Completed in 1916 in the midst of the First World War, Gertler’s Merry-Go-Round marks the peak of his early modernist period and captures his pacifist vision of the nightmare of conflict: the carousel is frozen in motion, the mouths of its riders (including uniformed soldiers, sailors and their sweethearts) opened in a long, unending scream, as they whirl forever, unable to stop or get off. The riders’ thrusting chests echo those of their horses joined nose-to-tail, their outstretched hind legs resembling raised rifles as they rear and plunge with teeth bared.
The carousel’s vertiginous tilt tips it dangerously towards us, while bullet-shaped clouds rain down around it. Yet a series of strong verticals underpins the composition’s tautly controlled structure: as Quentin Bell has observed, ‘everything is held, as though within some whirling, metallic labyrinth by a system of ellipses and verticals’ underpinned by the strong palette of blue and black, offset by strident orange, mustard-yellow and red. D. H. Lawrence, in a long, perceptive letter, called the painting ‘horrible and terrifying’, concluding that in ‘this contemplation of blaze, and violent mechanical rotation and complex involution, and ghastly, utterly mindless human intensity of sensational extremity’, Gertler had ‘made a real and ultimate revelation’.
When unveiled at The London Group’s sixth show in April 1917, Merry-Go-Round was greeted as ‘sheer sensationalism’, yet astonishingly, critics failed to detect its pacifist message. Lytton Strachey famously wrote that he ‘admired it of course, but as for liking it, one might as well think of liking a machine-gun’, while Gertler’s friend, the lawyer St John Hutchinson, predicted it would ‘raise a tremendous outcry – the old, the wise, the professional critic will go mad with righteous indignation’, causing them to ‘write all sorts of rubbish about German art and German artists’.
Following the introduction of conscription in February 1916, Gertler presented himself at his local recruiting office, only to be refused on account of his Austrian parentage; when finally called up in March 1918, he was rejected as ‘medically unfit’. Prevented by depression from fulfilling an Official War Commission, Merry-Go-Round remains Gertler’s only painting in this genre. Unsold during the artist’s lifetime, it was given by his family after his death to the Leicester Galleries, who presented it to Ben Uri in 1945. It remained a highlight of the collection until 1984 when it was sold to Tate to safeguard the gallery’s future. Ben Uri has exhibited Gertler’s work on numerous occasions including solo shows in 1944, 1982 and 2002.