aware of the removal of parts, which had happened some time before, but she does not mention anything at this point about new plasterwork being added.

My conjecture is that after the artist’s death the right-hand section of the Merzbarn to the north of the whitened area, had only a provisional layout. Some but not all of the stone wall was plastered roughly over, the three iron rings were placed, the two upper ones hung on a hook or a nail and the larger lowest one hung over the protruding wooden piece wedged in to a crevice. The containing curve was sketched in, either by a drawing on the stones or by some dabs of plaster to indicate the curve. Mr Pierce and his assistants plastered in this section along the lines indicated by Schwitters, including some addition to the upper end of the top ridge and the spur on the north wall. This is conjecture, and we will never know, but I think the evidence for such an account is quite strong.

While Schwitters was still working in it, the floor of the barn was of earth and stones. After Mr Pierce had removed the unfinished parts, a concrete floor was laid, as part of the work to prepare the barn for exhibition. According to report, Pierce’s son Bill laid the floor. A photograph taken by Ernst Schwitters on his visit to Cylinders at some point after the funeral in January 1948, from the same suite as the ‘hat’ images of the interior, is revealing in this respect.

Cylinders in January 1948, photo Ernst Schwitters. Kurt Schwitters Archive, Sprengel Museum Hannover, courtesy Kurt and Ernst Schwhitters Stiftung, Hannover.

Set in the winter landscape, the image shows the barn and outside it a large heap of gravel or aggregate. This might suggest that Mr Pierce’s plan to lay the new floor in the barn was already in hand at this point. Removal of the provisional artwork and preparation for the laying of the floor may have been well advanced during the period when Ernst was still in the locality, before he left for London, and may have begun during the time after Schwitters ceased to visit the barn in the preceding November.

Another image from the same set is a reminder of how bare the landscape of Cylinders was when Schwitters was there, very different from how it appears later.

Cylinders in January 1948, photo Ernst Schwitters. Kurt Schwitters Archive, Sprengel Museum Hannover, courtesy Kurt and Ernst Schwhitters Stiftung, Hannover.

This estate was formerly factory land and had been cleared for safety when the gunpowder works closed, some years before Mr Pierce acquired it. There is a marked contrast between this view of Cylinders and later photographs that show much more growth of trees and vegetation, and after Pierce’s death in 1966, the wild taking over.

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