Chapter 9: Speculations – How Can It Be Read

Above: The Merz Barn Wall in the Hatton 2017. Photo ©Colin Davison

The Merz Barn Wall today

One can see the Wall, and one can see the barn and the valley, but one cannot see them any longer at once. We no longer see Schwitters’ overall conception, if we ever could have.
Having had the unusual opportunity to spend a long time with the Wall both in its place of origin and in its long home in the Hatton, I am in a position to think about what has been gained and lost, and what that means.

Layers of found-objecthood

I have been thinking about the Merzbarn for more than fifty years, but it is only recently, prompted by a conversation with Heather Ross, that a thought occurred to me about the work and the wall on which it lies, despite that it had been staring me in the face all that time. I have a rather particular relationship with the wall. I think I may be the only person living who has seen inside the wall itself, and now that it has been cast in concrete no-one will ever see inside it again.
Schwitters is known for his introduction of found objects into his creations, and the Merzbarn is no exception, sticks and stones, twigs and roots, string and wire, pieces of discarded horticultural materials and implements, flowers, the famous china egg, bits of scrap plasterboard. Having had the opportunity to spend much time with it, I thought I knew what it was made of and what it contained as well as anyone. But it struck me recently, that I had not been thinking about the biggest and most influential found object in the Merz Barn Wall, the wall itself.

Even before Schwitters got at it, the wall was a complex of nature and artifice, and not a simple one at that.

While the material of the wall is, more or less, ‘natural’ being largely built from fieldstone, unworked pieces taken from the ground, the wall is of course a construct, not at all natural. Even before Schwitters got at it, the wall was a complex of nature and artifice, and not a simple one at that. When the powder works took over the site that became Cylinders, an explosives store was built on what was then more or less woodland. We know from the work done at the removal that foundations were put in, in the form of boulders set in the ground, mostly below the surface level. On this base was built the powder store, about which we know little, since at the time the powder works closed and the land was sold, the powder store was razed to the ground for reasons of safety. This was in about 1933 as far as I can tell. The site of the former powder store was left vacant until a point during the war, sometime between 1943 and 1945, when a small hay-barn was put up on the foundations of the old, commissioned by Mr Pierce who bought the land in 1943. By the accounts I had from Mr Pierce and Jack Cook, the new barn, that was later to be the Merzbarn, was built using available stone that lay about the site, found objects in fact. Whether this included material from the original building I do not know but it seems likely. It is evident from what now stands that it is built of a mixed lot of stone, with fieldstone, some pieces of quarried stone and smaller stuff incorporated. There is little or no dressed stone visible. The wall was built dry in the conventional local fashion, two leaves leaning slightly inwards with a filling of rubble and small stones and occasional throughs. It is quite rough and ready, with many gaps and crevices, consistent with its having been put together for utilitarian purposes in some haste.
Building a wall like this requires lifting a lot of stone, and one of the builder’s skills is to rarely put back down a stone one has lifted. Seeing which stone will go just in the next place, and lifting only that one, is both the key to efficiency and a creative act of imagination. The builder who put up the barn is unknown, but his work (probably a man though in wartime who knows) was a creative negotiation of found materials into a self-supporting construction. In this light, one might see Schwitters’ work as a further development of the builder’s earlier process, taking it from the utilitarian sphere to the space of imagination.
Schwitters found the barn, as he found the many smaller articles he brought in to it. But the biggest objet trouvé in the work is the wall itself, and the one which had the greatest formative impact on what he made. Clearly the windows, which were a given, were important factors in shaping the work, but I am particularly interested in the wall on which what is now the Merzbarn was made, in the sense that its form and nature was the underpinning armature on which the work was shaped, and it was there before the artist came to it. His technical means were quite limited. There would have been some hand tools about the estate, though in the main he seems to have used few, a hammer, probably a pair of pliers, maybe a chisel or crowbar, a bucket or bowl to mix the plaster, alongside the artists tools, certainly a table knife, probably a palette knife, paintbrushes and a palette (that he can be seen using in photographs of him painting en plein air.)

