A gallery that contains what for some is the most thrilling, important and influential piece of postwar modernist art ever made in Britain is about to reopen after nearly two years of closure.
The Hatton gallery, founded in 1925 and part of Newcastle University, has undergone a £3.8m refurbishment ushering in what should be a new era. While the gallery is internationally important, it has for decades been hard to love and difficult to find.
It will finally reopen to the public on Friday next week with an exhibition exploring the role Newcastle played in the rise of pop art. But for many art lovers, the chief draw will be the chance to see Kurt Schwitters’s restored Merz Barn wall, a modernist masterpiece that was rescued and installed at the Hatton in 1965.
The 20-month redevelopment, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, has created bigger spaces that are airy, bright and pleasant – a far cry from the old Hatton. “There were no environmental controls; the lighting was terrible,” said Richard Talbot, head of fine art at the university. “The fittings were such you couldn’t even get the bulbs for them.”
Julie Milne, chief curator of the city’s art galleries, recalled the complaints from visitors. She said: “Most of the feedback we got was about the gallery’s gloominess. There were wires all over the place and lumpy walls, which were difficult to hang on. Intrinsically, the building is beautiful – it was just very shabby and run down.”
In the days before instant access to maps, the gallery was also difficult to find, something that has also been addressed by better signage. “It has been a real problem,” said Talbot. “We’ve had meetings for years talking about it, but it is a lot more visible now.”
The lack of proper environmental controls often meant borrowing works for exhibitions was tricky. It also posed huge problems for Hatton’s star work, the Merz Barn wall.
The wall was created by Schwitters, an artist who is today considered a giant of modern art. It is based on the idea of collage, with found objects incorporated with paint and plaster swirled in to the wall to create an artwork that the Observer’s Rachel Cooke described as “part cave painting, part modernist fantasia.”
The wall is from his dadaist Merzbau project, one that dominated Schwitters’s life. He created his first Merzbau between 1923-33 in his family home in Hanover, but it was destroyed by an RAF bomb in 1943.
Courtesy of Guardian News & Media Ltd