, September 2010
Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948) was a German painter who became famous for his collages, which he termed “Merz Pictures” (taken from a fragment of the German word for “commerce”). Related to, but also antagonistic towards, the Berlin Dada movement of the late 1910s and 1920s, his muted, fragmented compositions reflected both the political and social turbulence of his time—his work was eventually condemned and ridiculed by the Nazis—and his own emotional melancholy and sense of dislocation.
Despite influencing such prominent artists as Robert Rauschenberg and Damien Hirst, Schwitters was relatively obscure during his lifetime and largely forgotten after his death. It was not until Schwitters’ son Ernst engaged the services of the Marlborough Gallery to tend the family’s collection that Schwitters’ work was revived, boosting both his artistic reputation and the value of his works.
Enter the inevitable legal troubles. When an elderly Ernst Schwitters was crippled by a stroke in 1995, control over the Schwitters estate, then valued at over 35 million pounds, fell to Kurt’s grandson, Bengt, who subsequently sought to sever ties between the family and the Marlborough Gallery. The ensuing legal and financial imbroglio has involved armies of lawyers and court-appointed guardians, and even a (sort of) dramatic abduction...Yes, there’s a lot of money at stake, and yes, there’s a shadowy mistress involved (who gets the sultry “femme fatale” treatment despite looking more or less like a middle-aged English accountant), but the “Schwitters Scandal” isn’t so much a scandal as it is a contractual dispute.
More interesting by far is the documentary’s treatment of the life and works of Kurt Schwitters himself, interspersed with the legal narrative. Schwitters’ collages and art installations are darkly beautiful, and well worth a look for students of art history. Schwitters himself was a fascinating figure, who lived most of his life on the edges of the artistic community and as a political exile...Video quality...has been well-preserved and actually looks pretty good for what it is, sharp and colorful. Audio quality is adequate...if you’re a student of art history, The Schwitters Scandal is worth a look, if only for the all-too-brief glimpse of an under-appreciated master of 20th century art.