The oppressively large, looming portrayals of war and suffering that adorn the walls of The Serpentine gallery create a cinematic panorama of disaster, which both entices and repels the viewer.
Born in Chicago in 1922, Leon Golub had an early interest in the visual arts, stating once that seeing Picasso’s famous anti-war painting Guernica at age eleven, was the most profound art experience of his life.
Golub first studied art history, before joining the U.S. Army as a cartographer, and it was during this time that he developed his hatred of war. After he left the army he returned to art school to complete a Masters Degree in Fine Art, during which he met fellow artist and his future wife Nancy Spero.
Golub’s larger-than-life characters commit atrocities that we are unable to look away from, as the floor-to-ceiling paintings fill the entirety of the space and tower over all that enter. The characters stand on almost-blank backgrounds, asserting that they are the only things we should be focusing on, and giving our eyes no avenue of escape.
In one particular painting, an unidentifiable assailant is putting someone in the boot of his car, as he looks straight out of the painting at the viewer. This sinister eye contact and the way the perspective makes the victim below eye-level, forces us to be accessories to the crime.
Golub describes his work as crude and vulgar, something that is necessary to accurately depict the horrific things his work is commenting on. The works honest depiction of violence is a salient factor in Golub’s long-standing anti-war discourse, and something that he never shied away from.
In this retrospective spanning over fifty years, many different eras and conflicts are represented, from Vietnam, Latin America, and beyond. This resonates with the way in which Golub would collect and combine different source materials from which to paint, often combining into one painting images from many different conflicts and settings. These fragmented characters in his paintings are depicted as of one era, but are timeless, and because of this convey a broader and more encompassing critique of the ‘Misuse Of Power’ as a whole.
Golub’s work forces its message upon the viewer in both its size and subject matter. This harsh exposition of violence compels us to accept responsibility for our complicit violence through inaction. Golub is pointing out our moral responsibilities through his portrayal of the most horrific and difficult to look at subject matter.
With the current climate of war and terror, his is even more of a poignant message today. His indulgence in his subject matter has created a harsh and undiluted statement of intent; by keeping silent we are allowing this to happen, and we must never bite our tongues.
I for one, long for a world where the work of Leon Golub is no longer necessary or relevant, and I’m sure Leon would feel the same.
*Images via Serpentine Gallery
Showing at The Serpentine Gallery London