signed and dated ‘Ghenie 2016’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
44.2 x 34.2 cm. (17 3/8 x 13 3/8 in.)
Painted in 2016
Galeria Plan B, Berlin, Germany
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2016

Brought to you by

Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡) Senior Vice President, Deputy Head of Department

Lot Essay

“Painting is the only medium for expressing the visceral nature of the world.”
Adrian Ghenie

“He researches their lives, studying them meticulously in text and image, then finally, in his own portraits and self-portraits, he jettisons his research, and enacts a brutal kind of makeover and identity theft’
James Hall

The self-portrait is a subject of enduring fascination for Adrian Ghenie, and is one of his most celebrated bodies of work. In his various explorations of the self, Ghenie presents his own visage in a variety of guises, twisting and transforming his facial features with gestural, abstract strokes of colour. This particular portrait from 2016 was painted when the artist was on the cusp of entering his forties – that same year, his painting Nickelodeon (2008) sold at Christie’s London for £7.1 million pounds, catapulting Adrian Ghenie to fame. Self-portrait thus captures the image of an artist during a moment of great change, projecting an image that chooses to obscure as much as it reveals.

In creating Self-portrait , Ghenie draws upon a long tradition of artists producing likenesses of themselves in their work. Beginning in the Renaissance period with Albrecht Durer and Rembrandt, artists have sought to immortalise their perceived sense of self, striving to convey a direct expression of who they are in their rendering. In 1988, when Ghenie travelled to Paris as a young student, he visited the Musée d’Orsay where he was struck by the power of van Gogh’s late Self- Portrait from 1889, which had been painted almost exactly one century prior. In the years following, Ghenie would consistently explore the subject of the self-portrait in his own work, creating several variations on the theme.

Ghenie has previously painted himself in the guise of historical figures ranging from Van Gogh to Charles Darwin to Elvis Presley, figuratively embodying the famous people that he paints. In a process described by James Hall, “He researches their lives, studying them meticulously in text and image, then finally, in his own portraits and self-portraits, he jettisons his research, and enacts a brutal kind of makeover and identity theft’ (J. Hall, ‘Adrian Ghenie: Self-Portrait in a Convulsive Mirror’, in Adrian Ghenie: New Paintings , exh. cat., Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 2015).

Yet here, in the present painting, Ghenie paints only himself, unadorned and undiluted by another identity. When compared to a photograph of the artist, the sweep of dark coiffed hair and pointed chin are unmistakable. Yet the painting also seems to balance on the cusp of anonymity, with the face entirely composed of rich swathes of paint, there is only the faintest suggestion of facial feature. Strong contrasts between light and dark suggest a brow, a moustache, a jawline – features that dissolve into abstraction when examined closely.

Ghenie’s paintings are the result of an organic creative process that embraces the element of chance. “Any painting is the result of a physical interaction,” Ghenie states. “You can't imagine how inert a colour is when you put it on your palette, the decomposed version, blobs of colour awaiting transformation. They're only transformed through a choreography which can't be prescribed, there are no recipes, nor knowing exactly what quantities to use, what follows is a Brownian motion dictated by my insides, by my moods. […] It's all about your viscerality. No other medium can do that.” (Interview with L. Vasiliu, ‘Adrian Ghenie: My Method Is Managing Failure’, Scena9, 2016)

Texture and colour are critical to Ghenie’s work, and his paintings are dominated by rich, visceral layers of paint, gathered in a collage-like accumulation of brushstrokes that feature ridges, lumps and bumps. Ghenie has spoken about the significance that textures and tactility play in his work, as an evocation of the time and place in which he grew up. In an interview, he described his childhood in terms of its texture: “Romania of the 1980s was a hard-to-clean world of textures, it gathered dust. […] In a way, Romania back then was much more humane, texture-wise, it had its imperfections, it had its mistakes.” His paintings embrace a sense of tactility, reminiscent of the squeegeed paintings by Gerhard Richter, resulting in a painting that carries physical dimension in addition to the illusory space created.

In Self-portrait, Ghenie undertakes a self-interrogation, exploring his own visage and reflecting upon his position in the world and how he is perceived. By using the abstract toolkit to create a figurative painting, the end result is far greater than the sum of its parts. Discrete swathes of paint are transformed into a cohesive whole, depicting an individual whose presence we can tangibly feel gazing out at us. Created the year Ghenie became known around the world, Self-portrait presents us with a vivid impression of an artist at a moment of change.

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