Leon Golub’s professional and personal interest always revolved around stress and violence. By his own admission, this was closely linked to his state of mind. He was particularly interested in recording how brutal imagery affected him. Since he had such a long-standing interest in this subject matter, he sought to explore the impact of evildoing anywhere in the world, often collecting and studying images from war correspondents and the mass media.
The intensity of his involvement almost brought his professional career to an end.
In the early 1970s the shift from his Etruscan and Roman-inspired representation of masculinity and power to a contemporary depiction of brutality was brought on by a decade of ever-growing anti Vietnam war sentiment and highly political engagement. The Vietnamese series marked also the forsaking of stretchers in favour of canvas nailed directly onto the wall à la Rose Wylie.
He mimicked the devastating effects of mighty military power combined with moral vacuum by directing a similar physical brutality at the canvases. Paint got stripped until the fibres were exposed, like flesh torn from the bones. Paintings were cut and sometimes patched. Though the disjointed nature of his work in this period mirrored the decline into chaos of war itself, it also reflected a period of low self-esteem and doubt. He destroyed many of his works and almost abandoned painting altogether.
Between 1976 and 1979 he worked at The Political Portraits: over a hundred portraits of heads of state, dictators, military and religious leaders.
These could not be further away from the glossy official images. The neutral poise has slipped away, as if caught off guard, and a glimpse of arrogance and malevolence flashes across the facial features. There are no softening elements. Leon Golub did not meet any of them in person. His vision is not corrupted by first hand knowledge of them as human beings.
Here the intimacy does not come from a personal relationship, but from allowing the viewer access to a private and candid moment in the otherwise very staged life of these controversial public figures.
Leon Golub Powerplay: The Political Portraits was at the National Portrait Gallery