Adrian Ghenie (B. 1977)
Adrian Ghenie (B. 1977)

Flight into Egypt

Details
Adrian Ghenie (B. 1977)
Flight into Egypt
signed and dated 'Ghenie 2008' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
47 ¼ x 83 7/8 in. (120 x 213 cm.)
Painted in 2008.
Provenance
Galeria Plan B, Cluj
Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2008
Exhibited
Peekskill, Hudson Valley Center for Contemporary Art and Knoxville Museum of Art, After the Fall: 18 Artists from 6 Countries in Eastern and Central Europe, September 2010-February 2012, pp 11 and 48 (illustrated in color).

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Sara Friedlander
Sara Friedlander

Lot Essay

Adrian Ghenie’s haunting, cinematic paintings are encoded with the rich symbolism of fairy tales yet reference actual historic events, many of which he experienced firsthand as a child growing up under Nicolae Ceau?escu’s Communist regime. In Flight Into Egypt—an important, early work by the Romanian artist—Ghenie knowingly weaves a complex and dazzling tableaux of symbolic associations within a virtuosic painting that’s both terrifying and rapturous. Taking inspiration from the warmly-lit interior scenes of Rembrandt, in its soft palette of brown earth tones and golden light, Ghenie creates an evocative world in which decrepit planks of worn-out wood are interspersed with tree-like beams, shimmering in Klimt-like tones of gold, orange and yellow. Nearby, two figures linger within this enigmatic, closed-off space, both dressed in warm clothes and hat, while one of Ghenie’s powerful recurring motifs—a german shepherd—runs toward them in either friendly greeting or lethal attack. The overall dreamlike quality of the lavishly painted, panoramic work results from Ghenie’s brilliant hybridization of archival photographs, films, art historical sources and his own personal memories of growing up in the Eastern Bloc.

In this contemporary allegorical update of the original biblical narrative, Ghenie references two themes important to his work—exile and forced migration—in a profound painting that implies a breakdown of social order and the atrocities of the Nazi regime. Painted in 2008, Flight Into Egypt relates to a series of about eleven paintings that were exhibited in one of the artist’s first major shows in Berlin wherein Nazi references intermingled with brilliant passages of shimmering, abstract paint, to create strange and sinister imagery that has remained a hallmark of Ghenie’s style.

In Flight Into Egypt, Ghenie’s haunting, panoramic portrayal of two stranded figures set amidst a beautiful, but ruinous, tableau produces a strange and powerful reaction in the viewer. The painting’s lavish surface is nothing short of dazzling. The result of Ghenie’s painterly genius, it takes inspiration from such disparate sources as Chaim Soutine, Francis Bacon, Gerhard Richter, Jackson Pollock and Gustave Klimt. Areas of scraped and squeegeed paint—especially in Ghenie’s depictions of the decrepit wooden planks and round wooden beams—create a vivid, sensuous surface, while areas of dark black define the deep, shadowy recesses of Ghenie’s sinister world. He explains: “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.” (A. Ghenie, quoted in “Adrian Ghenie in conversation with Mihai Pop,” Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, exh. cat. Romanian Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia, 2015, p. 83)

In Flight Into Egypt, the two figures that Ghenie depicts exist in a nebulous limbo that alternately evokes an abandoned warehouse, a dense forest, an abandoned train station or a dank basement. Their anonymous, utilitarian clothing and the presence of a fierce german shepherd prompts associations of Nazi aggression, and the setting invokes imagery of the bombed-out subway stations of Europe and the train-cars used to transport jews to concentration camps. In this new and lavishly painted environment, Ghenie’s characters are recognized through the viewer’s own internal response, which hits upon deeply buried or subconscious remembrances that are in fact loaded with symbolic potential. As Valérie Knoll described in Artforum a year after Ghenie’s Flight Into Egypt was created: “His paintings allow us glimpses into the depths of evocative sites in which nebulous images from Eastern European history grip the viewer with uncanny force. The sharp chiaroscuro and a predilection for lighting effects reminiscent of film noir give many of these images a dramatic quality and transport the gaze into impenetrable zones of shadow. … Genie’s works [are] images of the past located halfway between fiction and appropriation [that] translate time and space.” (V. Knoll, “Adrian Ghenie: Haunch of Venison,” Artforum, Vol. 47, No. 53, April 2009, p. 385)

The large-scale, cinematic format of Ghenie’s paintings recalls the panoramic grandeur of 19th Century history paintings, and in Flight Into Egypt, Ghenie creates a contemporary allegorical update of the well-known biblical story in which Joseph, Mary and the Infant Jesus escape King Herod by fleeing into Egypt. Ghenie frequently invokes references to Renaissance and Baroque painting, and in Flight Into Egypt, he engages in a centuries-old tradition. Countless artists since the Byzantine period have rendered the story, and in Ghenie’s painting, he conflates his knowledge of the art historical tradition with the forced exile of the Jews during the Nazi regime.

Created at a crucial moment in his early career, Flight Into Egypt suggests the breakdown of societal order with its scraped and squeegeed paint, only to reiterate that history and politics are never fixed, but the result of ever-changing allegiances and alliances. Cinematic in scope, dazzling in terms of its painterly technique and haunting in the sinister quality of its imagery, Ghenie’s Flight Into Egypt is a provocative statement in which the artist confronts the powerful political history of his past with the symbolic tale of exile and redemption.

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