Gustav Metzger



Not on display

Gustav Metzger 1926–2017
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 477 × 380 mm
Purchased 2015


Table c.1957−8 is one of a series of approximately fifteen oil paintings made between 1956 and 1958 while the artist was living in Kings Lynn in Norfolk. The series takes as its subject a table that Metzger had bought at auction. The motif of the circular, three-legged table is just contained within the portrait format of the canvas, predominantly using black, white and tones of grey. Like all of Metzger’s painting after 1956, the paint was applied with palette knife and his fingers rather than a brush. Table is one of the largest and latest of the series of table works, all of which were made after the period during which Metzger had ceased to practice as an artist.

Between 1946 and 1953 Metzger had been a student of David Bomberg at Borough Polytechnic in London, and Bomberg had exerted the single most formative influence on his earlier work. In 1953 Metzger had been 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 relations with his student. Following this, Metzger felt unable to remain in London and moved to Kings Lynn, passing on his studio near London’s Mornington Crescent to Leon Kossoff, who within the year had passed it on to Frank Auerbach. For three years Metzger did not paint, becoming a junk dealer at Kings Lynn’s Tuesday market and the Saturday market in Cambridge.

By 1956, however, Metzger had found the need to work as an artist again and, as he explained later, to ‘suppress the need to survive economically and socially’ (Gustav Metzger in conversation with Tate curator Andrew Wilson, 24 November 2014). The series of which Table is a part represents Metzger’s return to art and, with its use of a palette knife and the artist’s fingers, a departure from the work the artist had produced under Bomberg.

At this late stage in the table series, Metzger’s aim with the table subject was beginning to shift. What began as a project to celebrate and elevate a homely and anonymous object now became more topical and political, with the table offering a conscious reflection of the mushroom cloud from the explosion of an atomic bomb. The series coincided with the artist’s growing involvement with the Kings Lynn Committee for Nuclear Disarmament, as well as his participation in the Direct Action Committee Against Nuclear War’s campaign against rocket bases in East Anglia. During the period in which the series was made, Metzger realised that his activities as an artist and as a revolutionary activist could coincide. He also came to understand that such a position could inform the development of his work, both aesthetically and ethically, in ways that remained true to the principles of socially engaged art that he had learnt from Bomberg (see Metzger’s Homage to the Starving Poet c.1950–1, Tate L03660).

Table shows evidence of having been exhibited publicly, and may have been included in Metzger’s retrospective exhibition at the Temple Gallery in London in 1960. The table series shortly precedes Metzger’s theory and practice of ‘auto-destructive art’, which the artist first announced in a manifesto in late 1959. This theory promoted the employment of non-traditional art materials as well as speed, ephemerality and movement.

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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