Leon Golub at the National Portrait Gallery

An issue dedicated to social justice must begin with reference to Leon Golub, an exhibition of whose portraits can currently be found on show at the National Portrait Gallery. Golub was born in Chicago in 1942 to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and Lithuania. He met his future wife Nancy Spero at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and they married in 1951. Both were to become particularly political artists, spending time in the street protesting against violence and war whilst creating works in the studio that dealt with the debates that they engaged with. Spero was famous for her works focussing on the oppression of women whilst Golub, a forthright critic of American foreign policy from Hiroshima to Vietnam and Central America, painted searing images of male aggression and its victims.   

The paintings in this exhibition, though much smaller than his monumental paintings of violence, share this fascination with male power as they come from a series of portraits of some of the twentieth  century’s most powerful, and in some cases, most notorious leaders. They include both right-wing dictators like Franco and Pinochet and left-wing revolutionaries such as Castro. As with much of Golub’s work, they are painted thinly on bare, unprimed canvas, much of which is left untouched. However, whereas his large works are often torn and usually tacked straight onto the wall giving them an air of slightly unfinished street art, in this case, most of the works are on wooden stretchers and in frames. It is interesting to note, though, that the large staples which fix the canvas to the wood have been left visible, leaving no mystery about the construction.  

Golub did not meet his subjects but painted them from photographs gleaned from the media. He was trying to ascertain if power had an effect on the body, but he was also interested in how the media represented that power. Clothes are really important in these works.  Franco and Pinochet appear as weak, frail men despite the finesse of their military uniforms. A number of other politicians including Brezhnev and Kissinger look strikingly similar and rather ordinary in their suits whilst Pope Pius VI is instantly recognisable as the pontiff by way of his white cape and skullcap. Gesture, too, can be revealing:  white supremacist James Eastland nonchalantly smokes a cigar whilst Michael Foot, dressed revealingly in a red suit with pink shirt, gestures animatedly. The late French president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, is dressed in a plain, blue suit with white shirt, but perhaps to remind us of his nationality, Golub paints a red stripe beside his face, thus creating the Tricolor.  

Golub said he treated all these portraits alike describing them as “skins or rubber masks—realistic, but expressionless…empty, non-existent—lacking bone or sinew”. Despite this, I felt that Castro, in particular, dressed in his army fatigues, seems more sympathetic than the other figures. The paint here is applied in a more animated fashion to the canvas and as he takes up a larger proportion of the picture space, he appears more immediate to the viewer.

Leon Golub at the National Portrait Gallery closes on 25 September. For more info, click here.

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