Is This the End of Dada’s only Architectural Experiment in the UK?

A writer, a researcher and an artist share their thoughts on the precarious future of Kurt Schwitters’s Merz Barn in the Lake District

BY Kirsty Bell, Fred Brookes and Gwendolen Webster AND Adam Chodzko in Opinion | 09 NOV 22

Kurt Schwitters’s last surviving Merzbau – the absurdist architectural assemblages that occupied 25 years of the artist’s career until his death in 1948 – is in imminent danger. The Littoral Trust, who own the land on which the dada-inspired structure resided, has announced its intention to sell its estate in the Lake District after a ten-year struggle to secure adequate funding. As reported on the Trust’s blog last month: ‘There is no guarantee that the new, quite likely private sector, owners will protect the Merz Barn.

Ahead of the winter closure of the Merz Barn on 27 November 2022, and in anticipation of the estate heading to the open market in the New Year, frieze invited writer Kirsty Bell, cultural researcher Fred Brookes, who was involved with the early removal and restoration of the Merz Barn Wall (1947–48) in the 1960s, artist Adam Chodzko, and Kurt Schwitters scholar Gwendolen Webster to share their thoughts on the legacy and precarious future of the site.

Merz Barn exterior
Exterior view of Kurt Schwitters's Merz Barn in Elterwater, UK, 2018. Photograph and courtesy: Luke McKernan

Kirsty Bell

The idea of Schwitters bringing his radical project of fragmentation and re-soldering from the bourgeois German city of Hanover to the damp fields and hedgerows of the Lake District seems incongruous. But an empty, semi-derelict Cumbrian slate building with tiny windows, dirt floors and a sloping tin roof is the last evidence of his presence in the UK. The loss of the Merz Barn will weaken the links between person and place – the kind of contingencies on which his work was founded.

The first Merzbau (1923–37), constructed in Schwitters’s childhood home in Hanover, grew to engulf several floors of the imposing, 19th-century apartment building. Driven into exile in 1937 – first to Norway and then to the UK – by the threat of World War II, at each stopping point, Schwitters compulsively began a new Merzbau. The Lake District, where he scratched together a living painting portraits of locals, was the last point in his journey. Although the remarkable collage he began on the barn wall was rescued from damp and deterioration in 1965 on the initiative of artist Richard Hamilton, who had it moved to Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, the barn itself still comes to life with conferences and gatherings of artists who adopt the ‘Merz’ principles.  

Writing for Der Sturm in 1926, Schwitters described the philosophy of Merz as a readiness to ‘create relationships, ideally between all the things in the world’. A dropped pin marking co-ordinates composed of time and place, the Merz Barn fixes Schwitters beyond his works and within a chronology that is not only art historical but speaks of politics, persecution, exile and survival. It is a tribute in absentia to the ambition of both work and artist. Empty but strangely moving.

Inside Schwitters's Hannover Merzbau
Kurst Schwitters's first Merz Bau in Hanover, 1933 

Fred Brookes and Gwendolen Webster

It seems that the former location of Schwitters’s last large-scale artwork is up for sale again. Or perhaps not. (We have been here before.) The latest funding saga about where the Merz Barn Wall once stood is only the most recent event in a long line of threats, confusion and scandals that have dogged the artist’s work for the best part of a century.

Those who pontificate about the future of the barn are seldom aware of its history. Schwitters’s third and final Merzbau was constructed on land owned by a sympathetic supporter, the distinguished landscape architect Harry Pierce, before it was sold to a trust that is still in possession of it today. Dogged by increasingly poor health and hardly able to afford food and heating, Schwitters died in 1948 with most of his conception unrealized. Following the removal of the principal artwork and Pierce’s death a few years later, the land was neglected and most of the few remaining traces of Schwitters’s work in the barn were removed (legally and illegally). Everything that was of any artistic or historical importance in Schwitters’s Merz Barn is now somewhere else.

Seen against this background, the present-day story of a proposed change of ownership of a piece of land and a shed in which one of Schwitters’s late works once stood seems to settle into relative insignificance. The question of who owns the land is one only of financial consequence, rather than cultural. Unfortunately, the ongoing saga about Schwitters’s legacy is not coming to an end just yet.

The Merz Barn Wall in Hatton Gallery, Newcastle
The Merz Barn Wall (1947–48) in Hatton Gallery. Courtesy: Newcastle University 

Adam Chodzko

It’s Schwitters’s Merz Barn! How can its future be in any doubt? It appears that reality has shifted and now art conservation is a very low priority. Yet, the Merz Barn’s new vulnerability seems to fulfil a speculation I made in my installation Too Soon, Too Late (2013), commissioned for Tate Britain’s exhibition ‘Schwitters in Britain’. While trying to explore the peculiarly twisted psychologies of the banking world that led to the 2008 financial crash, I wondered how Germany’s Commerzbank, the predecessor of Commerz Und Privatbank after which the term ‘Merz’ was originally coined by Schwitters, might attempt to reappraise its tangential relationship with him.

I imagined a parallel present in which financial communities were compelled to radically downsize out of economic necessity and Schwitters’s Cumbrian barn offered a humble back-to-nature location for Commerzbank’s newest headquarters. This move, I suggested, was also an attempt to absorb and erase Schwitters’s identity as revenge for his misappropriation of the ‘Merz’ name, which, according to my supposition, had slowly eroded the bank’s cultural supremacy. Now, almost a decade after my Tate commission, the fact that the future of the Merz Barn is under real financial duress is a regrettable case of life imitating art.

Adam Chodzko, Because (2013)
Adam Chodzko, Too Soon, Too Late, 2013, installation view. Courtesy: the artist

Main image: Exterior view of Kurt Schwitters's Merz Barn in Elterwater, UK, 2018. Photograph and courtesy: Luke McKernan

Thumbnail image:  The Merz Barn Wall (1947–48) in Hatton Gallery. Courtesy: Newcastle University 

Kirsty Bell is a freelance writer based in Berlin, Germany.

Fred Brookes is a cultural researcher, artist and teacher based in the UK.

Gwendolen Webster is an art historian and author of Kurt Schwitters: A Journey Through Art based in Germany.

Adam Chodzko lives in Whitstable, UK. Exhibiting work nationally and internationally since 1991, his work speculates how, through the visual, we might best connect with others.