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The Auto-Destructive-Creative World of Gustav Metzger

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gustav art feature

Gloria Tessler looks back at the work of Gustav Metzger, the subject of a forthcoming retrospective.

Recreation of First Public Demonstration of Auto-Destructive Art 1960, remade 2004, 2015 Gustav Metzger born 1926 Presented by the artist 2006. Photo: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T12156

If you get down on your hands and knees and crawl on the ground beneath the yellow-star-coloured cover, you can touch an enlarged photograph of Jews forced to scrub the pavements of Vienna clean. The figures are larger than life-size. The idea is to feel something of the victims’ torment. Of course, neither you, the viewer, the Jews forced into this ultimate humiliation, nor the roll call of history will ever scrub the streets clean of the Holocaust, of Nazi guilt, of collective memory. As far as anyone can reach into the mind of another person, this seemed to be the philosophy of Gustav Metzger, when he created this immersive piece of installation art, To Crawl into – Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938.

But Metzger was not just thinking of the Holocaust. He was thinking outside every box that contains the ravages of politics, of climate change, of man’s inhumanity to man. The idea that things can grow up and be torn down, that willow trees can be uprooted and stood upside down in concrete, that colours can dissolve and peel away and that life itself and everything in it can self-destruct – that is the essence of the work of this German-Jewish refugee artist, whose early years on the journey to creative fulfilment will be featured by the Ben Uri in a virtual curatorial tour of the exhibition ‘Becoming Gustav Metzger, Uncovering the Early Years 1945-59’ on June 16, curated by Nicola Baird (Ben Uri Research Unit) and Leanne Dmyterko (The Gustav Metzger Foundation).  

Metzger’s ideas flowed from the Destruction in Art Symposium in 1966, which he developed with John Sharkey twenty years after the end of the Second World War when everything faced change. That change was more than the youth-empowering, free expression movements of the 1960s, but was a radical dismantling of ideas rooted in war and destruction, which was suddenly in the gift of artists who spearheaded a new and radical philosophy. Metzger’s thought gave rise to what became known as Auto-Destructive Art and the Art Strike. An activist at every level, his work and his very essence represented a protest on the political and artistic fronts.

Metzger outside Gallery One in 1962. Photo: Ida Kar.

The Ben Uri, a minuscule art gallery in Northwest London that has been admirably pro-active during lockdown with several online exhibitions, will present 40 rarely seen drawings and paintings from the artist’s key developmental period, supported by a full programme of related events. The show will include his whimsical portrait of the young Frank Auerbach (c. 1952) and the large expressionist oils The Dissolution of the City (1946) and Eroica, Funeral March (1946), as well as his early abstracts.

Following an artist’s creative journey is always an exercise in the compulsive imagination, especially when it follows such an unusual path, from figuration to abstraction to ultimate auto-destructive practice.

Perhaps it is facile to argue that it was Metzger’s personal wartime experience that challenged his view of the whole artistic process. The output of many leading European Jewish Expressionists during the war years were imbued with family loss and loss of home – and it influenced their work immeasurably.  There is a sense of breaking and shattering and falling within the heavily impasto landscapes and portraits of Frank Auerbach, and yet you feel their fragility.  But few I can think of were so minded to create and destroy in the blink of an eye as Gustav Metzger did.

View of the exhibition “Gustav Metzger – Remember Nature”, at the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain (MAMAC) in 2017.
Photo: © Estate Gustav Metzger + Ville de Nice

Metzger was born in Nuremberg, the son of Orthodox Polish Jewish parents in 1926 and was one of 10,000 Jewish children evacuated in 1939 to London with the help of the Refugee Children Movement.  He lost most of his family in the Holocaust, apart from his older brother who escaped with him. In Britain Metzger began studying art, at the Cambridge School of Art in 1945, and then at Sir John Cass Institute in Aldgate, London.  It was with David Bomberg, who mentored him in his radical Borough Polytechnic evening classes, that he created paintings at lightning speed. It seemed at the time that it was less the horrors of Nazism than the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that led him to develop his art form and to join the Direct Action Committee against nuclear war.

And so he created the term Auto Destructive Art during the Cold War period, deeply disturbed by the invention of nuclear weapons and their use against Japan in 1945. He joined, and possibly named, the anti-war group The Committee of 100 in 1960 and began making paintings using acid as a form of creative protest.

