Rip it up and start again


The German artist Kurt Schwitters arrived in Britain in 1940, after fleeing Germany, where he was labelled a degenerate artist by the Nazis, and then Norway, after the German invasion of that country. Schwitters’s practice was to make new things from the fragments of what had come before: refuse, found materials, abandoned scraps. To describe this work, he coined the term ‘Merz’:  

I call[ed] my new manner of working from the principle of using any material MERZ. That is the second syllable of Kommerz [commerce]. It originated from the Merzbild [Merzpicture], a picture in which the Word MERZ, cut out and glued-on from an advertisement for the KOMMERZ-UND PRIVATBANK [Commercial and Private Bank] could be read between abstract forms …  

Schwitters was always interested in words, but not necessarily in their meaning. Like all of his Merz works, he liked to cut up words, reconstruct them, present them in fragments, so a glimpse of a phrase might catch your eye, divorced from the rest of the text around it. He liked the shapes of letters, and typography, so he could find pleasure in the simple grid of a bus ticket or the bright graphic of a candy wrapper. What strikes me about his collages is that they construct a narrative of his movement through Europe – some of them contain texts in German, Norwegian and English – so that they become emblematic of the urban experience, not just in their frantic energy, but in their mix of words: a kind of artistic melting pot.    


There are also his ‘sound poems’, which when viewed on the page look like Finnish on acid but are actually not a recognisable language (which made me wonder if the Icelandic band Sigur Rós had come across them when inventing the language of their lyrics). The greatest of these is the Ursonate, or sonate in urlauten ( which translates as ‘primordial sonata’ or ‘sonata in primordial sounds’). Schwitters left instructions for reciters of the 30-page work, mainly advising on the correct pronunciation of the letters. Perhaps the most important of these interpreters is the Dutch poet Jaap Blonk. But we also have recordings of Schwitters himself reciting the poem, sounding like a deranged exotic bird:



How to process the world he had known, the destruction of Europe through two catastrophic wars, the experience of being made homeless and turning up in a foreign country, grappling with an unfamiliar language, always being alien (for even in Germany, he was different)? Perhaps the Ursonate is the only acceptable response – the world is nonsense, impossible to fathom. We just have to make sense of it as we can. And, to paraphrase Eliot, we must shore our gathered fragments against ruin.

Schwitters ended up in rural Cumbria, creating a Merzbarn (he would have liked the fact that after his death, part of it was lifted away and transported to Newcastle – a very Schwitters-like intervention). But he also painted conventional landscapes and portraits to earn a living – these are completely ordinary, boring even, without a hint of the concerns of the more radical artist and thinker. In that respect, perhaps he did understand what he had to do to settle in and become one with the English. A collage work created in this period is interesting in that it is one of the few in which the text is meant to be read and understood: these are the things we are fighting for


The Ursonate in full here: http://www.costis.org/x/schwitters/ursonate.htm

Schwitters in Britain is at the Tate until 12th May: http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/schwitters-britain?gclid=CJrd7tzRu7UCFabLtAodEFoAuA








The dreary sea (and what is writ in water)

Well, not exactly the sea – but a view of the dreary Mersey, like a slab of wet concrete, through the window of Tate Liverpool. But we find the sea inside, contained in vast canvases by Turner and Twombly, turbulent, swelled by storm; the manifestation of the Sublime, as Ruskin defined it, a perilous beauty inherent in what is dangerous, terrifying.

The sea is contained inside us as well; Ruskin talks of ‘the effect of greatness upon feelings’. Both Turner and Twombly depicted the story of Hero and Leander, star-crossed, storm-tossed lovers, as a illustration of the Sublime. In Turner’s painting, the towers of Abydos fade in the twilight gloom, while the Hellespont gleams under a crescent of moon; its glow is casts long corridor to Sestos on the opposite shore, which is not visible, but we know that Hero is there, waiting (we also know that Leander will drown trying to cross the sea to her, and when Hero discovers her lover is dead, will throw herself from her tower into the sea to join him). To the right, there are nymphs or angels emerging from the water, almost water themselves – ghostly in the dim light. I don’t know if Turner would have known Keats’s poem on a Leander gem, where he evokes ‘sweet maidens … with a chastened light / Hid in the fringes of your eyelids white’, for whom Leander is ‘a victim of your beauty bright’, but Keats could be speaking directly about Turner’s extraordinary light effects, and Turner could be realising Keats’s maidens in paint.

Twombly knew Turner’s painting, he knew Keats’s poem. The first panel of his quadriptych shows Leandro being tossed in the sea, a manifestations of his churning passion; the next two panels show the sea overtaking and erasing his passion, his presence – the triumph of nature over man (and of the processes of nature over human emotion), until the final panel leaves us with nothing, apart from the final line of Keats’s poem: he’s gone, up bubbles all his amorous breath. A very Twomblyesque notion – there is nothing that remains of our passion and fury once we are silence and ash. Just words, paintings.

Twombly said ‘painting is a fusing of ideas, fusing of feelings, fusing projected on atmosphere’, his take on the Sublime perhaps. That makes me think of Turner’s contemporary,Caspar David Friedrich, and his painting Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer (not the actual sea, but a sea of fog, a haze of confusion and doubt).

I think of Byron swimming the Hellespont in honour of Leander, which makes me think of the Louis Edouard Fournier painting of Byron attending the funeral of Shelley, drowned in 1822 (which we had just seen the same morning in the Walker Art Gallery).

