by Leanne Dmyterko
The first word that comes to mind when I think about Gustav Metzger is precision. Over the years, we spent many hours sitting at his big blue tear-drop-shaped table eating dark chocolate biscuits long into the evening, going through lengthy texts word-by-word, over and over, to edit and re-edit every last sentence. Making sure everything was as near to perfection as possible. ‘We must be extremely careful to get things right’ he often told me. And this is the way he lived every aspect of his life.
There’s no better word for it: Gustav was precise. Precise in the way he reacted and responded to the world, detailed to the point of obsession, concise yet eloquent in how he communicated his thoughts. But not only in written form—he also spoke like he wrote: slow and considered, formulating a thought in the exact right way before expressing it out loud. He did not take words lightly, always meant what he said, and never spoke without thinking thoroughly and carefully. The first time I met him, at the Royal College of Art in South Kensington, where he spent much of his time with the students there, I sat down opposite him at the table and he stared at me. He might have said hello, but I don’t remember. What I can recall is his at-the-time unusual demeanour: slowly he lifted his head and looked up at my face and into my eyes for an almost uncomfortably long time, carefully studying and considering who I might be and what place I might have in his life—a mannerism that I saw many, many times in the years that came after. ‘Tell me about yourself,’ he said in a way that made me think he really wanted to hear what I had to say, then paused and waited for my answer. He was often slow to accept people into his private world, but when he did, he did so wholeheartedly and without reservation.
‘To communicate with Gustav, a man without a phone or computer, was to wait to hear from him on his visit to a pay phone around the corner from his house’
Gustav Metzger was an elusive and mysterious man. I’ve heard that for many years he was almost impossible to find. He was one of those people you would see everywhere, as he was always attending openings, talks and events around London, but when you wanted to find him, he was nowhere. It was nearly impossible to reach him unless you knew where he lived and could go and knock on his door. To communicate with Gustav, a man without a phone or computer, was to wait to hear from him on his visit to a pay phone around the corner from his house in Hackney. He would call at a specified and very specific time, and if you missed that call there was no way of calling him back, you just had to wait. When we first met, I remember thinking he might never call after waiting to hear from him for over a week. But when he finally did, he invited me to come and see him—although getting his address was another story.
To Gustav, none of it was arbitrary—over the years, he had personally accumulated everything that he kept piled high in his studio, and all of it had a specific purpose or meaning...
Gustav Metzger was a contradiction. This became immediately clear the moment one entered his East London studio on Ellingfort Road. I can still vividly recall my first visit there almost a decade ago. His studio was an exceedingly colourful, floor-to-ceiling jumble of collected everyday items, like newspapers, plastic bags, books on every imaginable subject (but with a considerable focus on art and history) and, to those who didn’t know him, other seemingly random materials like small bottles of hand lotion kept from hotel stays or long-expired museum membership cards. To Gustav, none of it was arbitrary—over the years, he had personally accumulated everything that he kept piled high in his studio, and all of it had a specific purpose or meaning, which he was quick to point out if you tried to throw anything away. He collected all these things, not because they were valuable per se, but because they had value to him, to his life, to his work.
Gustav imbued so many objects with so much meaning. He held simple things like a tube of toothpaste in high regard; for example, any time a friend or colleague was coming to the UK from Germany he would ask them to bring him back a specific brand that he liked to use, because, simply, ‘it is the best there is’. He filled small plastic bags with his drawings, notes, sketches, leaflets, private view invitations and other personal ephemera, than would fill his big metal cabinet with these dozens of mini time capsules that so strongly referenced a particular moment in his life. Each bag a mini archive, a tangible memory of a day or a week. I recently rummaged through and found remnants of too many days I had long since forgotten, brought back to my mind in the form of ripped restaurant receipts, used train tickets and ragged leaflets from exhibitions and talks he had attended or spoken at throughout the years. How I now cherish these simple items, the personal relics of a life well-lived, and am so grateful for Gustav’s penchant for collecting them.
Gustav Metzger was a radical man. Beginning in the 1940s, he studied art at schools in Oxford, Antwerp, Cambridge and in London at the Borough Polytechnic under David Bomberg. Initially inspired by Bomberg’s political ideals and approach to art-making, Metzger and his teacher severed ties in 1953, in what would become a defining event that influenced the course of his life. After spending time as an active member and chairman of the Borough Bottega, an artist collective formed in association with Bomberg and his other students, Gustav quit and left London for King’s Lynn, a small town in Norfolk. He gave up painting and set up a market stall where he sold bric-a-brac and second-hand books. Three years later, he began to paint again, but with a palette knife rather than a paintbrush, which he rarely used again once he returned to painting. Two years later, he became a founding member of the Committee of 100, a British anti-war group that used mass non-violent resistance and civil disobedience in protest against nuclear arms. He went on to write Auto-destructive Art, his first manifesto, in 1959 and with this became the founding father of a radical new form of art centred on the transformation of society through individual and collective action.
