Adrian Ghenie’s The Bridge updates French Impressionist Gustave Caillebotte’s Le Pont de l’Europe, 1876, and Swedish Expressionist Edvard Munch’s The Scream, 1893-1910, by painting a similar scene—the haunting figure of a man standing on a bridge. In Ghenie’s revisionist approach, the verdigris patina of the bridge appears to slide off in painterly smears that move the previous representational paintings into a new realm of abstraction. Ghenie’s expertly wrought interpretation of these Modernist masterworks understands that to paint today is to engage with the long history of painting; its style and artistic signatures, as well as the status of paintings throughout time that have been defaced and destroyed by political whim when art was seen as dangerous, such as the Nazi’s Degenerate Art campaign that burned hundreds of Modernist paintings. The Romanian-born, Berlin-based painter had firsthand experience with such forces. Born in 1977 in Baia Mare, a Romanian city that borders Ukraine, Ghenie came of age under Nicholae Ceausescu’s dictatorship and also observed the toppling of the dictator’s regime and dramatic demise on Christmas Day in 1989. Aggrandized and skewed histories were part of how the dictatorship functioned. Ghenie uses painting as a way to investigate, in the artist’s words, “the difference between the official story and the personal perspective.” He continues, “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” (A. Ghenie, quoted in M. Radu, “Adrian Ghenie: Rise and Fall,” Flash Art, November-December 2009). In this mode, Ghenie looks at history through the lens of painting.
To mine this threshold between truth and story, Ghenie remixes this classic Modernist scene with the shock of Francis Bacon’s gnawing figuration and with Gerhard Richter’s squeegeed abstraction. As the artist himself has said, “You can’t invent a painting from scratch; you are working with an entire tradition... The pictorial language of the 20th century, from Kurt Schwitters’s collages to Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, makes up a range of possibilities that I utilise in order to create a transhistorical figurative painting–a painting of the image as such, of representation” (A. Ghenie, quoted in “Adrian Ghenie in Conversation with Magda Radu,” Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, exh. cat., Romanian Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia, 2015, p. 31). Cross-examining painting itself, Ghenie creates a coruscating compound image: in the work’s deep Old Masterly shadows, myriad stories linger. “I’m looking for a type of painting that might somehow preserve the tradition and the history of the medium, but at the same time might also involve a total break with twentieth-century painting. It’s not about whether I succeed in finding this new painting–the idea is that I’m trying to discover the possible resources of painting as a medium, wondering if I can still achieve that image, not necessarily shocking, but brand new” (Ibid.).
When The Bridge was first exhibited in Los Angeles, it became an instant critical success. Artillery magazine writer Kristen Osborne-Bartucca, wrote of Ghenie and the painting, “Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie’s work is clearly indebted to that of his artistic forbearers. Not since Anselm Kiefer has a painter dealt so explicitly with the heavy, fraught history of 20th century Europe, and like Francis Bacon, his visages are rendered as swirling, gaping horrors. There are references to Frank Auerbach’s thick smears of paint and Munch’s ghastly luridness, all effectively employed to entice and disturb. Nevertheless, Ghenie’s work is strikingly original in its mingling of pleasure and dread, it’s almost cheeky engagement with the horrors of history, and its unabashed sensuousness of material and form. …The figure is also present in The Bridge, a clear homage to Munch with its depiction of a desolate man with a ravaged face peering off the side of a bridge. The green of the bridge and yellow of the field in the background are more muted colors than those of other works, but Ghenie’s method of dripping and scraping and his overlay of light, squiggly gray lines resembling streaks of rain brings an ominous mood to the work” (K. Osborne-Bartucca, “Adrian Ghenie,” Artillery, June 30, 2015, http://artillerymag.com/adrian-ghenie/ [accessed October 10, 2016]).
Ghenie’s work has been exhibited widely in both Europe and America, and in 2015 he represented Romania at the Venice Biennial. He has had solo exhibitions in major museums, including the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest, Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst in Ghent, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver, and the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo in Malaga, Spain. His work has also been placed in the permanent collections of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, amongst others.