Sunday, April 6, 2014

Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948)

“here, with a smile, comes to meet you the very simplicity of a non-dogmatic human being, and the undisguised warmth of his rebellious yet constructive life”

Kurt Schwitters, born to a prosperous middle-class family in Hanover in June 1887, was a unique and subversive individual, who contributed to Surrealism and Dada and Constructivism, who made work as a painter and sculptor and poet, and who pioneered installation art and performance art.   

Why is Kurt Schwitters relevant to a disability blog?  First, because he developed epilepsy as a child, and second, because of his deteriorating health at the end of his life.  According to the biography by Gwendolen Webster, Schwitters’ epilepsy first became evident when he was 14.  He had made a miniature landscape in the garden of his parents’ cottage complete with a hill and a pond, together with roses and strawberries, but local boys destroyed it before his eyes, at which point he had his first seizure.  His epilepsy was very distressing to him, with attacks lasting for up to five hours:

“He could generally sense the approach of a seizure, and the symptoms became obvious to ayone who knew him well.  First he would become nervous and irritable, and complain of a blinding headache.  His head, shoulder and arms would jerk uncontrollably until he collapsed.  As he lost consciousness, he would utter a series of terrible snorts, shrieks and cries, all the time hammering at the surface he lay on with clenched fists.   If he could manage to swallow a tumbler of diluted tincture of valerian before hand this would allay the symptoms to some extent.  When the seizure was over he would fall into a deep sleep for up to sixteen hours.” (Webster, 1997, 7)

The seizures became more frequent, with up to two every day.  As a result of the condition, he missed a year’s schooling, meaning that he was 21 before he finally matriculated.  Epilepsy may also have made him more shy and introverted.  He was described as having a perpetual frown, and of being immersed in a world of his own: literature, music and art became very important to him.  But this did not stop him becoming unofficially engaged to Helma Fischer, an unassuming local girl, who was working as a governess and became one of the two women who were to support him throughout his life.  As a friend was to say later,

“Helma Schwitters deserves a special monument for her unfailingly patient and dedicated attitude to her husband, who laid claim to everything around him.” (Webster, 1997, 109).

She helped him cope with his seizures, and he would try always to take her with him when he went on journeys, for example.  However, she also had difficulties, such as rheumatoid arthritis, which increasingly meant she would be unable to join him in his passion for dancing.  She was also extremely shy, which must have made the gregarious artistic circles rather difficult for her.

Epilepsy  meant that when war broke out in 1914, Schwitters was exempted from service and stayed home in Hanover.  He and Helma married in October 1915, and lived on the second floor of his parents’ house.  At this time, he was studying art in Hanover and elsewhere.  Initially, his style was rather uninteresting and conservative.   In 1916, all adult men were called up, and he was sent to the Wulfel ironworks as a technical draughtsman.  He began new abstract drawings inspired by machines.  The following year, came the tragic death of Kurt and Helma’s first son Gerd, who only lived for 8 days in an incubator.  Together with his association with the Kestner Society of artists in Hannover, this seems to have precipitated a turning point, as seen in the works “Mourning woman” and “Suffering” which he exhibited that year.  Schwitters

“began to stand back from himself and his narrow world by means of abstraction…he  began to see art not as a front behind which he could conceal himself but as a means of self-expression.” (Webster, 1997, 30). 

He began to write and recite poetry in the Expressionist style.    Particularly after he joined the Hanover Succession group of avant garde artists, unconventional behaviour became acceptable – which included his epilepsy.  Either because he had found creative fulfilment, or because he felt he was with like-minded people, after this his seizures began to diminish.  The war was a turning point in modern art:  “Everything had broken down,” said Schwitters; “new things had to be made out of fragments.”  Hence his famous collages.

Schwitters’ career as an artist in Hanover and Berlin flourished after his one man show in  Berlin’s Dr Sturm gallery in 1919.  He went on to make contributions to the Dada movement, with his collages, an approach known as Merz (from the word Commerz in an advert incorporated into the first of his collages), and with his performances and particularly Ursonate  - poems recited for their musical qualities rather than their meaning.  His work was so pioneering that critics thought he was mentally ill and mocked him.  This did not prevent him becoming influential in European and American art circles.  In the late 1920s, he also had success as a typographer.    From 1923 onwards, Schwitters was developing an elaborate installation in the family home in Hanover, which he named the Merzbau: room after room was converted into a grotto-like sculptural environment, which he originally described as a Cathedral of Erotic Misery.  It contained unlikely items such as friends’ underwear and a bottle of his urine.