Alongside Bertrand Russell and others, Metzger was jailed in September 1961 for non-violent civil disobedience, and gave the court this harrowing message: ‘The situation is now far more barbarous than Buchenwald … for there can be absolute obliteration at any moment.’

Gustav Metzger Historic Photographs: No. 1: Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, April 19 – 28 days, 1943 1995/ 2009 Installation view from the exhibition Gustav Metzger: Decades1959–2009, Serpentine Gallery, London (29 September – 8 November 2009) Photograph © 2009 Jerry Hardman-Jones © 2009 Gustav Metzger

In fact, it was not until 1981 that the artist explicitly confronted the Holocaust with a display of antisemitic laws at the Kunstmuseum in Bern. His 1995 installation: Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, 19 April, 28 days 1943 embodies that totemic photo of the young boy in the cap, holding his hands up. For ultimate effect, Metzger has bounded the image with wooden shuttering.

But who was Gustav Metzger? His younger face looks out at you from photographs with incendiary eyes. You can’t look away. But does he speak as a nihilist or as a witness? He saw at first hand the destructive power of his era and began to think about what it is to destroy and what this might mean in relation to art. He describes it in his own word as a ‘form of public art for industrial societies’ that focuses on the 20th century’s potential for annihilation by means of self-destructive elements. Destruction for him often involved a process of dissolution such as the corrosion of canvases by acid or the erosion of steel monuments, rather than something savagely broken. There is clearly a fluid image here rather than a violent one. Essential to the work is its fleeting nature, which for him is an attack on the capitalist art market.  But if his work is political it is also ecological; he was aware, earlier than most, of the earth facing the prospect of its own annihilation.

In 1959 Metzger published the first auto-destructive manifesto Auto-Destructive Art. And for him, the brink of the 60s was a turning point. Young people particularly were poised for change, for new creative thinking. He created his first acid paintings in that year as a protest against nuclear war. In 1962 he took part in the Festival of Misfits at London’s Gallery One. His popularity soared when he attracted the interest of The Who guitarist Pete Townshend and his work was projected on screens at their concerts during the 1960s. Townshend was influenced by Metzger while a student at Ealing School of Art, when he attended Metzger’s “Auto-Destructive Art, Auto-Creative Art” lecture, and helped finance the book Gustav Metzger Writings (1953–2016) published by JRP Editions.

Gustav Metzger (1960), Ida Kar. The artist used to collect rubbish sacks from outside the fashion houses in Great Marlborough Street and showed them in his earliest lecture/demonstrations on auto-destructive art. © National Portrait Gallery, London

During the Auto-Destructive Art demonstration, at London’s South Bank, in July 1961 Metzger appeared in a gas mask and painted three nylon curtains with acid which produced rapidly changing shapes in the dissolving nylon, making the work both auto-creative and auto-destructive as they disintegrated. At his 1964 lecture to the Architectural Association School of Architecture where he presented his manifesto, students seized the moment and it became, in the argot of the time, an artistic ‘Happening‘.  

But the most extensive UK exhibition of his work was at the Serpentine Gallery in 2009. It included the installation Flailing Trees, which I referred to at the beginning of this article. These consisted of 15 upturned willow trees embedded in a block of concrete, symbolising a world turned upside down by global warming. Not one to mince words, Metzger said at the time: “artists have a special part to play in opposing extinction, if only on a theoretical, intellectual basis.”

Metzger, who lived and worked in East London, also explored the idea of using computer technology for art. But while dissolution had its place, he was not averse to smashing guitars onstage, for which Pete Townshend called him a role model. Jimi Hendrix is the most well-known proponent of this. He worked with leading bands who inserted his experiments with liquid crystals in slide projections that slowly changed colour from the heat as a visual effect during concerts, emphasizing the psychedelic moment. The artist died in 2017.

So – Gustav Metzger, destroyer, creative force – or both?  Perhaps the artist, himself, has the last word in a Guardian interview with Stuart Jeffries in 2012. He said: ‘The important thing about burning a hole in that sheet was that it opened up a new view across the Thames of St Paul’s cathedral. Auto-destructive art was never merely destructive. Destroy a canvas and you create shapes.’

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Gloria Tessler is a journalist, author, playwright and poet. She is the biographer of Lady Amelie Jakobovits, and her two plays, The Windmill and Unveiling Hagar, both on Jewish themes, have been performed on the London fringe. She is presently obituaries editor at the Jewish Chronicle and art correspondent at AJR Journal. 
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