Leon Golub Exhibition Unites Portraits of leading 20th Century Power Figures

Leon Golub

Portraits of leading figures of power from twentieth century including Castro, Pinochet and Brezhnev by the American artist Leon Golub are to go on display at the National Portrait Gallery on 18 March. They are being shown for the first time in the United Kingdom. 

The display includes four portraits of the Spanish general Francisco Franco at different stages of his life and including one of him ‘in casket’ following his death, the display comprises 18 portraits of 13 men in a variety of positions of power. These range from politicians such as Henry Kissinger, John Foster Dulles, Valery Giscard D’Estaing and Michael Foot to revolutionaries such as the Algerian Houari Boumediene and American mayor and police chief Frank Rizzo. 

Leon Golub Powerplay: The Political Portraits (18 March – 25 September 2016) will focus on the artist’s political portraits from the 1970s. Comprising paintings of heads of state, corporate, military and religious figures, derived from their media representations, the display explores the evolution of the masquerade of power in the artist’s pictorial language. 

Best known for his large-scale paintings of mercenaries, interrogations, torture and riots, Leon Golub (1922-2004) explored the effects of power upon the body through not only facial expression, but also gesture and dress, investing his dramatic scenes with psychological tension and depth. His source material came from the mass media – showing how power is imaged through the camera lens – a process which he saw as serving political, military or social interests. 

Leon Golub said of these portraits in 1982: ‘I think of the political portraits as skins or rubber masks – realistic, but expressionless. They are empty, non-existent – lacking bone or sinew. With a Renaissance portrait we see an individual who is a political reality possessing agency. My portraits depict people who, if they act at all, do it irrationally, irregularly – puppets on a string even if they claim to be running the show’.

The display is curated by Professor Jon Bird, Middlesex University, in association with Paul Moorhouse, Senior Curator of Twentieth-Century Collections, National Portrait Gallery, London.

Dr Nicholas Cullinan, Director of the National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘We are pleased to be able to show for the first time in Britain the Political Portraits of the great American artist Leon Golub, a great addition to the Gallery’s Interventions series focusing on themes of representation in twentieth-century portraiture.’

Professor Jon Bird, Middlesex University, curator of Leon Golub Powerplay: The Political Portraits, says: ‘Golub’s portraits vividly display the ways in which the figures in the public gaze pose for the camera,  encouraging us, the viewers, to project our own fantasies and anxieties of power and authority upon them.’

Paul Moorhouse, Senior Curator of Twentieth-Century Collections, at the National Portrait Gallery, London, says:

‘Among the twentieth century’s leading artists,  Leon Golub’s interrogation of power is the most penetrating.  We are delighted to be showing his Political Portraits. These are fascinating paintings that expose the face of political leadership to that very revealing, critical gaze.’

Born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1922, Leon Golub received his B.A. in Art History from the University of Chicago in 1942. From 1943 to 1946 Golub served as a cartographer for the US Army Engineers stationed in Europe in the Second World War and from 1947 to 1949 he studied, under the G.I. Bill, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he met the artist Nancy Spero, to whom he was married for nearly fifty years. Golub died in New York City in 2004. 

Selected solo exhibitions of Golub’s work have been presented at the Serpentine Gallery, London, England (2015); Museo Tamayo, Mexico City, Mexico (2015); the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Palacio de Velásquez, Madrid, Spain (2011); The Drawing Center, New York NY (2010); The Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York NY (2001); The Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, Ireland (2000); Ulmer Museum, Ulm, Germany (1993); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston MA (1984); Institute of Contemporary Art, London, England (1982); Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago IL (1974); among others. In 2002, Golub’s work was included in Documenta XI in Kassel, Germany. 

He received numerous awards, including the Ford Foundation Grant (1960), the Cassandra Foundation Grant (1967), the Guggenheim Foundation Grant (1968), American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1973), the Skowhegan Medal for Painting (1988), and Honorary Doctorates from several art schools and universities. In 1995, Golub and Nancy Spero were jointly awarded the 3rd Hiroshima Art Prize.

Leon Golub Powerplay: The Political Portraits is the latest display in the Gallery’s Interventions series, a programme of special twentieth century displays that focuses on unconventional approaches to portraiture by important, internationally recognised artists. Since 2006, the displays in this series have featured artists who have explored alternative means of representing a sitter, including Francis Bacon, Anthony Caro, Jack Smith and Andy Warhol. 

Leon Golub Powerplay: The Political Portraits is made possible with support from Hauser & Wirth, and with additional support from Middlesex University.

Image: Fidel Castro I by Leon Golub, 1977. Ulrich Meyer and Harriet Horwitz Meyer Collection. Photograph by Michael Tropea, Chicago