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Case Number 19708: Small Claims Court

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The Schwitters Scandal

Arthaus Musik // 1996 // 53 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Byun (Retired) // September 18th, 2010

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All Rise...

When Dadaists hang urinals on gallery walls, they call it art. When Judge Bryan Byun urinates on gallery walls, they call the police. Go figure.

The Charge

The Schwitters scandal was pure DADA!

The Case

The Schwitters Scandal opens with a noir-tinged jazz score that promises a sordid tale of intrigue, deception, betrayal, and greed in the world of fine art collectors. Unfortunately, what we get is a bit more tepid—the lowdown on a legal battle between the wealthy Dutch descendants of an influential German-born artist, and the British art gallery that rescued his name from obscurity.

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.

The problem with The Schwitters Scandal—a 1996 production taken from a UK television program and repackaged as a standalone documentary—is that, for all the attempts at sensationalism, the legal battle really isn't all that interesting or dramatic. 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. Would that this documentary spent more time on him and less time on his grim, thoroughly boring relatives.

The Schwitters Scandal is a product of 1990s television, and it shows. Video quality is about on a par with low-budget shot-on-videotape TV productions, but has been well-preserved and actually looks pretty good for what it is, sharp and colorful. Audio quality is adequate, but nothing special. Aside from a few trailers for other Arthaus Musik releases, there are no special features on the disc.

It's hard to recommend this documentary—I just wasn't engaged by the legal battles, and frankly rooted against all parties involved (since it was made in 1996, while the situation was still untangling, there's no real conclusion to the story, and without any kind of update included on the disc, it's up to the viewer to go and research the outcomes of the various court cases). It's edited and packaged in such a way as to promise a juicy scandal, but without any kind of resolution, it's a pretty threadbare, unsatisfying tale.

Still, 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.

The Verdict

The court declares The Schwitters Scandal not guilty, but the Schwitters themselves are sentenced to 40 years of watching Bob Ross videos.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 70

Perp Profile

Studio: Arthaus Musik
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (German)
• None
Running Time: 53 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary

Distinguishing Marks

• Trailers


• IMDb
• Wikipedia: Kurt Schwitters

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