At this time, Schwitters was actually rather healthy, although he was also obsessed with his health. He took his stock of medicines with him in a suitcase wherever he went, adding to them rather than discarding any, and ended up with a huge stock of remedies.    Although by now he was only having about one seizure a year, the Nazi hostility to disabled people – as shown by their eugenic policy and anti-disability propaganda – scared him, because he worried he would be confined to an asylum.   The Nazis would include him in their exhibitions of Entarte Kunst (Degenerate Art) which toured Germany from 1933.

Alongside the Entarte Kunst exhibitions, aware of growing hostility towards Jewish friends and other artists, and now hearing that the Gestapo wanted to “interview” him, Schwitters and his son left for Norway in 1937, leaving Helma behind in Hanover to look after the family property.  In Norway, he built another Merzbau in his garden, near Oslo.  Helma came several times to visit her family.  But after Schwitters left Norway for Britain in June 1940, he was never to see his wife again.

On arrival in Britain, Schwitters joined the thousands of other refugees who were interned as enemy aliens.   Aged 53, he was to endure nearly 18 months of miserable conditions in Edinburgh, York, Bury and finally the Isle of Man.  These conditions and the anxiety of internment exacerbated his epilepsy, and  his health deteriorated from now on.  However, he continued making art, painting portraits of camp staff and other inmates, and making possibly the world’s first porridge sculptures.  He became a celebrated and much loved inmate, for quirks like his habit of leaning out of a window to bark like a dog every evening before retiring to bed.   His compatriots would learn his Ursonates and for in years to come, any reunion of inmates would include recitations.

After release, Schwitters moved to London, where he struggled to survive and continue making art.  His health was not good, with symptoms of breathlessness and high blood pressure.   However, he was now part of a wider artistic community again, and he was also receiving food parcels from admirers in America – which also gave him materials for new collages (apparently he also enjoyed using Bassett’s Liquorice Allsorts wrappers).  A fantastic exhibition at Tate Britain in 2013 showed the work Schwitters made at the end of his life in Britain.   

In London he met a young neighbour, a telephonist called Edith Thomas, whom he nicknamed Wantee (because she was always offering him cups of tea) and who called him Jumbo (because he was so tall).  She was to remain his companion throughout the rest of his life.

The end of the war was to bring depressing news: not only was his beloved wife Helma dead from cancer, but also his Mertzbau installations were destroyed in Allied bombing raids.  Nor was Schwitters allowed to emigrate to America.  Instead, in summer 1945, he and Wantee moved to the Lake District, where the mountains reminded him of Norway.    Schwitters and Wantee endured a comically severe landlady, but made friends with many locals, and he painted portraits again to gain an income, and made his own work, inspired by the landscape.  However, his health was steadily worsening. He suffered two strokes, a severe haemorrhage, broke his leg, and was several times near death. 

Despite this, in March 1947, he decided to recreate the Merzbau in a local barn, financed by a grant of $1000 from MoMA in NY.   After the destruction of so much of his work, he was determined to leave something for posterity.  As colder, damper weather set in during late 1947, this work became more and more difficult.    Schwitters could by now only work for 3 hours a day.  Even so, he wouldn’t stop to allow a window and a floor to be put in to make the barn more comfortable, saying “There is so little time, there is so little time.”   

As the days became shorter, he worked on by candlelight.  In early November, he passed out and hit his head on a piece of stone on the floor, which left him with head wound and two black eyes.  He was heartened to receive the good news that he would shortly become a British citizen, finally allowing him to travel abroad again.  In December, he had trouble breathing on the way back from the Cinema in Windermere, but he still went to the barn to work.   He collapsed again, and was taken to Kendal Hospital, where he finally died on 8 January 1948.

