ADRIAN GHENIE (B. 1977)
ADRIAN GHENIE (B. 1977)
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ADRIAN GHENIE (B. 1977)

Charles Darwin at the Age of 75

Details
ADRIAN GHENIE (B. 1977)
Charles Darwin at the Age of 75
signed and dated ‘Ghenie 2014’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
200 x 270 cm. (78 3⁄4 x 106 1⁄4 in.)
Painted in 2014
Provenance
Pace Gallery, London
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Literature
Pace, London, Adrian Ghenie, Golems, 2014 (illustrated. pp.8, 28-29, 58).
CAC Malaga, Malaga, Adrian Ghenie, 2015 (illustrated, pp. 90-91).
Exhibited
London, Pace, Adrian Ghenie, Golems, June - July 2014.
Malaga, CAC Malaga, Adrian Ghenie, December 2014 - February 2015.

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Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡) Head of Evening Sale

Lot Essay

‘There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved …’ Charles Darwin

Spanning almost three metres across, Charles Darwin at the Age of 75 (2014) is a monumental vision of one of Adrian Ghenie’s most important subjects. Ghenie depicts the iconic scientist seated amid a blazing autumnal landscape. He is swaddled in a polychrome blanket of blue and orange, with his face partly masked by Baconesque smears of violet. Every inch of the painting is alive with texture. Bright yellows, rich golds and deep reds ripple, melt, buckle and blur together in shimmering symphony. In some areas, Ghenie has created vaporous, smoky blooms of colour by pressing flat the stillwet surface, or scraping through it in the manner of Gerhard Richter; elsewhere, bright licks of impasto build the pigment into nearsculptural presence. Masked-off flashes of marbled paint—evoking autumn leaves and tongues of flame alike—hover like collage, sitting proud of the canvas in crisp, three-dimensional focus. A touch of Titian-blue sky breaks through at the upper right. Flickering between abstraction and figuration, Charles Darwin at the Age of 75 pictures a moment that Darwin did not in fact live to see: he passed away at the age of 73, in 1882. Ghenie’s painting—as with many of his works— is less a portrait of the man himself than an inquiry into his complex legacy. Ghenie first showed Charles Darwin at the Age of 75 as part of a 2014 show in Pace Gallery’s space at 6 Burlington Gardens: an imposing Italianate building which stands behind the very room where Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace presented the theory on the origin of species to the Linnean Society in July 1858. There, it was shown alongside Ghenie’s installation Darwin’s Room and eight other paintings, including two in which the artist merged his own selfportrait with Darwin’s image.

‘For me, chronology doesn’t exist in art. Caravaggio and de Kooning were trying to solve the same problem. Deep inside every painting exists a deep abstract challenge’ Adrian Ghenie

Born in Romania under the regime of Nicolae Ceau?escu and currently based in Berlin, Ghenie has long been captivated by the darker forces that shaped the twentieth century and continue to impact our present. He often works from black-and-white photographs he finds online, zoning in on powerful figures and pivotal moments that have left indelible marks on history. His subjects have included scientists, artists and dictators, with a particular emphasis on the legacy of the Second World War, and on the looming spectre of fascism in all its forms. Darwin, whose theories of evolution and natural selection have been mendaciously seized and twisted by a number of racist, eugenicist and genocidal regimes, provides a fascinating fulcrum for these issues. As the curator Jasper Sharp writes, ‘The basis of [Darwin’s] theories lay in scholarly curiosity. Subjected over time to the mechanisms of corruption, they have led to the most terrible and dangerous ignorance. There is the world before Darwin, Ghenie points out, and the world after him. The two are very different places, a paradigm apart’ (J. Sharp, ‘The Flycatcher’, in Adrian Ghenie: Golems, exh. cat. Pace Gallery, London 2014, p. 7). The rich surface of Charles Darwin at the Age of 75 seems to enact the warping to which Darwin’s ideas have been subjected. The scientist’s face has even taken on an ape-like cast, perhaps reflecting the caricatures that mocked his ideas during his lifetime. Darwin is no longer in control of his image, and the picture churns in metamorphosis. Rather than offering any fixed viewpoint, Ghenie’s extraordinary paintwork asserts history— and Darwin’s place within it—as layered, mutable, and complex; the autumnal hues capture a scene of uncertainty and flux, as one season shifts into another.

