By the time five paintings by Leon Golub were included in the exhibition New Images of Man at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1959, Golub had already begun to conceive of representation as a form of political engagement. He painted L’homme de Palmyre (1962) in Paris, where he lived with his family from 1959 to 1964. The figure was inspired by reclining figures, representing spirits of the deceased, carved on tombs outside the ancient Semitic city of Palmyra in the region of Homs, Syria. In contrast, Golub’s figure achieves no repose. Instead, scabbed paint encrusts the enormous body like so many scars. The layers of pigment accreted and removed imply the violence of the palette knives and caustic solvents he used to add and scrape away thick layers of paint.
By disordering an ancient classical form, L’homme de Palmyre shows the figure as a ruin, both scarred and eroded, yet enduring. For viewers who had lived through World War II and still struggled to reconcile their understanding of humanity with the horrors of the Holocaust, L’homme de Palmyre – like the tomb figures on which it was based – can be considered an elegy for the lost possibility of a timeless and venerable human tradition. Isolated on the canvas, simultaneously coherent and dissolving, Golub harnesses the materiality of paint, the monumentality of the figure, and the stillness of the painting to stage a confrontation between the human viewer and a crumbling human ideal.
American painter Leon Golub first studied art history at the University of Chicago, and earned an MFA degree from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1950. During World War II he served as a cartographer in the U.S. Army, mostly stationed in Europe. After the war he worked as a teacher and received some attention for his early artistic work. From 1959 to 1964 he lived in Paris and later moved to New York. In 1959 his work was featured in the New Images of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, among such artists as Willem de Kooning (1904–1997), Francis Bacon (1909–1992), and Jackson Pollock (1912–1956). As an active part of the Vietnam-era peace movement, Golub’s paintings were always engaged with themes of war, human brutality, and power. His large-scale paintings depict human figures and their brutal actions in an expressionistic style. He would scrape paint from the canvas to create a rough, blistered surface. Golub is also known for his portraits, based on photographs of powerful public figures. In 2000 the Dublin Museum of Modern Art honored him with a major retrospective.