Gustav Metzger was a ground-breaking artist and activist. What amazed me most about him was his continuous and always-growing desire to engage with urgent issues through both the lens of art and through collaboration with other fields of study. His passion and commitment never diminished over time; in fact, they intensified with age. A refusal to be a passive consumer was at the heart of his work, as in his Historic Photographs series, which prod the viewer into looking at oft-seen images of horrific historical moments in a new, more active way, attempting to alter one’s perception of the content and history itself. A man with a constant sense of urgency about him, he adamantly stressed the importance of taking action now, before there is nothing left to save. He recently said that ‘We have the potential now of major, major transformations in understanding our world and in reshaping it ... [but] we must take the opportunity and get our hands a bit dirty. Then we can at least look ourselves in the eye and say we have done what we could.’
‘For me, the answer to the question, ‘Can there be poems after Auschwitz?’ is not just, ‘Yes, there can be!’, but rather, ‘There must be!’—in order to face this horror head on.’—Gustav Metzger
Gustav did everything he could. For him, destruction was never an abstract concept. From his childhood years as a Jewish boy in Nazi Germany to his later years living in a crowded, polluted urban centre, he experienced it directly in many different forms. But while it easily might have been otherwise, in response to Adorno’s oft-quoted line that it would be ‘barbaric’ to ‘write a poem after Auschwitz,’ Gustav proclaimed: ‘For me, the answer to the question, ‘Can there be poems after Auschwitz?’ is not just, ‘Yes, there can be!’, but rather, ‘There must be!’—in order to face this horror head on.’ And in this fashion, Gustav acted on his calling and carried out his work as artist-activist without ever slowing down.
Throughout his life, Gustav had a strong pull towards the dual forces of destruction and creation—and his strong focus on extinction was an extension of that. It is possible to see a thread running through his work from the beginning of his practice, like the explosive table paintings from the 50s that evoke the mushroom cloud of the atom bomb, to his conference ‘Facing Extinction’ attended by artists, scientists, architects, students and many others—for him, destruction, and ultimately, extinction were a lifelong concern. Gustav’s ecological beliefs became more evident than ever in his later work, from the launch of Reduce Art Flights—an anti-pollution campaign encouraging arts professionals to reduce air travel and in turn reflect on their own carbon footprint, to spearheading interdisciplinary conferences and discussions around extinction and environmental destruction.
‘Art needs to sink into the centre of a human being, come up, and that will be hope—the art will be hope.’—Gustav Metzger
Gustav Metzger was a hopeful man. One of the projects we worked on in his last years was his worldwide call for action, ‘Remember.’ He asked art students and professionals to create work addressing extinction, climate change and pollution. As part of a global day of action, dozens of art students in London constructed a massive wall of newspaper clippings related to extinction—cut out from thousands of copies of The Guardian. The resulting work was a large-scale recreation of his work Mass Media: Today and Yesterday. At the same time, hundreds of artists and art students around the world contributed by making work inspired by these issues. Despite everything happening in the world today, and all that transpired in his own life when he was a child, maybe surprisingly, Gustav was always hopeful about the planet’s future and art’s role in it. As he emphatically said to me when I asked him if he felt that art could realistically contribute to change: ‘Not only can art cause change—art must cause change.’ Gustav Metzger felt an innate obligation to pursue art as his life’s work and a responsibility to stimulate social change through it. He said that ‘Art needs to sink into the centre of a human being, come up, and that will be hope—the art will be hope.’ His practice over more than 70 years was less about the creation of aesthetic objects to be viewed passively and more about art as a stimulus for political and social change. For Gustav, an artist is not simply a creator, but rather an instigator, whose role is to use their creative ability to motivate people to act.
– The Gustav Metzger Foundation is a charity which was founded upon Metzger’s death at the age of 90 in 2017. During his lifetime, Metzger defined the organization’s mission by envisioning not only exhibitions of his work and furtherance of the political and philosophical ideas he espoused, but also through support for individuals working in the fields of the arts and environmental studies, and for initiatives ‘to combat the risk of global extinction arising from the activities of humans.’ Our first project with the Foundation will be an exhibition of work by the visionary artist at Hauser & Wirth in 2021. Learn more about Gustav Metzger.