In tandem with his dialogue with historical events, Ghenie’s work is animated by a deep love for the history of art. He hybridises, mutates and cross-pollinates ideas and techniques from a range of sources, creating his own unique species of painting. As a young painter, he sought to emulate artists like Rembrandt, to whom he had been drawn since he was a child: he concealed this interest from his teachers at the art academy in Cluj, who advocated an Abstract Expressionist style of painting. As his practice deepened, he began to enfold a kaleidoscopic array of allusion into his works, drawing on centuries of painterly achievement. In Charles Darwin at the Age of 75, the setting whirls with Baroque, chiaroscuro grandeur; Darwin’s face echoes the turbulent, ghostly visages of Francis Bacon; abstract passages invoke Richter’s scraping technique and the gestural vigour of de Kooning alike. ‘You can’t invent a painting from scratch; you are working with an entire tradition,’ Ghenie explains. ‘The pictorial language of the twentieth 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 in conversation with M. Radu, Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, exh. cat. Romanian Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia 2015, p. 31).

‘The surfaces have an eddying quality as though looking at the surface of water or into an aquarium … Fluctuations of this kind extend the metaphor pertaining to Darwin’s own personality and reputation’ Christopher Lloyd

Ghenie understands painting as a space of illusion. Like a cinema screen, the canvas is a surface for projecting stories through colour and form. ‘I’m jealous of the specific power of cinema to build a virtual state,’ he has said, ‘and of its capacity to break with reality. For two hours you’re completely under its spell! … I’d like to bring something of this magic, of this entire force, into painting’ (A. Ghenie in conversation with M. Pop, in ibid., p. 83). He especially admires the work of David Lynch, whose disquieting, dreamlike movies are laden with the sense that dark and mysterious currents are at work behind the scenes. It is no accident that Ghenie’s paintings are composed with a virtuoso sense of illumination, performance and suspense. Taking place on a vast, immersive scale, the present work is constructed like a stage, with the figure spotlit in dramatic focus and framed by carefully-deployed swathes of light and darkness. The same plastic chair on which Darwin sits—which can be found in Ghenie’s studio, and recurs in a number of paintings—in fact played a central role in the Darwin’s Room installation, where it was placed at a light-filled window beneath a spiral staircase. In his composition of this room and its objects, Ghenie again blurred the boundaries between painting and set design: its physical layout was based on Rembrandt’s 1632 painting Philosopher in Meditation.

‘Each of the portraits communicates an atmosphere of turbulence, its subject obscured and any great detail wilfully corrupted. They seem to play on Darwin’s inherent ambiguity, on the lingering sense of conflict that his name invariably evokes, without ever going so far as to cast judgment. He is, the paintings remind us, different things to different people’ Jasper Sharp

While he revels in painting’s theatricality, Ghenie also sees the medium as a way of restoring a form of material reality to the contemporary gaze. He speaks of remembering his own favourite paintings by their ‘temperature’: of experiencing them somatically, sensually, in a way that cannot be replicated through a flat digital display. ‘My generation knows what life was like before the Internet’, he says. ‘And so you still happen to hear echoes of the old world when you wake up in the morning … you realize that the world is changing its texture, is changing its skin. I am very sensitive to this aspect’ (A. Ghenie in conversation with M. Radu, in ibid., p. 32). By splicing, remixing and deconstructing different modes of representation, Ghenie’s paintings examine the various artificial lenses through which we see our present, as well as those which overlay our past. Charles Darwin at the Age of 75 glimmers like a mirage, on the verge of melting away. Yet to encounter it is also to feel a visceral, physical and vital presence—to be brought face to face with painting as a force of nature. While Ghenie explores the dark places of history, he also celebrates paint’s power to help us see the world and ourselves more clearly. In this sense, as quests for understanding complexity, his art and Darwin’s science are perhaps not so distantly related.

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