Shelley is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome with Keats, who died the year before him; and Keats’s epitaph reads: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

Wilder shores of love

I can think of no other recent painter whose work has been so intricately and delicately linked to poetry than Cy Twombly, who died yesterday at the age of 83. Incised directly into the paint in pencil are snippets of Keats and Rilke and Eliot, his ‘gauche scrawl’ (as Barthes called it) often compared to graffiti; but his ‘scrawl’ is more considered than that – like notes, like the artist reciting beautiful words that come back to him while painting, and then whispering them to us, his gestures meeting those of the great poets he loved. He said that painting was a ‘fusing of ideas, fusing of feelings, fusing projected on atmosphere’ – the way these phrases float up to the viewer from the turbulent surfaces of his canvases. He was an artist who looked to the old world of Europe rather than the new world of America – surrounded for most of his adult life by the ruins of Rome, their grand inscriptions fragmented, worn away.

Those small snippets of poetry are like coded messages, a chart of the artist’s moods and desires, often mixed with scatological sketches of cocks and cunts (there the comparison to graffiti seems apt – his canvas like a blank wall waiting to be defiled). Twombly was drafted into the US army in the early 50s and assigned to the department of cryptography. At the same time he experimented with drawing blind, at night, to try and ‘unlearn’ what he had been taught. The paintings are there for us to work out – he gives clues, but no answers. We have to meet him in the dark.

I wrote a poem in response to the ‘Inverno’ canvas of his great ‘Quattro Stagioni cycle. It is for me is the most poignant, the most secretive of his seasons; sparse words obliterated by a storm of black and yellow veiled in bright white – like snow, like the sky wiped clean by coldness. Nicholas Cullinan describes it as a ‘mist of sorrow’. I wanted my poem to tell a story in fragments, ‘in a language no one understands’. The link to the poem at Tate Etc. is here:


Rain, steam and speed

For those of you who have been following Invective since the beginning, you may be surprised by my choice of image today. Yes, I’ve given you Peter Lanyon and Prunella Clough, who, although they are very different painters, both represent a particularly British way of looking at landscape – which is at once modern and complex, and driven by internal as well as external forces. Both of them wanted to celebrate the landscapes they loved: for Lanyon, the West Penwith coast; for Clough, the brown field sights of South London and Essex. But neither one of them could have painted the way they did without Turner. Not to say that Turner was a direct influence, but it was Turner whose ground-breaking style (if that’s not too much of a pun when talking about landscape painting) gave them permission. Rain, Steam and Speed is one of Turner’s most extraordinary images, and for me it represents the moment when the industrial meets the pastoral (like in Hardy’s novels, or Wordworth’s poems). Andrew Graham-Dixon says of this picture: 

The train was not just a contraption which moved Turner from place to place more quickly than ever before. It moved him emotionally. It made him see the world as never before. He put this into the very style of his picture, conjuring up effects of blur and rush to celebrate a new speeded up vision. Turner had looked the future full in the face. He had found it beautiful. He had found it exhilarating.

I have stood in front of this painting many times and felt moved, not just by the sensation of speed Turner is able to evoke, but moved emotionally. It’s an odd feeling to be moved by a painting, and it is difficult to say why. Something about a particular arrangement of shape and colour and line. The same way a poem affects you when you don’t always understand its meaning, but the language and imagery strike something subconscious.

The poem that follows (which was published in my last collection, Fetch) is directly inspired by not only Turner’s painting, but the experience of standing in front of it in the National Gallery and being moved, and then watching other people standing in front of it perhaps experiencing the same transformation. I’m a fan of Andreas Gursky’s large-scale photographs observing crowds of people in galleries, and I wanted to capture something of that collective experience of looking at art in a public place (while undergoing some private emotion).

I’m off to Tate Britain in a little while, and although I am not going for the Turners, I feel I will have to call in on them while I’m there, just to say hello.


Portrait of a Couple Looking at a Turner Landscape


They stand, not quite touching,

before a world after storm.


There are drops of moisture in her hair,

in his scarf

                 the colour of a gentler sea, his eyes,


while trains depart every minute, steaming

into the future, where the hills


unroll themselves,

vast plains of emerald and gold


            (she undressed for him, slowly,

             her skin like cloud under dark layers)


after rooms of Rubens and Fragonard, flesh dead

against old brocade

                                (their flesh alive in the white sheets).




There are trains departing.

                                        When they part

it will be night, outside a theatre, near the station,


        and the sky will be blown with stars,

too dim to see in the glare of neon.


They will stand on concrete and asphalt,

                                    the innocent shining sands


lost. The world tilts to meet her face,

he holds her face close


           and something closes in on them,

the weight of silence in the street,


the winter horizon, bright, huge,

the moment before

                                 the sky opens and it pours.



Prunella Clough, part two

Here is a poem about Prunella Clough’s work. The title is a phrase from an article by Margaret Drabble which appeared recently in Tate Magazine. It perfectly describes the emotional tone of the paintings.

The Sadness of the Scrapyard

A plastic arm, tiny fingers grasping
nothing. One shoe, the other
long missing. No attachments

in this corrugated space,
this ochre mound of loss
where things shed their colours.

To love the scraggy ends
is to love everything;
our heaven’s a slab of ruin,

broken glass and scrap
piercing skin, heralding
rusty blood, cloudy courage.

What is hard we’ll soften
with our shapes, what we see
indefinable in the heap

but still something gleams
even when all around us
is asleep.