The artist's disposition of elements is not entirely free, but determined by the wall

My conjecture is that early on Schwitters was articulating the wall and moving into the third dimension space by wedging into it things he had found. What interests me about this is that the disposition of these elements is not entirely free, as would be on a blank canvas, but is determined by the wall itself as well as by the artist. There is only a certain scope of places where things could be wedged in, holes and gaps where a secure fix could be made for these early markers, whose placing resolves some of the compositional and formal dilemmas of facing a virgin space. There were only some places where Schwitters could intervene in the wall. It determined the initial skeleton of the work.
I think there is also another way the wall shapes the artist’s vision. In further stages as the work built up in layers, it seems to me that Schwitters was taking cues from the wall, marking out parts, finding hiding places, exploring holes, picking up and emphasising shapes and lines already present and following contours in shaping the relief and the interrelationships of forms moving in and out of the plane.
I am interested in how this process harks back to the builder who made the wall, who in this light can be seen as one of the progenitors of the work. His process was bringing together found objects and disciplining them into coherence, Schwitters’ process had something of that about it too. The forgotten builder unknowingly bequeathed to his successor, also to be forgotten for a time, a set of choices already made, of possibilities already constrained. The wall would accept the artist’s intervention in some places, resist it in other places, offer him connections and contours. It was at once an opportunity, an inspiration and a constraint. Like a musician improvising over a chord sequence, Schwitters’ improvisatory process played off the underlying structure, riffing on what was given and inventing completely new stuff over the top of it. That underlying structure had itself been created through a process of improvisation, its larger vision based on rules and practice, its execution being created in the moment by perception and invention. There is a certain poetry about that connection, and I like it. I look at the Merz Barn Wall now with an extra eye, and find yet another dimension in its mystery.

Our work in repairing and restoring the artwork, and that of successive conservators could also be seen in this context. At the time I consulted the Tate conservation team, who were very helpful and interested, but essentially said they did not know how to do this, nobody did, it had not been attempted before. They counselled, rightly, to do as little as possible. Stuart Wise and I had no conservator training or experience to fall back on, and it might not have been of much relevance if we had, so we improvised. That seemed to be somewhere close to the spirit of Schwitters’ own approach.

Reading the Merzbarn

Schwitters, according to some accounts and records, explained that this work was ‘form and colour, just form and colour’. To the spectator, this is evidently true as far as it goes, but there is more to find there. His deployment of objects and material from the world outside the artwork brings two realities together and makes a challenge to where each begins and ends. And in doing that the work tells stories, not narrative, but oblique and allusive.

The contained articles

Schwitters’ Merzbau in Hanover was characterised by the way he embedded and contained earlier states of the work inside the later developments. In the surviving photographs one sees the preserved evidence of collage and assemblage framed and displayed within the later timber and plasterwork constructions, sometimes behind glass, preserved parts of the ‘grottoes’ described at earlier states. In the Merzbarn, being newly built, there was little of the accretion over time that is evident in Hanover, but there is a hint of a comparable feature. The now missing diagonal wall was planned to have niches where small sculptures would be placed, perhaps some of the little hand-sized sculptures that Schwitters was working on at home during this time. The gap that shows in the January 1948 photographs at the inner end of the diagonal wall might be one such. The barn’s construction made it impossible to take out stones to make grottoes within the pre-existing walls, but its rough drystone build left some spaces between stones. At points Schwitters left open the overlying plasterwork to reveal gaps and crevices in the wall behind, into which smaller objects were placed, some framed to be seen, others hidden from view.
The objects that are contained and revealed in this way resist interpretation. A small rectangular steel frame is set on a red-painted diagonal wooden wedge and plastered to the wall over a crevice between stones in the wall. The stones themselves are not left raw but painted over. Into the space between them are placed four objects: a slip of pale cleft wood stuck just inside the left side of the frame; another piece of wood oval in section, sliced square at one end and at an angle at the other, painted brown, the rose of a small watering can, now somewhat rusted, fixed vertically into the crevice; and a small white pebble more or less the shape of a madeleine, dimpled on the top. I have to be cautious in attempting any reading of this group, because I made some of these components myself, reproducing as best I could the originals that had gone missing before the removal, and were only known from photographs. In any case, such an interpretation can only be tentative. It strikes me that Schwitters would have picked up the little white stone on one of his many walks by the beck, it has the shape and texture of some of the stones that have been rolled by the current in a cavity in the bed of the stream. Recalling perhaps a shared walk? The little watering can spout has always seemed to me to be a tribute to the gardeners, Mr Pierce and Jack Cook, who had been very generous to him in his time of need.

