On recommendation from our daughter, Monica Perez Vega, we went to the Lakes District in Northern England to see the Merz Barn. In a few square miles we found much to appreciate. Windermere was a convenient home base for our trip because the train stopped there, and we found a lovely Airbnb house a few steps from the train station.
Buses were plentiful, distances not too far for taxis, and a restaurant with a patio was just across the street. The walk to the lake was the perfect distance for exercise. At the lake we found a variety of boat cruises to choose from.
And, it was the rare, sunny, beautiful-weather weekend.
William Wordsworth wrote this poem in 1804 inspired by spring in England’s Lake District:
I wander’d lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretch’d in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed – and gazed – but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
A few miles from the Merz Barn, which was built starting in 1947 by artist Kurt Schwitters, is the grammar school that Wordsworth attended 160 years earlier. Wordsworth attended school in Hawkshead, a village where currently there is a gallery of Beatrix Potter’s work.
The natural beauty of the Lakes District also inspired Potter in her art and subject matter for the children’s books she wrote and illustrated, such as Peter Cottontail, published in 1901. She later became influential in preserving much of the land in the area.
Our granddaughter, Saskia’s, favorite find in Hawkshead was this cat cafe. For the price of a hot drink, we got to hang out with the five resident cats.
On our next trip to the Lakes District we must visit the Armitt Museum, which houses a collection of Schwitter’s paintings of the local landscape, plus drawings and other work of Beatrix Potter’s.
BUT, the highlight of our trip to the Lakes District was the The Merz Barn, located near Lake Windermere, out of the village of Elterwater.
The German artist, Kurt Schwitters, came of age during turbulent times. After studying art at the Dresden Academy, WWI brought chaos to the world around him. He observed that, “Everything broke down and had to be made out of the fragments.” He worked in collage, and preferred to use bits and pieces of things that were once part of something else. Merz was a name given to his work, originating from an early piece where he had used a scrap of text with the word Commerzbank. The term “Merz” was used to reflect “the ability of collage to create new meanings as things are removed from their original context.” He was associated with Dada who used collage to make political statements, but Schwitters didn’t want to distract from his art by making it political. He preferred the idea of creating order out of chaos, rather than the other way around.
Over his life’s work, his collages became the walls of Merzbauten, or Merz Buildings he created. The first, was destroyed by bombing in Germany after Schwitters left for Norway. In Germany, Hitler had declared his work “Degenerate Art.” The second Merzbau, he built on the Island of Hjertøyain, parts remain. Near Oslo in Norway, he built the third, which was later destroyed by fire.
Today, nestled in the velvet-green, sheep-dotted hills, laced with grey slate walls, standing alone in a field surrounded by trees and small creeks where we visited, and the four of us were the only visitors that afternoon;
stands Schwitters’ final Merzbau, the Merz Barn.
In this final work, Schwitters wanted to incorporate bits from the natural world around him. His choice of setting here is a dramatic canvas. Schwitters’ health failed a couple of months into this, the last of his life’s work. We were lucky enough to contemplate it from inside and out.
Part of one of his walls has been recreated,
but the original is carefully preserved in the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle.
While we were there, we felt the moss in the stone walls,
saw the trees reflected in the pond,
read the titles of the books on the shelves in the glass reading room,
and pondered the chance that we’d be there sharing the same space with his creative force still present. As Schwitters described art, “‘a spiritual function of man which aims at freeing him from the chaos of life.” It was an incredible experience.
The Merz Barn property is a place of research and exploration for artists today. Here is a link to see a post by Monica on a residency she completed there in the fall.