The Dark Side of Art
“It became clear to me that people’s perspective of history is always, quite naturally, a distant one. And that is precisely what is disgusting.” (Adrian Ghenie)
Hitler and his lover Eva Braun, dead in the Führer’s bunker. A deceased Lenin lying in state. A man frozen in the middle of the act of wiping buttercream frosted cake crumbs from his face—along with what seems to be his skin. These are mysterious, disturbing pictures, exerting a pull that one can barely escape.
So it is no wonder that Adrian Ghenie made the leap to the top ranks of the international art world in just a few years. After finishing his studies in 2001, the Romanian artist was exhibiting his work in solo shows in Romania, Switzerland, the United States, Germany, Belgium, and Great Britain by 2006. In 2009 the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest devoted a first retrospective to him. Subsequently, his work was acquired by the collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others.
Ghenie, who grew up in Romania during the years of the Communist dictatorship under Nicolae Ceausescu, is a teller of histories. He sends his viewers on a journey through time, giving them a look at his interpretation of 20th-century history in a grand narrative style. Power and its abuse in totalitarian political systems is one of his central themes. For instance, in the painting Dada is Dead (2009), based on a photograph of the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920, Ghenie recalls Hitler’s headquarters in East Prussia, also known as Wolfsschanze, and thus revives awareness of the fates of the “degenerate,” ostracized artist.
The artist is especially interested in the gap between grand, “objective” history and subjective memory. In an interview he pointed out the contradictory experience of history, using his mother, who spent her youth in Communist Romania, as an example. “She lived through the worst period of the 20th century; when I asked her about it, she only said that it had been a great time … It became clear to me that people’s perspective of history is always, quite naturally, a distanced one. And that is exactly what’s disgusting. She is not interested in the fact that these were the Stalin years.”
Ghenie bases his compositions on historical photos, bits and pieces from films and the Internet, things borrowed from huge vault of art history, and personal memories, which he sometimes turns into collages or three-dimensional models.
For example, a photograph of inhabitants of the Warsaw Ghetto was used for Nickelodeon (2008); a photograph of Hermann Göring from the Nuremburg trials was the basis for the portrait of the Third Reich minister in The Collector I (2008); he also makes use of countless other historical photos from Nazi propaganda postcards, which Ghenie often finds in the German History Museum in Berlin. On the other hand, photographs of the US military formed the basis for an early group of works titled Unbound (2006/07), subtle black-and-white paintings of atomic weapons tests in a contemporary kind of grisaille on canvas.
In his Pie Fight Studies, the artist took scenes from short American slapstick films featuring artists such as The Three Stooges or Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, in which the protagonists often serve up pie fights. Ghenie most frequently employs the Internet as his source, however. “When I started using these film stills, it became clear to me that they are psychologically profound, very powerful images. They’re about humiliation, a very strange human ritual, and still one of the most important characteristics of a dictatorship.” A comedic motif—the pie fight—becomes a brutal gesture.
For Boogeyman (2010) the artist refers to his own life. According to Ghenie, the details are taken from a 1980 furniture catalogue that his mother ordered from Germany.
For his somber scenes, Ghenie mainly limits his palette to black, gray, and dark red; only recently has he started to lighten it more and more. The paintings have a great tactile and material allure: often the artist applies several layers of paint to the canvas and then scrapes some of them off later. He works with a brush, as well as with a steel putty knife, combining his individual signature with a mechanical gesture. Painting is made visible as such. Again and again the paintings bring to mind the great masters of the Baroque period and their dramatic chiaroscuro.
Figures and interiors oscillate between the figurative and the abstract, appearing realistic and indeterminate at the same time. “Portraits” of Adolf Hitler, Josef Mengele, Stalin, Lenin, and Nicolae Ceausescu, for instance, are recognizable at first glance, but the faces are often rudimentary or vague, as if they have been concocted by a witness who does not want to remember too many details. Their terrible histories evoke all kinds of uncanny, repressed, unruly things: the ghosts that lurk within everyone. Thus, as viewers, we have the feeling that from out of these pictures of the dark moments of 20th century history the gaze of the present emerges to meet ours.
November 4, 2013, Stefanie Gommel