Alternative interpretations are welcome.

Hidden in the void behind the oval gilt frame are a damaged conical seashell and a bunch of brownish string, probably sisal or jute. These are not fixed, and have over time been moved about by spectators. The shell may not always have been damaged, as it is today. The string, assuming that what we see now is what was originally put there, has probably become darker in colour with time and dirt, and to my knowledge the bunch has at different times been more and less tangled. Perhaps the shell is memento of a seaside walk, or of the sound of the sea, or perhaps its brokenness has significance. The string may be no more than a leftover from tying in some of the found materials, such as the branches in the upper ridge, parked temporarily in the hole and never retrieved. It is different from the traces of the strings that once stretched from the ridge to the doorway, which appears to be a cotton string. Alternative interpretations are welcome.

Schwitters, Merzzeichnung mit Arp, 1924. Kunstmuseum Basle, akg-images.

Gwendolen Webster points out that Schwitters used string from the first:
“The word Merz denotes essentially the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes, and technically the principle of equal evaluation of the individual materials…A perambulator wheel, wire-netting, string and cotton wool are factors having equal rights with paint.” – Kurt Schwitters, 1919


Displacement and loss

The Merz Barn Wall tells stories of displacement and loss. There is a painful resonance between what happened to Schwitters and what happened to this last big work. Schwitters’ own displacement, first from his home, then from his retreat in Norway, the loss of his wife, the loss of his greatest artwork, his being a lost artist, all are echoed in the Wall’s own displacement from the barn and the garden and the valley, and the loss of its connection to the artist’s greater conception, its being no more than a remnant of a lost artwork.

Much has been lost in translation, it is no more than the remnant of a lost art work.

Much has been lost in translation too. The latest presentation of the Merz Barn Wall goes some way to remind the spectator that it was made in a small dark place, much more so than when it was bathed in daylight as it was first installed. Inevitably, where it is now we see it as a closed artwork among a collection of artworks, no longer as a component of the bigger, richer, more radical work-in-progress conception that was in Schwitters’ mind, that to an extent was provisionally laid out in the barn, but never realised.
It is tempting to read the Merz Barn Wall in the context of the Langdale valley today, busy with walkers and tourists, an expensive timeshare development across the road, in what is seen as one of the most beautiful places in the country, in contrast to its present place, urban, surrounded by new building, cared-for, prized and valued, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
I was fortunate to be able to spend a long time with the work where Schwitters had created it, but have to remind myself that the place had already changed out of recognition between his time and when I was there nearly twenty years later. Seen with a romantic eye today, the surrounding valley is a beauty spot, but is also an ex-industrial site, and was in Schwitters’ time very recently so. Harry Pierce had taken on a piece of stripped-bare explosives-factory land and was turning it into a farm and a garden when he invited the artist in. The environment that Schwitters found himself in was by no means the rural idyll of peace and tranquillity one might think of today, but a busy working place, and a work-in-progress, far from a finished job (like the Merzbarn and all the Merzbauten, it too would never be finished). As other writers have explored, the linkage of environment and artwork is a recurrent factor in Schwitters’ art, where he found himself provided his material, so it is important to understand the place where the Merzbarn was made, what it was and what it wasn’t, the better to recognise what it has lost in its migration.
When I met Harry Pierce he was by then an old man. The garden he had conceived had grown and developed from the bare land he had taken on decades before. As Schwitters famously said, “He lets the weeds grow but makes it into a composition merely by adding some small touches. Exactly like I make art from rubbish.” When Schwitters was there, it was all still in transition, a long way from the stillness that had fallen on it by the time I came. It was all work back then, and it is clear that the artist, too, was working hard, with all the vigour he could muster in his weakened state, transforming an unpromising, hastily built, damp shed into his final great conception, not to re-create his lost Merzbau, but to make something new, reflecting this unlikely spot that had, at the end of his troubled life, welcomed him in.

