Over three metres high and more than twelve metres long, this massive work is Golub’s largest painting and arguably one of his most ambitious. It belongs to a series of three large-scale works on the subject of the Vietnam War the artist made between 1972 and 1974. The paintings were motivated in part by the American presidential election of 1972, which saw Richard Nixon (1913-94) soundly defeating the anti-war platform of George McGovern (born 1922). Golub had adopted an active stance against the Vietnam conflict for almost a decade at the time these works were made; he joined the anti-war group Artists and Writers Protest on his return to the United States in 1964 after living for several years in Europe. However until this series he had not directly addressed contemporary issues in his work. The Vietnam paintings marked a move in Golub’s work from more ambiguous, classically inspired images of masculinity and power (see Fighter, 1965, Tate P77249) to a more pointed and abrasive political engagement with subject matter which has continued in his work to the present day.
The composition of Vietnam II is polarised. On the left side of the painting are three uniformed American soldiers in front of an armoured car. All three men brandish machine guns, two of which are pointed towards a group of Vietnamese men, women and children huddled on the far right of the image. Behind the civilians are what appears to be the charred remains of a makeshift building; wooden posts and bits of corrugated iron are covered in a thin, sooty wash of paint. A large expanse of bare canvas divides the two groups of figures. The aggression on the faces of the American soldiers is countered by the combination of horror and stoicism in the expressions of the Vietnamese figures, particularly a young boy positioned in the foreground of the image whose face acts as the focal point for the right side of the composition. He stares directly out of the picture, implicating the viewer in the action.
The dynamic postures of the figures were sourced from contemporary news photographs. Golub has described his working process, saying, ‘I begin by projecting drawings or parts of photographs onto the canvas – each figure is a synthesis of different sources ... I want each figure to be both the reconstruction of a generic type and to possess an idiosyncratic singular existence. The figures are first outlined and shaded in black. The second coat emphasizes three dimensionality and designated highlights. I apply local colour to define skin, wood, metal, cloth. The canvas is put on the floor and paint areas are dissolved with solvent and scraped. The main scraping tool is a meat cleaver. Once the canvas has been scraped down, eroded – a process which frequently takes two weeks – I reconstruct the figures’ (quoted in Michael Newman, ‘Interview with Leon Golub’, Leon Golub: Mercenaries and Interrogations, pp.5-6). The process of scraping embeds areas of colour deep in the grain of the support and gives the surface of the painting a rough texture.
The painting is executed on unstretched linen, and hangs directly on the wall from grommets positioned at regular intervals along the top of the canvas. Hanging loosely in this manner, the painting is suggestive of an unfurled banner or an animal hide. Along the bottom edge, three irregular forms have been cut away from the painting. These jagged excisions echo the violence depicted in the image in an assault on the fabric of the artwork.
Golub originally planned to give the Vietnam paintings the collective title Assassins. In re-naming the paintings he not only situated the depicted conflict in a specific time and place but acknowledged the complexities and moral ambiguities of warfare, suggesting that soldiers ordered to fight in an unjust war are subject to a similar experience of de-humanisation as the civilians who are caught in their crossfire. Writer and curator Jon Bird has elaborated this point, saying, ‘Unlike traditional history painting, in which the historical referent frames and conditions the viewer’s understanding, Golub’s historical project is closer to that of Goya ... whose political “message” problematizes historical responsibility’ (Bird, p.57). Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) is a frequently cited influence on Golub, and the structure of Vietnam II has been compared to Goya’s indictment of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain, Third of May 1808, 1814 (Museo del Prado, Madrid).
Jon Bird, Leon Golub: Echoes of the Real, London, 2000, reproduced no.39 in colour.
Lynn Gumpert and Ned Rifkin, Golub, exhibition catalogue, New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, 1984, reproduced p.35.
Michael Newman and Jon Bird, Leon Golub: Mercenaries and Interrogations, exhibition catalogue, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, 1982, reproduced p.6.