A plastic bag full of rubbish; piles and piles of newspaper; a vandalised car. No, not a street in a particularly blighted housing estate, but London’s Serpentine Gallery, which is currently hosting the work of influential Jewish artist, Gustav Metzger.
The exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of the date when Metzger decided to abandon painting to use everyday objects in his art as a critique of the terrible wastage of consumer society. Now aged 83, he continues to make new work that acts as a wake-up call to the public.
In person, Metzger is a shy, reticent man. He refuses to be photographed and objects to his words — quietly spoken with just a hint of his native German accent remaining — being taped.
He was born in 1926 in Nuremberg. “My father was an intensely religious person,” he says. “He lived for his religion and for his family. He prayed daily and went to synagogue. I was brought up in that atmosphere.”
Metzger was sent to Hebrew classes from the age of three and feels strongly that his early study of Torah and Talmud was hugely influential.
“It was a brilliant beginning to life. This intense probing of the meaning of the words and the freedom to question everything in front of you was undeniably the beginning of the way I started to live once I was older.”
Not that his home life encouraged in him any ambitions to be an artist. That impetus came from elsewhere. “As you know, we as Jews are not supposed to be artistic,” he says.
“The word art never cropped up at home. But I would go into the centre of Nuremberg repeatedly in my youth. I was surrounded in art, culture and architecture.”
It was the art of Nuremberg which inspired the innovation he is most famous for, namely his concept of auto-destructive art in which he painted in acid onto nylon, causing it to disintegrate into tatters.
“This goes right back to Nuremberg and to my childhood,” he explains. “I was surrounded by the most magical kinetic art including fountains and mechanical clocks. This was the start of my interest in movement and transformation.”
Nuremberg was a great Renaissance city, but nowadays it is best remembered for its connections to Hitler and the Nazi rallies. Metzger remembers them clearly: “I lived on one of the roads on which the Nazis used to parade. They marched past our area again and again.”
The experience had a lasting effect on the artist. The idea of autodestructive art, which he first formulated in 1959, was his response to the violence of society.
Metzger escaped the Holocaust because he was sent to Britain on the Kindertransport with one of his brothers. “I arrived on January 12, 1939,” he recalls. “I was 13 soon after. I had my barmitzvah here in London in April.” His parents were killed by the Nazis.
Metzger followed up auto-destructive art with auto-creative art, in which he worked with liquid crystals, projecting their movements onto screens. Perhaps the most famous viewing of this work was on New Year’s Eve 1966 when they were shown during performances by rock bands The Who and Cream at the Roundhouse in London. Pete Townshend, The Who’s lead guitarist and songwriter, credits the artist with inspiring him to smash his guitar — a trademark moment of Who concerts at the time.
Metzger explains: “I gave a lecture at Ealing College which Pete attended. He was 16 or 17. I showed 50 slides, some of them very sensational and all about destruction. One showed a Japanese student breaking through paper. The movement of his hands was similar to the one that Pete made when smashing his guitar.”
More recently, Metzger has explored man’s inhumanity in a series of works entitled Historic Photographs. In these, the viewer has to struggle in some way to view (or not view) photographs of notable world events.
One work, To Crawl Into, forces the viewer to lie prone on the floor under a cloth to stare at an image of Jews scrubbing the streets of Vienna in 1938. Another, To Walk Into, takes you behind a curtain and into close proximity with images of the violence that took place in the Temple Mount riots in Jerusalem in 1990.
What is Metzger hoping to achieve with these works? “My aim is for the viewer to be squeezed by history,” he says. “The historic photos are very flexible. The presentation can vary. I would like to do 30 variations of the photograph of the boy surrendering in Warsaw Ghetto. Some would be completely sealed, others partly visible.”
One image in the Serpentine exhibition that is completely hidden is of Hitler addressing the Hitler Youth. The young people scream with enthusiasm at the sight of the Nazi leader.
“This image really shook me,” Metzger admits. “I saw similar scenes. I heard similar shouting as a child. I hated the photograph so much that I had to seal it up forever.” He therefore welded it in between two pieces of rusty metal.
Metzger spends a lot of time researching these pieces and uses the Wiener Library — a resource in London dedicated to the Holocaust — a great deal. “I could not have done it without them. It should be packed with people every day,” he says.
Not that Metzger is confined to historical subjects. His latest work highlights the idiocy of the government’s car scrappage scheme and aims at persuading art professionals to think twice about flying to attend international art fairs. Who better than an expert in destruction to highlight the damage we are doing to the planet?