Gustav Metzger

Head

c.1953–9

Not on display

Artist
Gustav Metzger 1926–2017
Medium
Oil paint on plywood
Dimensions
Support: 680 × 518 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased 2017
Reference
T14848

Summary

Head c.1953–9 is a painting in oil on a wooden panel depicting a head and shoulders image of a figure in profile. The forms of the figure are painted using areas of grey, black and white paint applied using a palette knife so that the flat slabs of paint refer not just to the depicted subject but also to the materials of paint and support (that the knife scratches into), as well as the process of painting. Some areas of the painting are thickly painted, while others are scraped back and scratched into, sometimes revealing the support. An area of pink paint mixed into the grey in the lower right hand corner creates a highlight that encourages the painting to be seen as oscillating between an abstract arrangement and a representation of the figure whose head gives the work its title.

For his third solo exhibition, a retrospective presentation of paintings and drawings dating between 1945 and 1960 held at the Temple Gallery, London in 1960, Metzger exhibited three paintings entitled Head, each dated 1959, and it is believed that this work is one of these. Each of the paintings exhibited at the Temple Gallery was framed in the same way as this painting – with a simple wooden strip tacked to each edge of the work (no other paintings by Metzger show evidence of framing). However, unlike other paintings in this exhibition, this is the only work also to have applied to the reverse a label giving the work’s title. Metzger has suggested that this might indicate that it was painted earlier for the Borough Bottega exhibition at the Berkeley Galleries, London in 1953 – an exhibition that Metzger largely organised just prior to his disassociation from David Bomberg (1890–1957) – though there is little evidence to support this.

Bomberg exerted the single most formative influence on the course of Metzger’s painting until 1953. His teaching was inspirational for holding art to be an embodiment of a social force, stating that ‘it is the example the artist gives of fulfilling himself in his work that is of social use to others’ (quoted in Richard Cork, David Bomberg, London 1997, p.275). In retrospect, Bomberg’s prioritising of destruction within drawing (the practice of drawing being at the core of his teaching) can also be seen to have exercised an important lesson for Metzger and his development of what he termed ‘auto-destructive art’. In this respect, the art historian Catherine Lampert has explained about Bomberg that ‘the initial renderings of the subject normally had to be destroyed; in the aftermath of destruction might come reduction, and with this a deeper sense of a lasting entity, what constitutes something with “quality in form”.’ (Catherine Lampert, ‘Auerbach and his Sitters’, in Frank Auerbach, Paintings and Drawings 19542001, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 2001, p.21.)

In 1953 Metzger was instrumental in organising a new exhibiting group for Bomberg and his students, which exhibited that winter at the Berkeley Galleries in London as the Borough Bottega. However, shortly after the exhibition Metzger resigned from the group which led to Bomberg breaking off all relations with him. Following this, Metzger felt unable to remain in London and so moved to Kings Lynn in Norfolk – passing his studio near Mornington Crescent on to Leon Kossoff (born 1926), who within the year had passed it on to Frank Auerbach (born 1931). For three years Metzger did not paint, becoming a junk dealer at Kings Lynn’s Tuesday market and the Saturday market in Cambridge. However, by 1956 he found the need to work as an artist and three years later he held his first solo exhibition of paintings at 14 Monmouth Street, London, a coffee bar run by the artist Brian Robins (1928–1988). This exhibition consisted of two untitled paintings on galvanised steel from 1958 and one on hardboard dating from 1957. The surviving paintings on galvanised steel are similar to Head in both subject and technique and it is thought most likely that Head dates from this period. As well as variously evoking subjects of nature, the city, landscape and the figure, the critic Michael Bullock described Metzger’s paintings in the exhibition leaflet as being concerned with speed and its resulting formal distortions, confirming Metzger’s belief that painting needed to be ‘extremely fast and intense’. (Gustav Metzger, Auto-destructive Art: Metzger at AA, London 1965, p.7):

Metzger paints the world as it is seen under the influence of speed. Speed has a curious effect on objects; it draws them out, distorting their shape and mingling them with their neighbours, throwing into relief certain aspects of their form and causing other elements to vanish altogether, it fuses colours together so that only the most powerful retain their original identity, while the rest combine to produce broken, confused patches in which tone is all-important and hue only secondary. All these visual phenomena arising from speed are reproduced in Metzger’s paintings and determine his style.
(Michael Bullock, ‘Extract from an article’, typewritten exhibition handout, 14 Monmouth Street, London 1959).

Further reading
Gustav Metzger, History History, exhibition catalogue, Generali Foundation, Vienna 2005.
Documenta 13, The Book of Books, exhibition catalogue, Kassel 2012.
Act or Perish! Gustav Metzger – A Retrospective, exhibition catalogue, Centre of Contemporary Art Znaki Czasu, Torún 2015.

Andrew Wilson
January 2017

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