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The principal component of this work is a press photograph, taken shortly after Austria’s annexation to Nazi Germany in March 1938, that depicts Jewish men, women and children being forced to wash the streets of Vienna as their fellow citizens look on. The photograph has been enlarged to over thirteen square metres – rendering the figures larger than life-size – and is displayed on the floor, covered with a cotton sheet. In order to see it, the viewer is required to crawl on their hands and knees beneath the sheet, mimicking the actions of the Jewish subjects, while the size and proximity of the image makes it impossible to apprehend as a whole.
The rise and spread of fascism between 1933 and 1945 had a profound personal effect on Metzger, who was born into a Jewish family in the German city of Nuremburg in 1926. At the age of twelve he and his brother were sent to Britain as part of the Refugee Children’s Movement; his parents and two elder sisters were deported to Poland where his parents disappeared in 1943, presumably killed in the Holocaust. His two sisters escaped to England at the beginning of the war. While he acknowledged the importance of his childhood experiences, it was not until the 1980s that the Holocaust was explicitly confronted in Metzger’s work, beginning in 1981 with a display of anti-Semitic laws at the Kunstmuseum in Bern.
To Crawl Into forms part of Metzger’s Historic Photographs series, begun in 1990, which engages with the Holocaust alongside other events of twentieth-century history (see, for example, To Walk Into – Massacre on the Mount, Jerusalem 8 November 1990 1996, Tate T12451). In each work a photograph documenting the event is hugely enlarged, before being somehow obscured, by a sheet for example, a curtain, or a screen of wooden boards. Metzger has explained that these works seek to provoke a re-evaluation of well-worn media imagery by physically preventing the viewer from considering the photograph passively, even forcing them to share the sense of physical aggression perpetrated against its subjects. Interviewed in 1996, Metzger elaborated on the importance of physical engagement to this particular work, referring to an occasion in 1970 when Willy Brandt, then-leader of West Germany, knelt before a monument to the 1943 Ghetto Uprising during a state visit to Poland:
It has to do with Willy Brandt, keeling down in Warsaw – very public, as head of the German government. He knelt down in front of this monument ... I think what I’m doing is offering everybody a chance to kneel down in front of history ... accepting the heaviness, the weight of history ... to go in and confront the past.
(Quoted in Obrist 2008, pp.31–2.)
Sabina Breitwieser (ed.), Gustav Metzger: History History, exhibition catalogue, Generali Foundation, Vienna 2005, pp.196–207, 210.
Hans Ulrich Obrist, The Conversation Series: Gustav Metzger, Cologne 2008, pp.31–2.
Julia Peyton-Jones (ed.), Gustav Metzger: Decades 1959–2009, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 2009, pp.56–73.