Nazism, Nukes and 'Nam: The Art of 'Perpetual Refugee' Gustav Metzger

An exhibition of the provocative artist's work is now on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav
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Galia Yahav
Galia Yahav

He describes himself as a “perpetual refugee,” remained an outsider all his life, and, as a matter of principle, has no citizenship. Gustav Metzger, 87, is one of the most extreme artists in the 20th century, and through his art has reacted to the main dilemmas and disasters of his time: Nazism and the Holocaust; nuclear weapons; the Vietnam War; the issue of class and rampant capitalism. He also refers to the transition from a creative society to an information-based society, and to the Israeli occupation. It sometimes seems that he hasn’t missed a single radical Western event, figure or idea in the 20th and the early 21st centuries.

When Metzger was arrested at a demonstration in London and brought before a judge, he refused to promise that he wouldn’t continue to disturb the peace: “I came to this country from Germany when I was 12 years old, my parents being Polish Jews – and I am grateful to the government for bringing me over,” he told the court. “My parents disappeared in 1943 and I would have shared their fate. But the situation now is far more barbaric than Buchenwald, for there can be absolute obliteration at any moment. I have no choice than to assert my right to live, and we have chosen, in this committee, a method of fighting which is the opposite of war – the principle of total nonviolence.”

Metzger is a character. A stubborn fringe person, political to the point of being weird, a type one no longer finds today. “A very conscientious witness with a creative sensitivity to events, an archetype of a humanist-anarchist,” is how he is described by Norman Rosenthal in the catalog of the exhibition “Testimony and Action,” which opened last week at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The exhibition, which runs until June 7, includes late works from the “Historical Photographs” series, which Metzger began in the 1990s – a series that reconstructs press and archive photographs exhibited in ways that force the spectator to engage in unusual actions or ways of observing.

The eradication of ghettoes and the “aktions”; marching troops; riots on the Temple Mount; dead children; catastrophes and traumas – these are among the subjects of his works. Throughout the years, he has dealt with the threat of destruction: as a way of lamenting, as a prophecy of doom, as an artistic tactic.

Gustav Metzger Photo by Elad Sarig

Like philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno, who influenced him, Metzger also spoke, acted and wrote after concluding that art and its roles should be rethought and reconceived after the Holocaust, and in the shadow of nuclear destruction.

Political horror is at the heart of his work, class consciousness is evident in the result: Stern and modest art, accessible to all – both in terms of the simplicity of the effective, experiential, shocking images and in terms of active sharing with the spectators.

For example, on display in the museum’s front gallery is “To Crawl Into – Anschluss, Vienna, March 1938” (1996), a floor installation composed of a copy of a famous historical photograph, in which Hitler Youth are shown forcing Jews to scrub the sidewalk in the Austrian capital. The laid-out photo is covered with a sheet of yellow fabric, the viewers are asked to get down on all fours and crawl under it “like Jews,” in order to discover the details of the image.

Also on display is “The Auschwitz Ramp, Summer 1944” – an enlargement of another historic photo that can be seen too close up.

Alongside the works, you can see rare documentary films of conversations with the artist, lasting for a total of over four hours.

Desperate subversion

Metzger was born in Nuremberg, in April 1926. In 1939, he was rescued from the Holocaust when he was sent with his brother to London with the Kindertransport. His parents died. He studied and worked at building furniture, and in 1944 moved to a Trotskyite-anarchist commune in Bristol, worked on a farm and discovered the ideas of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. That is also when he decided to be a sculptor. He studied sculpture and drawing at Cambridge, and afterward at Oxford. He soon directed his energies to political and revolutionary activity. He was one of the first members of the antinuclear movement and was arrested, along with philosopher Bertrand Russell, for civil disobedience.

Gustav Metzger in 1961. Photo by Getty Images

In 1959, Metzger published his first manifesto on “auto-destructive art,” which called on art to respond to the destructive military technologies leading humanity to extinction. “For each individual on Earth, there is a stockpile of 500 tons of TNT … Auto-destructive art is conceived as a desperate last-minute subversive political weapon used by artists,” he wrote, remarking that “Eichmann-land” was a fairy-tale playground in comparison.