To take what is there now for the place that gave him his inspiration and material is a mistake.

It must be borne in mind that there is loss and displacement there too. Cylinders is no longer that place. Already, by the time of the removal, as Pierce aged and his capacity to manage the land declined, the wild had begun to take over. After the Wall left, and a few months later Mr Pierce died (he was never to see it installed in its new home), the place was before long largely abandoned, self-seeded trees sprang up everywhere, the garden disappeared, buildings decayed. The surroundings of the barn now bear little or no relation to the place that Schwitters worked in, and to take what is there now for the place that gave him his material and his inspiration is a mistake. To my mind, this makes a nonsense of the proposal, occasionally promoted, of returning the Merz Barn Wall to its place of origin. That place no longer exists, any more than the artist’s provisional layouts and improvisations any longer exist. Any more than what was in Schwitters’ mind exists. We have what we have, little as it is. We are right to grieve, but not to seek a resurrection.

More readings

Gathering found material and components of the work was Schwitters’ long-established practice, but in this instance it also speaks of his poverty at the time, and the ingenuity he showed in making something out of, if not nothing, certainly very little. It tells of Schwitters’ personal charm that he had as much help as he did. The Merzbarn’s presence in a small, poorly-built shed in Langdale is more than a curiosity, it is also an expression of the generosity that Schwitters was shown, a proverbial stranger in a far-off land. In those unlikely circumstances, he found a welcome, a readiness to accept his work and his ambition, and practical help to achieve it. It testifies, too, to the love and devotion that he found in his last years. Without Wantee, without the love that was so evident between the two of them, without her devotion to him and his drive to work, there would be no Merzbarn, there would likely be no late Schwitters artwork. Art owes a debt to her, this still mysterious woman, for whom their time together was a great adventure.

The Merzbarn is, one might justly say, an heroic failure.

It is clear from his correspondence at the time that Schwitters knew that he had not long to live, and he struggled in pain to work on the Merzbarn as long as he had the strength, until his health collapsed. The work, incomplete and partial a realisation as it is, is a testament to his desire to leave for the future at least one surviving instance of his singular, all-embracing vision of art, even though he never made it. The Merzbarn is, one might justly say, an heroic failure. What survives is a testament to the man’s ambition and determination to create what was then an innovative kind of artwork, largely unrecognised and unrewarded. What survives is only a remnant, and it is the remnant of something never achieved, that never did exist except in Schwitters’ mind.

Gwendolyn Webster sees it  not only a testament to his courage but a challenge to his surroundings. The barn may be seen as an indictment of an age that not only persecuted Weimar artists such as Schwitters, with their hopes for a more open, democratic, tolerant society, but drove them to locations where their visions could no longer be realized in lasting form.

Reading the Merz Barn Wall now, presented in an art gallery, privileged and cared-for, way out of its original context, one has to find a way to see what is there before us for what it is, and at the same time to try to grasp at the greater conception of which it is only a remnant. What we have is no more than a point of entry, an entry to which the way is barred, through which only a restricted and uncertain view can be seen.

read more: