Art Museum

Uncovering the Early Years of Gustav Metzger, 1945-1959

Uncovering the Early Years of Gustav Metzger, 1945-1959

Uncovering the Early Years of Gustav Metzger, 1945-1959

This exhibition, which includes work from Metzger’s formative years, much of it previously unseen, sheds light on the artist’s search for his own aesthetic language prior to his ‘auto-destructive’ period. The early Metzger was actively trying out many styles, methods, and techniques in an active search for his own métier, as the visitor to this show can clearly see. It is organized by the Ben Uri Research Unit and the Gustav Metzger Foundation, with an accompanying publication and discussion series, and it focuses on Metzger’s relationship with David Bomberg, a renowned artist who served as Metzger’s art teacher and confidante at the Borough Polytechnic, now South Bank University in London, from 1945 to 1946 and again from 1949 to 1953.

A crucial whetstone for Metzger

Metzger’s participation in life drawing classes with the “later” Bomberg — classes also attended by fellow Jewish-born artists Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff — provided a crucial whetstone for Metzger in terms of clarifying his own direction, according to the useful interpretative commentary on the gallery walls. A letter from Bomberg to Metzger, effectively ending their relationship in late 1953, is among the materials on display in the exhibition’s vitrines, a scenario that Baird delves deeper into in her insightful piece in the catalogue.

Figuration and its antithesis

The co-curators have exploited the gallery’s tight gap between the left and right walls to create a counterpoint dialogue between figuration and its antithesis, which I also see as formative in the development of Metzger’s practice. Indeed, Henry Moore’s reaction to Metzger’s offer to be his assistant in 1945, in which he advised Metzger to first develop abilities in life-drawing, was likely an influence in Metzger’s subsequent seven-year pursuit of comparable skills. Thirteen of the exhibition’s physical works are figuratively related.

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A portrait of Ernest Royalton-Kisch

The headline visual picture for the Ben Uri show is a portrait of Ernest Royalton-Kisch from 1950. Royalton-Kisch, a former military captain and later a solicitor, was essential in Metzger’s professional success, however he reportedly declined to take the image when it was handed to him by Metzger.

The first of the gallery's global projects

“A surrealistic phase”

A piece titled Selbst Bildnis Eines Unbeflecken AD 1946 was among the paintings discovered in a relative’s attic in north London in 2014 when a seemingly lost collection of Metzger’s early material was discovered. The curators have translated this as Self-Portrait: An Undefiled, albeit “unsullied” could be a better adjective. As though representing the inner chimera of a numinous personality, recognizably that of a youthful Metzger, en-wombed in a fluidity of components, with genitals on display, yet with a general mood of ambiguity, I view this painting as “Gustav in embryo.” Metzger grew fascinated with aspects of embryology in the second half of the 1940s, parallel to taking classes with Bomberg, according to Baird’s study, continuing what Metzger later described as “a surrealistic phase” in his practice.

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The City and Eroica

Two more early works, Dissolution of the City and Eroica, Funeral March, both dated 1946, are on the opposite wall. These show Metzger’s reasonably assured manner with depersonalized dimensions, with a succession of intersecting lines and colors that merge and flow together as though in musical sequence, even at the age of 20. In both cases, we get the impression that Metzger is grappling with the psychological effects of the war and its sad consequences for many people, including his parents and older brother, who were murdered by the National Socialists.

The first of the gallery’s global projects

Despite being known for his anti-capitalist stance before his death in March 2017, aspects of Metzger’s posthumous work are now being supported by the leading global cultural powerhouse Hauser & Wirth, which is currently presenting works by Metzger at its Somerset space, including an installation of his “auto-creative” liquid crystal light-based practices. Metzger’s exhibition will be “the first of the gallery’s global projects to implement a new carbon budget,” according to Hauser & Wirth, which was inspired by Metzger’s strong call in the last decade of his life to “remember nature” as a countermeasure to species extinction caused by destructive human forces.

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