He developed a technique of painting by spraying acid on nylon, a kind of action painting that becomes distorted and destroys itself, which he did in front of an audience, wearing a gas mask.

Metzger exhibited widely and was admired by Pete Townshend, the guitarist and songwriter in The Who. This led to a cooperative effort – Metzger displayed his Liquid Crystal Environment through slide projections at performances of rock bands The Move, Cream and The Who.

In addition to delivering lectures about the destruction inherent in science and technology, nuclear dangers, genetically engineered food and more, Metzger also developed his viewpoint of the social relevance of art. To be more precise: He formulated his viewpoint, which is opposed to the destructive power of commercializing art, which reached a peak in his call to refrain from creating art.

Metzger declared the years 1977-1980 as “years without art.”

“When artists will not produce work, sell work, permit work to go on exhibitions, and refuse collaboration with any part of the publicity machinery of the art world,” he wrote, “this total withdrawal of labor is the most extreme collective challenge that artists can make to the state. The years without art will see the collapse of many private galleries. Museums and cultural institutions handling contemporary art will be severely hit, suffer loss of funds, and have to reduce their staff.”

But with the exception of the artist and British poet-anarchist Stewart Home, who copied the idea in the early 1990s, the art world did not really adopt this suggestion for a revolution.

In 2007, Metzger returned to this idea in a different way, calling for reducing the number of flights related to the transatlantic economy, including international exhibitions and transporting works of art all over the world (in the context of his RAF – Reduce Art Flights – campaign).

Throughout the years Metzger exhibited in alternative spaces, beginning in the 1990s, the international art world began to recognize his unconventional life’s work. Starting in the early 21st century, he was able to stage many exhibitions in important and prestigious galleries and museums worldwide – in the realms of installations and events, theory, ecology, punk, the dictatorship of the viewer, manifestos, the representation of history in general and the Holocaust in particular, fringe artists and more.

Metzger was transformed from a fly-by-night anarchist artist into a veteran of pacifist struggles, constantly in demand from museum directors. And wooing him is not easy – the elderly Metzger does not readily accede to requests from the media, and he has never possessed a telephone, television, mobile phone or computer. He forces leading figures in the international art world to meet with him face-to-face, to make eye contact, to converse.

In a 2008 interview with curator Emma Ridgway, he said: “The world is changing, in the direction of more speed and more activities. And the more that happens, the more necessary it is for people to stand back and – not merely in the art sphere but in every sphere of intellectual activity – distance oneself and come up with alternative ways of dealing with reality than going along with a direction that is essentially catastrophic and consuming itself and turning itself into a numbers game. Where the technology, especially the technology of the mobile phones and this endless sound machinery that people force into their biological mechanism, seems to be unstoppable; and the more it goes on, the more we need to stand aside and distance ourselves from this rush toward destruction.”

A historical perspective

Metzger exhibited the installation “Eichmann and the Angel” in the Cubitt Gallery, London, in 2005. This installation is also at the center of the present Tel Aviv exhibition. It includes a replica of the glass booth used in the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel; opposite is a wall of bundles of newspaper and an industrial conveyor belt, from which hangs a reproduction of the Paul Klee painting “Angelus Novus” (1940). Ellen Ginton, the curator of the exhibition, writes in the catalog, “In this hybrid installation, there are relations of closeness, friction and contrast among representations of unsolved and sensitive historical and ethical events.”

This installation is a good example of the type of art that Metzger creates, the incessant demands he makes on bloody history and on the spectator. Metzger’s major finding – in art, the manifestos and the speeches – is man’s instinct for self-destruction, the obsession of eradication and the accompanying traumatic dimension. Whether these are concentration camps, nuclear weapons, evil technologies, antienvironmental scientific innovations, the monstrous number of flights at any given moment, the conflict in the Middle East or the consumer society that creates an indigestible amount of knowledge that collapses into itself. His visual treatment of these subjects is somewhat didactic – low-tech prints of documentary photos, presented manipulatively to direct the spectator to an unsettling experience.

Metzger has six decades of activity behind him, and even today he continues to write manifestos and search for new visual ways of shaking up the concept of history.

Gustav Metzger's “Historic Photographs: No. 1: Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, April 19-28 days, 1943” (1995/2014).Credit: Elad Sarig

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