Kurt Schwitters died in obscurity, aside from the appreciation of his friends and fellow artists.  But nevertheless, Schwitters had confidence that he was a great artist, and that he would one day be rediscovered and celebrated, as has indeed come to pass.  His Merzbarn was moved to the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle, and he has became one of the most influential twentieth century artists.  Naum Gabo said

“It needs a poet like Schwitters to show us that unobserved elements of beauty are strewn and spread all around us, and we can find them everywhere in the portentous as well as in the insignificant, if only we care to look… to me, his collages are a constant source of joy.” (Webser, 1997, 395)

Kurt Schwitters’ own final message was this:

“If you people of the future really want to do me a special favour, then try to appreciate the most important artists of your time. It’s more important for you and more pleasurable to me than if you discover me at a time when I have long been discovered.” (Webster, 1997, 401)

Further reading
Webster Gwendolen.  Kurt Merz Schwitters: a biographical study.  University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1997.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Paul Scarron (July, 1610 - 7 October, 1660)

Paul Scarron was a poet, novelist and dramatist.  He was born in Paris: his father was a judge and his uncle was Bishop of Grenoble.   He studied at the Sorbonne, and then was tonsured as an abbé (a sort of confessor attached to noble houses), although he never became a priest.    He served Charles de Beaumanoir, Bishop of Le Mans, and went with him to Rome in 1635. A year later he was made a canon in Saint Julian's Cathedral in Le Mans.

Scarron became disabled in 1638.   The cause of his physical impairment is not confirmed, and at the time was a mystery.  In her memoirs, his wife blamed time he spent hiding in a swamp, after being pursued by townspeople enraged by his feathered costume.  Another story suggested that he fell into an ice-bath during the Carnival season.  His disease may have been rheumatoid arthritis, or perhaps polio.  Either way, he became paralysed, deformed in the shape of a Z, and subject to extreme pain, which he medicated with opium.  He used an early wheelchair.  As he wrote himself:

Il n'est plus temps de rimailler;
On m'a dit qu'il faut détaller :
Moi, qui suis dans un cul de jatte;
Qui ne remue ni pied ni patte,
Et qui n'ai jamais fait un pas,
Il faut aller jusqu'au trépas.

In 1640, Scarron returned to Paris, where he became known as a writer, and gained a reputation as a libertine.  He published burlesque verses (1643), the first French comic novel, and plays including Jodelet ou le maître valet, a comedy about a servant and his master (1645) and other burlesque productions.   In 1649, a penniless lady of good family became his housekeeper in the Rue d’Enfer, determined to reform him, but unsuccessfully.  Thanks to his literary success, Scarron gained favour and pensions.  However, thanks to various literary attacks on Cardinal Mazarin, then chief minister of France, Scarron lost his pensions.  Scarron’s plays were influential on Moliere and later novelists. He was later memorialized by Alexander Dumas as a minor character in a novel about D’Artagnan

Scarron resigned from his religious position in January 1652, because of his marriage to Francoise d'Aubigne, a brilliant and beautiful woman 25 years his junior.  Her father had been a Huguenot, who was imprisoned for conspiring against Cardinal Richelieu.  From a high class but impoverished background, Francoise had a difficult upbringing, cared for by family members and being educated in convent.   Her godmother’s mother took her to Paris, where she met Scarron, who proposed either to marry her, or to pay for her to enter a convent.  As a result of the marriage with Scarron, she was able to participate in Paris society, where eventually she was to become famous as Madame de Maintenon, a hugely influential figure at court who is rumoured to have secretly married King Louis XIV. 

However, this was all after Scarron died.   He  was to live out his days with Francoise serving as his carer as well as his wife.  According to a 1920 entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Scarron “for the remainder of his life was confined to bed, being nursed by his young wife, whose devotion, piety, and patience were admirable. In a distorted body, he preserved the acuteness of his mind, and pursued his literary career”.

I would have liked to have met Scarron, because he seems such an interesting and attractive character.  He reminds me of certain disabled folk I have met in my own life.  He was a prolific writer, a witty critic of society, and clearly someone who knew how to have a good time.  I can also empathise with the pain he clearly suffered.  As he wrote in his own epitaph:

"He who sleeps here now
Deserved more pity than envy,
And suffered death a thousand times
Before losing his life.
As you pass, do not make noise here
Be careful not to wake him
Because this is the first night
That poor Scarron slumbers."

