Gustav Metzger was born in Nuremburg in 1926 as the son of orthodox Jews originally from Poland. During the Holocaust he lost nearly his entire family. He and his older brother were the only ones able to escape from the national socialist regime. They fled to England in 1939 with the help of the Refugee Children Movement. Metzger began studying art, first at the Cambridge School of Art in 1945, and then at Sir John Cass Institute in Aldgate, London. A painting course at Borough Polytechnic followed until 1953, and study trips to Antwerp and Paris. Metzger was actively involved in protest against nuclear armament from the late 1950s, and was one of the co-founders, together with the philosopher Bertrand Russel, of the antiwar protest group “Committee of 100.” From 1948 he was represented at a number of major exhibitions—including the documenta 5 (1972) and 13 (2012) and also at the Venice Biennial 2004. Generali Foundation hosted Austria’s first comprehensive retrospective dedicated to the artist in 2005, and published a volume with selected writings. Gustav Metzger lived and worked in London, where he passed away in 2017.
From 1959 on, Metzger developed the concept of “auto-destructive art” based on the political and ecological themes of his era, such as the nuclear arms race and ecological destruction. In his first manifesto, he defined this as a “form of public art for industrial societies” that focuses on the twentieth century’s potential for annihilation by means of self-destructive elements. Processes of dissolution thus take center stage in many of his works and actions, such as the corrosion of canvases by acid or the erosion of steel monuments. Metzger organized the seminal event of artistic activities forming around the theme of destruction; the “Destruction in Art Symposium” in London in 1966. The fleeting nature of Metzger’s works is an attack on the capitalist art market, as it were, as they refuse a commodification of art. His call to go on an art strike in 1974 is further evidence of this position. Metzger did, in fact, withdraw for quite some time from the art world. He also developed the principle of “auto-creative art” and explored the idea of using computer technology for art early on. Pete Townshend from “The Who” called him a role model for smashing guitars on stage, of which Jimi Hendrix is the most well-known proponent. Renowned bands inserted Metzger’s experiments with liquid crystals in slide projections that steadily changed colors from the heat as a visual effect during concerts, emphasizing the psychedelic moment. In the 1990s, a workgroup formed that dealt directly with the Holocaust and the media treatment of humanitarian catastrophes, and for which, the historical photographs of Metzger served as base material.