Gustav Metzger

Homage to the Starving Poet


Not on display

Gustav Metzger 1926–2017
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 974 × 884 mm
Lent from a private collection 2015
On long term loan


Homage to the Starving Poet 1951 is a near-square oil painting on canvas in a portrait format. The composition has a triangular structure in which three figures are represented in short staccato brush strokes. The red, brown and grey earth colours that are predominantly used for these figures sit on a more loosely painted creamy-ochre ground. The arrangement of the three figures echoes both depictions of the crucifixion of Christ and traditional religious representations of prophets with followers or supplicants on either side. Such communication of suffering and spirituality is central to Metzger’s painting. The title, which alludes to this suffering, recalls a comment that the artist David Bomberg – who was Metzger’s tutor – made to the artist: ‘if you want to be an artist you must be prepared to starve’.

Metzger chose this subject matter for an earlier drawing dating from 1949 (artist’s collection), which provided the model for three further studies and this final painting. In addition, there is a related but now untraced painting, made at the same time, of an emaciated figure in green tones depicted in moonlight moving into the ground and away from the viewer. Unusually for Metzger, who does not date his works or inscribe them with titles, this first drawing is titled and dated 7 April 1949. This may suggest the importance of the subject for Metzger in reinforcing his own identity as both a refugee and an artist. The previous year Metzger had received a stateless person’s passport that enabled him to travel on the continent for the first time since he had arrived in Britain just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Through the summer of 1948 he travelled through France, Belgium and the Netherlands, enrolling at the fine art academy in Antwerp until the summer of 1949, returning to Britain later that autumn. Although the drawing was made while Metzger was living in Antwerp in 1949 and studying under the artist Gustaaf de Bruyne, the painting would have been made in the autumn and winter of 1950–1 after he had resumed attendance at the evening classes run by Bomberg at Borough Polytechnic in London.

Metzger had first enrolled in Bomberg’s class for painting and composition at Borough Polytechnic in 1946 and continued attending until 1953 (with fifteen months’ absence in 1948–9 while on the continent). Bomberg exerted the single most formative influence on the course of Metzger’s painting through this period. His teaching was inspirational for holding up art as an embodiment of 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). Bomberg’s prioritising of destruction in drawing (the practice of drawing being at the core of his teaching) can also be seen to have provided an important lesson for Metzger. As the historian Catherine Lampert has explained while writing about another of Bomberg’s pupils, Frank Auerbach: ‘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’, Frank Auerbach, Paintings and Drawings 1954–2001, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy of Arts, London 2001, p.21.)

The notion of ‘quality in form’ was identified by Bomberg as constituting an exploration for ‘the spirit in the mass … the indefinable in the definable’ (David Bomberg, ‘Reflections on Art and Artists’ – Appendix One in William Lipke, David Bomberg, London 1967, p.124). This exploration pitched materiality and emotional response together to communicate ‘the representation of form. Not the representation of the appearances of form, but more the representation of all our feelings about form.’ (David Bomberg, The Syllabus, unpublished typescript, 1937, quoted in Roy Oxlade, David Bomberg 1890–1957, London 1970, p.18.) In Metzger’s Homage to the Starving Poet these principles – of an art that is alive to the world and that draws together subject, material, formal structure and expressive emotion – coalesce explicitly. The work also recalls the way another student of Bomberg, Dennis Creffield, describes his understanding of Bomberg’s teaching: ‘“the spirit in the mass” is that animating principle found in all nature – its living vibrant being – not simply the sheer brute physicality of the object. “Structure” did not mean anatomical structure or geometrical reduction – it was the unique image or metaphor – in which the “spirit in the mass” found embodiment.’ (Quoted in Cork 1997, p.263.)

In 1953 Metzger was instrumental in organising a new exhibiting group for Bomberg and his students, which exhibited that winter as the Borough Bottega at the Berkeley Galleries in London. Shortly after the exhibition, however, Metzger resigned from the group, leading Bomberg to break off all relations with his student. Homage to the Starving Poet therefore represents the period before their estrangement when Metzger was most influenced by Bomberg, and before Metzger went on to develop his own theories of auto-destructive art (see Painting on Cardboard c.1961−2, Tate T14291).

Further reading
Gustav Metzger, Damaged Nature, Auto-Destructive Art, London 1996.
Sabine Breitwieser (ed.), Gustav Metzger: History History, exhibition catalogue, Generali Foundation, Vienna 2005.

Andrew Wilson
December 2014

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