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Harriet McBryde Johnson (1957-2008)

“I am in the first generation to survive to such decrepitude. Because antibiotics were available, we didn't die from the childhood pneumonias that often come with weakened respiratory systems. I guess it is natural enough that most people don't know what to make of us.”
Born in Laurinburg, North Carolina on July 8, 1957, Harriet McBryde Johnson was one of five children born to parents who were college lecturers.  A  sister died of the same progressive neuromuscular condition that she herself experienced.  Thanks initially to the family’s economic security and later to her own professional career, she benefitted from the personal assistance and the power chair that enabled her to participate in American society.  She always knew that she was one of the privileged ones, who could escape what she called the “Disability Gulag”.
From an early age, Johnson realized that she would have a limited life expectancy.  She was an activist by the time she was a teenager at special school, trying to get an abusive teacher fired.  Like thousands of other disabled people, she thought that television charity telethons – such as the annual Jerry Lewis event on American TV – were demeaning and counter-productive.  Later she would describe herself as holding the world endurance record for protesting the Jerry Lewis telethon.  In return, Lewis described activists such as Johnson as the equivalent of Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Harriet McBryde Johnson earned undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in history and public administration in Charleston.  After graduating from the University of South Carolina Law School in 1985, she set up in private practice as a lawyer, where she specialized in welfare and civil rights claims for poor people with disabilities.  She was also active in the Charleston Democratic Party, first as secretary and then as chair.
Johnson’s intelligence and confidence made her an ideal advocate for disabled people, not just in the courtroom but also in the political arena and through the pages of America’s newspapers.   She also had a wry sense of humour, as another extract from her writing demonstrates:
“It's not that I'm ugly. It's more that most people don't know how to look at me. The sight of me is routinely discombobulating. The power wheelchair is enough to inspire gawking, but that's the least of it. Much more impressive is the impact on my body of more than four decades of a muscle-wasting disease. At this stage of my life, I'm Karen Carpenter thin, flesh mostly vanished, a jumble of bones in a floppy bag of skin.”
Beginning in April 2001, her most famous intervention was a series of encounters with the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer.  A utilitarian, Singer has notoriously challenged the value of life, and suggested that it should be permissible for severely impaired newborns to be killed. In 2002, she debated publicly with Singer, and subsequently published “Unspeakable conversations”, an article in the New York Times, the source of the self-description above.  Johnson pointed out that: “The presence or absence of a disability doesn’t predict quality of life.”  Drawing on her own experience as someone with a neuromuscular impairment, she argued: 
“We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them. We enjoy pleasures other people enjoy, and pleasures peculiarly our own.”  
Singer’s theories may lead him to obnoxious conclusions on the topic of disability, but he is no bigot: on other issues he is very progressive.   He is also of course formidably intelligent.  On the one occasion that I debated with him on radio, I found him a rather cold and intimidating opponent.  By matching him in person and in print, Johnson made a huge impact on all those who heard or read her, enabling millions to access and understand the arguments that the disability rights organization Not Dead Yet was propounding.  In particular, as an atheist Democrat, she helped non-disabled people understand that arguments against assisted suicide and selective abortion came not only from Christian conservatives, but  also from the disability rights community.
Johnson published two books.  The first, a memoir called Too Late to Die Young, was published in 2005 and contains eloquent descriptions of living with personal assistance, of fighting prejudice and of the value of life as a disabled person, what she called “bearing witness to our pleasures”.  In the preface, she wrote:
“For any Charleston lawyer, any Southern lawyer for that matter, storytelling skill comes so close to being a job requirement that maybe it should be tested in the bar exam.  Beyond that, for me, storytelling is a survival tool, a means of getting people to do what I want.”
A novel, Accidents of Nature, about a girl with cerebral palsy who had never known another disabled person until she went to camp, was published in 2006.
When Harriet McBryde Johnson died two years later, aged only 50, the fact that she had obituaries in both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal demonstrates the impact her life and writing had had on American culture and politics.

