Leon Golub

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If you stand really close to Leon Golub’s painting Gigantomachy II, the colours and brushwork are perversely reminiscent of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies. Step back and what come into view are not the lyrical gardens of Giverny, but a writhing mass of bodies on a raw canvas stripped of framing conventions, punched through with metal and nailed straight into the neat white walls of the Serpentine Gallery.

The erratically cut canvas is like the tattooed hide of a creature conjured up from a mythical space of sheer brutality. The draughtsmanship is clumsy and primary colours are thrown into chaos, fighting one another.

The disturbing thing about Golub’s work is that it breaks down the safe boundaries between us and them, good and bad, the powerful and their victims. We tut disapprovingly at TV and social media reports on global conflicts, protest and dutifully sign every online petition, but we are being drawn into Golub’s anxious world. We are being put in the picture.

In the years leading up to the Second World War the young Golub (who died in 2004) was studying history of art at the University of Chicago with particular interest in the art of antiquity. He was drafted into the army and afterwards decided to become, not an art historian, but a painter; not a commentator, but an activist.

One of the earliest paintings in the exhibition, Tete de Cheval II, illustrates this transition from art history to engagement in the present. At first glance this large head of a horse looks like a study from the Parthenon frieze, but as you look closer you will recognise the frantic fear of the horse in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica.

Golub’s work interrogates how war penetrated into civilian life — how total war was transforming into permanent war. The new American superpower was asserting its interests by means which soldiers of Golub’s generation found increasingly difficult to justify. The mercenary — the professional soldier with no allegiance but his own personal gain — becomes a central figure in Golub’s work. Looking at these images we can maintain a disapproving distance. In later paintings, such as in the terrifying Interrogation III, the perpetration of violence is in the hands of agents in civilian clothing with those being violated stripped naked.

The questioning of power continues and develops in later works to become a darkly mocking critique expressed in paintings on a much smaller scale from the last years of Golub’s life. Here the ferocity of his engagement is not diminished, merely distilled and augmented by a dark sense of humour which turns the artist’s blanket bombing of earlier works into precise little punches.