The case of Adrian Ghenie
For many years now, I’ve been aware of and interested in the work of the Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie. However, I recently read something which struck a chord with me:
“Ghenie is an ardent researcher of the history of the 20th century, being preoccupied with unearthing forgotten narratives, marginal events and seemingly insignificant details in order to compose a visual vocabulary that is both compelling and uncanny. The subject matter does not revolve around a single set of concerns, and yet the different themes of Ghenie’s paintings seem to connect. Spectral presences of Hitler and Lenin, collective bodies of anonymous, defaced people – are all there to reveal the feebleness and inconsistency of our memory. The failure of modernity brought about by the catastrophes of the Second World War is seen in conjunction with the rise of modern forms of entertainment such as cinema, another major topic for Ghenie.”
Untitled, 2009, acrylic on canvas, 50 x 59.9 cm (19 5/8 x 23 5/8 in.)
Executed in 2009, Untitled comes from a pivotal period of production for Adrian Ghenie. Whereas his earlier work chiefly constituted exercises in grisaille, at this point the artist began to embrace colour. Hues of mulberry, burgundy, lilac and mauve now modeled his figures and compositions, lending a fleshier plasticity to his work, which he often punctuated with splashes of primary tones, as if to unsettle the homogeneity and physicality of his painting. This shift can clearly be seen if one charts the trajectory in to colour from A Farewell to the Western World (2007, Hall Collection) through Flight into Egypt I (2008, Titze Collection) to Duchamp’s Funeral II (2009, Private Collection). All large-scale, powerful canvases that revel in this interplay between light and shade; the positive and the negative; the assuredness of a bold line against the aching possibilities of hue and shade to colour the personality of his dramatic scenes.
Arguably, the single most celebrated painting by Ghenie from this period is Nickelodeon, from 2008 and now in the Pinault Foundation. This is a painting that powerfully exemplifies another associated shift in Ghenie’s practice at this time, which was a move towards a much more energetic handling of paint, especially when tackling the human form, that freed him up to better manipulate and unravel the physiognomy and psychology of the figure and to employ it as a visual vehicle to project a series of heightened, often challenging and dichotomous emotions. Comedy, tragedy, excitement and fear all commingle together in the same figure, communicating a myriad of moods that provides for a complex and rich portrait of the human condition. As Anette Huesch has written, ‘Ghenie is a virtuoso painter. His manner of handling paint and creating a visual atmosphere stem indirectly from studying the great masters of the Baroque era and the dramatic effect of chiaroscuro.’ (In Juerg Judin, Ed., Adrian Ghenie, Osterfildern, 2009, p. 11)
Untitled reveals a barely-delineated man, mouth agape with hand and arm extended out of the picture plane, creating a horizontal thrust that quickly moves the viewer from right to left. This agitated movement echoes Ghenie’s own brushwork, which is quickly and spontaneously applied to the surface. The abbreviated manner of the figure’s execution further lends him an apparitional quality and questions the nature of his movement. Is he singing? Is he pleading for mercy? Little context is provided other than the motion of the figure, which is amplified by the distressed nature of the figure’s face. It looks like the figure here is literally melting or has had someone thrust a cream pie in his face. The ‘violence’ of the surface is translated not only in the animation of the figure, poised here to attack or, perhaps, to hit the final crescendo of a performance, but also in the manner of his execution. Ghenie seems to viscerally attack the surface with swathes of lilacs, yellows, purples and burgundy tones – a kaleidoscope of fleshy bruises that only adds to the psychological power of this painting. Ghenie here offers us a seemingly Vaudevillian moment that, whilst at first appears light-hearted, also provides a wry but weighty comment on the transience of life itself.
Ghenie made his ‘Pie Fight’ works in 2008-9. The figure was often depicted with their face obfuscated and abstracted by the cream pie. The abstraction of the face would later inform his images of Hitler, Mengele, Darwin and van Gogh (often with the artist as the original point of departure). The source material for many of these works were film stills from early films such as The Three Stooges; comedic scenes that reveled in the arena of cliché but which simultaneously betrayed a sense of idle anarchy; of violent assault. The figure here does betray some similarities to Oliver Hardy, from the early comic duo Laurel and Hardy. Aligned to this vocabulary of imagery is another, darker set of source images – namely groups of figures from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943. It is this conflation of ideas and codes that marks the ‘Pie Fight’ series as one of Ghenie’s most important bodies of painting.