Becoming Gustav Metzger: Uncovering The Early Years, 1945-59

Becoming Gustav Metzger: Uncovering the Early Years, 1945–59


The Ben Uri Research Unit (BURU), in partnership with The Gustav Metzger Foundation, is delighted to present the first museum exhibition to exclusively examine the little-known formative years of refugee artist, activist, and environmentalist Gustav Metzger (Nuremberg, Germany 1926 – London, England 2017), prior to the development of his later radical Auto-Destructive practice. Showcasing some 40 drawings and paintings — the majority never previously exhibited — along with related archival material, it charts Metzger’s artistic journey from figuration to abstraction, while simultaneously uncovering an intriguing episode in the artist’s personal narrative. This display represents only a small proportion of a large hoard of works that, for reasons unknown, Metzger hid from public view in the north London attic of a relative for 45 years, and re-discovered in 2009 on the eve of his solo exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, before retrieving in November 2010. Their storage within a domestic context explains their often fragile and, in some cases, damaged material condition, which serves only to enrich their story of survival. Metzger rarely signed or dated his work, thus even establishing a conventional chronology is no simple task. Uncatalogued and under-researched, many of these works remain at this exciting stage in what is inevitably an ongoing process of discovery. Even questions relating to their correct orientation, as Head of Cliff Holden (1946) demonstrates, are not always easily answered. Together, the body of work on display can allow us to start to understand the artist’s embryonic and highly exploratory journey towards becoming the Gustav Metzger of later fame.

Gustav Metzger was born in 1926 in Nuremberg, Germany to Polish-Jewish orthodox parents and was sent to Britain in 1939 as a kindertransportee under the auspices of the Refugee Children’s Movement. Acting on Henry Moore’s advice, he spent six months at the Cambridge School of Art, before enrolling at the Sir John Cass Institute in 1946, where he studied sculpture (Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein, were important early influences). Metzger also attended Bomberg's revolutionary life-drawing classes at the Borough Polytechnic, and the following year joined Bomberg’s composition class, during which time he produced paintings including the large expressionist oil, Eroica, Funeral March (1946). In 1948, Metzger obtained a stateless passport enabling him to travel on the continent, before enrolling at the Antwerp Art Academy where he painted the transgressive and animalistic, Antwerp Model (1949).  He returned to England in 1949, resuming Bomberg’s evening classes, where his peers included Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff (whose work, as with Bomberg’s, can also be viewed downstairs). In the years that followed, Metzger executed a varied series of portrait heads including the thickly painted, Head of E. Royalton-Kisch (1950), a repeated subject for paintings and drawings. Kurt Schwitters’ influence can also be discerned in Metzger’s early abstract compositions on supports found and collected in London, including board, cardboard, and plywood boxes previously containing large sheets of Kodak photographic paper. 

Although not part of the Borough Group (1948-50), formed by artists who studied under Bomberg, he helped initiate the Borough Bottega exhibiting society that succeeded it in 1953. He resigned later the same year and, following a disagreement with Bomberg, temporarily ceased painting. It was not until 1956, whilst living in Kings Lynn, Norfolk, that he produced a series of oils (and a greater number of drawings), depicting a three-legged table evocative of a mushroom cloud, his return to painting having coincided with his involvement in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and increasingly anti-nuclear sentiment. Between 1957 and 1959, Metzger embraced abstraction, experimenting with painting on cardboard, plastic and steel. From these important beginnings, Metzger went on to develop the theory and practice of Auto-Destructive art for which he is best-known, becoming a principled and pioneering practitioner whose definitive contribution to British cultural, political and ecological history has led to his being called ‘the conscience of the art world’.

Ben Uri gratefully acknowledges the generosity of the Gustav Metzger Foundation and its co-Directors, Ula Dajerling and Leanne Dmyterko. Thanks are due to historian and curator Andrew Wilson, whose knowledge of the life and early work of Gustav Metzger has been invaluable, and to Tate Archivist, Adrian Glew. The exhibition’s accompanying publication would not have been possible without the generous support of the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the Association for Art History.

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