‘The paintings of Mengele … are all expressively executed. But in each approach the artist has created a different set of emphases’
‘We inevitably live in a post-WWII epoch, which means that we constantly have to look back to that watershed moment in order to understand our present condition’
From viscous layers of pigment, scraped and smeared down the length of the picture plane, an eerily familiar face emerges. Though pummelled into almost total obscurity, suspended with a dense black void, the distinctive visage of Dr. Josef Mengele slowly pieces itself together before the viewer. Painted in 2011, the work takes its place within Adrian Ghenie’s series of portraits depicting the notorious doctor, his features pushed to the brink of abstraction by the artist’s visceral handling of paint. Simultaneously excavating and demolishing his subject by adding and subtracting progressive layers of pigment, Ghenie creates a flickering, filmic mirage that oscillates between illusion and reality. Within a practice that has sought to visualise the workings of individual and collective memory, the ghostly figures of the Third Reich stand among Ghenie’s most important subjects. ‘We inevitably live in a post-WWII epoch’, he explains, ‘which means that we constantly have to look back to that watershed moment in order to understand our present condition’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in M. Radu, ‘Adrian Ghenie: Rise & Fall,’ Flash Art, December 2009, p. 49). Like Charles Darwin, Vincent van Gogh and Elvis, Mengele represents a turning point in the artist’s understanding of global history. In attempting to capture the likeness of one of the twentieth century’s most despised war criminals, Ghenie reduces his face to a molten, blurred mass of paint, eroding its contours to the point of illegibility. In this regard, the work invites comparison with Gerhard Richter’s photo-paintings of similar historical figures, in particular Onkel Rudi of 1965. Mengele’s visage is at once a hazy apparition, consigned to the realms of fiction, and an all-too-real exposure of flesh, brought from the depths of history into the immediate, tangible present. It is this dialogue – between the past and its contemporary re-imagining – that lies at the heart of Ghenie’s practice.
Like Francis Bacon’s depictions of the Pope, Ghenie’s portrayals of Mengele confront the darkest depths of the human condition. His celebrated series of Pie Fight paintings, many of which consciously evoked Third Reich officials, debased their controversial subjects with comedic swathes of custard, rendered in thick, irrefutable impasto. By recasting historical villains as victims of public gunging and humiliation, Ghenie sought to expose the ways in which their images are entrenched in collective consciousness. The present work is born of a similar impulse; indeed, the streaks of pale pigment, dragged across the canvas with a palette knife, recall to some extent the creamy substance that cakes the surface of the Pie Fight paintings. Unplanned abrasions, drips and splatters – characterised by Ghenie as ‘staged accidents’ – litter the surface of the painting, creating richly expressive layers and textures. However, any attempt to bring himself closer to the subject is immediately counteracted by a sense of dream-like transfiguration: an act of distancing that shrouds the figure in dim lighting and surreal fantasy. ‘In terms of composition, colors, atmosphere, I borrow many things from cinema’, he has said, citing David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock in particular (A. Ghenie, quoted in R. Wolff, ‘Adrian Ghenie The Past is Present-And Never Resolved-In the Romanian Artist’s Absorbing, Ambiguous Canvases’, Art + Auction, March 2013). Mengele’s face dissolves into a watery trompe l’oeil: a trick of the light, a slip of the imagination – a brief encounter, an indeterminate moment of déjà-vu. All that remains is a powerful trace of something not ready to be forgotten.