Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977) has never shied away from confronting the big figures in history — both good and bad. The subjects of his paintings include Josef Stalin, Vincent van Gogh, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, and the Nazi physician Josef Mengele. At 2015’s Venice Biennale, he dedicated a whole pavilion to Charles Darwin.
‘Ghenie is inspired by big personalities, by people who’ve changed the course of civilisation,’ says Cristian Albu, Co-Head of Post-War & Contemporary Art at Christie’s London. ‘His works always have a story to tell, and the historical figures are an entry point for viewers into those stories.’
In The Collector 4, which is offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 6 March, the subject is Hermann Göring. In this large-format oil painting the Nazi Reichsmarschall can be seen on his deathbed in a dimly lit chamber, the pose based on a photograph taken shortly after his suicide in 1946.
The title refers to the fact that, beyond politics, Göring had been an avid art collector, who owned more than 4,000 works by the end of the Second World War — many of them looted. The Collector 4 duly features a large, Picasso-like canvas (featuring a bull), up against which Göring’s head seems to rest. It is the fourth and final work in a series called ‘The Collector’, the other three all showing the German alive, well and admiring his art.
‘It’s a dark and devastating image,’ says Albu, ‘the culmination of a dark and devastating series. How are we to reconcile Göring’s appreciation and affinity for painting when he felt no empathy or sympathy whatsoever for other human beings — human beings whose deaths he sanctioned in such huge numbers? How could such an evil spirit have it in his soul to be moved by art? It’s part of Ghenie’s genius to present us with a conundrum such as this.’
The sense of conundrum is also reflected in the way the artist employs his paint. Several passages of the composition are abstract, most notably the wall on the left, down which pigment drips like molten lava.
Ghenie is fond of using a tool called the squeegee: a rectangular sheet of Perspex, which he scrapes across the surface of a picture while the recently applied paint is still wet. Its main effect is to blur, which often renders a scene or its elements spectral, such as is the case with Göring’s face.
‘This is anything but a clear, straightforward picture,’ Albu maintains. ‘The switches from figurative to abstract leave you asking, as a viewer, what actually is it you are looking at, as well as wondering how it is we process images of famous figures from history.’
The leading exponent of the squeegee in contemporary art is Gerhard Richter, although it’s another painter with whom Ghenie’s images are most readily associated: Francis Bacon. The Irish-born British painter specialised in isolated, human figures with violently distorted features and skin that appears to be melting before our eyes, much as Göring’s does in The Collector 4.
‘Ghenie was born in Romania during the [24-year] Ceaușescu regime,’ says Albu. ‘He saw the bad side of totalitarian rule, and in Bacon he found examples of demonised humanity that resonated with him’.
Ghenie was one of a number of Romanian artists who emerged in the wake of Ceaușescu’s fall in 1989, and the failed governments that followed. According to Albu, upheaval served as ‘a catalyst for young painters to express their sorrows and frustrations in art.’
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Many of these painters were based in Cluj, Romania’s second city, working out of Fabrica de Pensule, a one-time paintbrush factory that was converted into a contemporary arts space in 2009. They became known as the Cluj School, and Ghenie emerged as its undoubted star. In 2016, his painting Nickelodeon sold for £7.1 million at Christie’s London, a world auction record for the artist.
‘Nickelodeon was a transformative moment for Ghenie’s market,’ notes Albu. ‘Since then, things have been incredible. Every season, you see a work of his score big at auction. There’s an awareness that he’s the torch-bearer for painting in the 21st century.’
But it’s not just the market that’s responding to him; major museums and galleries are following suit. A solo exhibition at a big London institution is set to be announced very soon.
There’s a final detail of The Collector 4 that’s worth noting, says Albu. At the top of the painting, Ghenie has depicted a landmark work of the Dada movement: John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter’s 1920 sculpture, Prussian Archangel, of a German soldier with a pig’s head. Dada works would come to be dubbed ‘degenerate’ (entartete) by the Nazis and outlawed — yet here Prussian Archangel can be seen hovering over Göring’s body in what looks like triumph, as if to say art will always overcome censorship.
‘Ghenie is a master of telling many stories in a single painting,’ declares Albu. ‘And those stories usually drill deep into people’s souls.’