“There are forces that I think about more than [about] concepts like becoming or knowing. I mean boredom, frustration, vanity.” Adrian Ghenie
The paintings of Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie are often described as dark and disturbing, a style of figurative painting where the tormented subjects faces are disfugured, blurred beyond recognition and/or partially superimposed with the face of someone else, which is similar to Francis Bacon’s paintings although it is unintended.
His work is not like Andy Denzler’s blurred ‘glitch’ paintings, but more like a collage where images and iconography of other historical scenes or objects are mixed into the otherwise blurry background. The subject in the foreground is usually painted realistically but then is finally disfigured anyway with globs of paint smeared across his or her face, resulting in the ‘Pie Fight’ series, or more recently the face of someone else partly mixed in.
Traces of his classical training as a painter are present, with his usage of whats known as ‘chiaroscuro’ lighting effect where light illuminates only part of a subject, increasing volume, form and drama, as seen in the work Flemish renaissance masters such as Rembrandt.
Early paintings address a collective memory of the trauma experienced under Nazi Germany, by painting figurative images of Hitler in Untitled (2012), or the moment Hitler died as shown in That Moment (2007) and of Dr. Josef Mengele, the instigator of genocide in Nazi concentration camps. This might be an unspoken way of refering to the suffering he and his family endured under the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
Later Ghenie would forego the pure perspective view of the scene for a collage effect to the background and incorporate symbolism into the mix, to create an unexpected emotion, a surprise or to arouse some fear, based on a desire to create the equivalent of a cinematic experience in the painting, having been inspired by David Lynch’s thriller TV series, Twin Peaks in the early 1990’s.
The subjects of these later works would shift towards people he admired; from famous artists Vincent Van Gogh and Marc Rothko to, interestingly, visionaries such as Charles Darwin, and would further develop the ‘pie throwing’ technique into more of a collage effect to depict the subject’s faces as shown in Study For A Self Portrait (2011), in this process of self discovery.
Why Darwin has become such a fascination lately for Ghenie is a bit of a mystery. Obviously he believes in evolutionism to have painted Self Portrait As A Monkey (2011) and while Darwin himself was quite a character who had many detractors despite his popularity in his heyday, perhaps there are problems with his theory that no one has discussed, which is probably why he painted Self Portraits as Van Gogh, Rothko, a monkey and Darwin himself.
The ambiguity is whether all these portraits are a criticism or a praise to Darwin. It is one the thing to do Self Portrait As A Monkey (2011) since according to evolutionism we are descended from apes, but what of self portraits as Van Gogh, Rothko and Hitler himself in Untitled (2012). Does Ghenie think we are descended from them as well?
Central to the theory of evolutionism, is the concept of transmutation of species. That species mutate into something else, adapting according to the changing environment. In one of the reviews after Darwin published his seminal book On The Origin Of Species people asked “If a monkey has become a man–what may not a man become?”
In Untitled (2012) the bottom half of Hitler’s head is mixed into Ghenie’s own head with what appears to be Darwin’s blurred face. In Darwin And The Satyr (2014) a Satyr which is a Greek mythical creature of lust and drunkness, is shown in a close encounter with Darwin, who is wearing Nike sneakers and shorts and in Self Portrait As Charles Darwin (2011) all of a sudden there is part of a fuselage of a Nazi fighter plane in the background.
The only conclusion that can be had, is that all these paintings depict a process of self discovery and in fact show Ghenie himself, as Van Gogh, as Darwin being tempted by a satyr, as himself in rejecting the temptation to paint as Rothko did by throwing it up and even as Hitler, for the acts of these people, the visionary acts producing inspiring works as well as the acts of hatred, producing genocide, has had a profound effect on Ghenie and has ‘transmuted’ him to what he is today.
Vincent Van Gogh As Old (2014) also presents an interesting proposition; what if Van Gogh, who died not long after Darwin did from a self inflicted gun shot wound, lived until he was old, through the 1920’s and 1930’s? What would Duchamp, Mondrian or Kandinsky make of him? He probably would look like Darwin, except with an orange beard as opposed to a grey white one.