Further information

Friday, November 8, 2013

William Soutar (1898-1943)

William Soutar was born in Perth, Scotland, in 1898, son of John, a joiner, and Margaret.  At school, he excelled on the sports field, and led a pupil strike.  At Perth Academy, he began to develop his literary skills.   Later he would recall:

“That was my eighteenth year while yet the shadow of war was unacknowledged. Then I was one of the fleetest at the Academy; one of the strongest; first in my year at most things; I was writing poetry; I was in love; I was popular both in the classroom and the playing field. I never reached this condition of living fullness again except in brief moments.” 

In 1917, he joined the Navy and served for two years.  By the end of his military service, he was beginning to suffer from skeletal pains.   He went up to Edinburgh University, initially to read medicine, but then changed to English.  At this time, Soutar sent some of his poems to Hugh MacDiarmid, who described him as already being in the top fifty Scottish poets.  Soutar's first volume of poetry was published before he graduated in 1923.  But by then his symptoms had spread from his legs to his back, which prevented him pursuing his plan to become a teacher. 

The family moved house to 27 Wilson Street, now a museum to the poet.  His condition continued to worsen, and eventually he was diagnosed as having ankylosing spondylitis, an incurable spinal condition.   On getting his diagnosis,

‘suddenly I halted in the dusk beside the pillars of West St. George’s, Edinburgh, and stood for a moment bareheaded, saying over to myself, “Now I can be a poet.” ‘

He would become a leading figure of the Scottish Literary Renaissance.  As time went on, more and more of Soutar's poetry was written in Scots:

The Makar

Nae man wha loves the lawland tongue 

but warstles wi' the thoucht- 

there are mair sangs that bide unsung 

nor a' that hae been wroucht. 

Ablow the wastrey o' the years, 

the thorter o' himsel' 

deep buried in his bluid 

he hears a music that is leal. 

And wi' this lealness gangs his ain; 

and there's nae ither gait 

though a' his feres were fremmit men 

wha cry: Owre late, owre late.

By 1930, he was confined permanently to bed.  His father made adaptations so he could live comfortably at home in a ground floor bedroom with a large window looking onto Craigie hill.  

Whan Gowdan are the Carse-lands

Braw are the Grampian Mountains

Whan simmer licht is still;

And gowdan are the Carse-lands

Ablow the Corsie Hill.

Yonder the gowdan steeple

Spires up frae the auld toun,

And the brig wides through the water
Owre far awa for soun’.

And its easy in this quiet,

Sae gowdan and sae still,

To lippen that a’ the world

And your ain hert will hale.

Soutar would lie propped up in bed, in jacket and bow tie, and receive a constant stream of visitors, many of them leading literary figures, and when they went away, he would write poems.  He kept a diary, published as Diaries of a Dying Man, and one entry reads:

'I see eight people have called this week...this means at least twenty hours at least spent in mediocre conversation. My God!'

He yearned for emotional and sexual release, but lived under the protection of his fiercely religious parents.

When his parents adopted a five year old orphan cousin, Evelyn, this spurred Soutar to write poetry for children, what he called bairn-rhymes, a volume of which were published in 1933,  For example:

The tattie-bogle wags his airms: Caw! Caw! Caw!
He hasna onie banes or thairms:
 Caw! Caw! Caw!

We corbies wha hae taken tent,
 and whamphl’d round, and glower’d asklent,

Noo gang hame lauchin owre the bent:
Caw! Caw! Caw!

For a long time, he was best known for these short verses for children.

Willie Soutar was a socialist and a nationalist.  He wrote in 1932:

‘My life’s purpose is to write poetry – but behind the poetry must be the vision of a fresh revelation for men.’

In July 1943, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and by October he was dead, aged only 45.   The editor of his diaries wrote:

“His poetry was the prize wrested from a battle against death and despair which he fought for half a lifetime.” 

Seeing life with clear eyes, knowing joy as well as bleakness, Soutar himself summed up life in a poem:


Out of the darkness of the womb

Into a bed, into a room:

Out of a garden into a town,

And to a country, and up and down

The earth; the touch of women and men

And back into a garden again:

Into a garden; into a room;

Into a bed and into a tomb;

And the darkness of the world's womb.