Born in Germany to Polish-Jewish orthodox parents in 1926, Gustav Metzger (1926-2017) was one of 10,000 Jewish children evacuated in 1939 to London as part of the Kindertransport. His parents, eldest brother, and maternal grandparents, all perished in the Holocaust.
Of his religious upbringing and its effect on his artistic practice, Metzger reflected, ‘I was raised in a Jewish Orthodox environment, so there was a fascinating clash in my youth between art and the Jewish insistence on the prohibition on images. This is at the centre of my work: on the one hand, opening up to the world and, on the other, closing off from it. I arrived in Britain as a refugee when I was 12 years old, so it never came to the point of choosing between art and tradition because, by the time I would have been faced with such choices, I had already left my hometown and gone in a completely new direction.’ He has also spoken, however, in conversations with author and curator, Bronac Ferran, of ‘grappling for years with the central question: how might a Jewish person make art?’ as well as the ways in which he was circling Judaism with respect to making images of the human figure.
Upon the advice of Henry Moore, Metzger spent six months at the Cambridge School of Art, before enrolling at the Sir John Cass Institute in 1946, where he studied sculpture and attended David Bomberg’s life drawing classes at the Borough Polytechnic, alongside contemporaries including Frank Auerbach. The following year Metzger joined Bomberg’s composition class, producing ‘extremely fast and intense’ paintings.
Metzger went on to become ‘the conscience of the art world’, a pioneering practitioner whose definitive contribution to British cultural and political history cannot be underestimated. He died in London in 2017.