Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977)
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Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977)

Study for "The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute"

Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977)
Study for "The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute"
oil on canvas
69 ½ x 45 5/8in. (176.5 x 116cm.)
Painted in 2011
Haunch of Venison, London.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2011.
J. Judin (ed.), Adrian Ghenie, Ostfildern-Ruit 2014, p. 87 (illustrated in colour, p. 86).
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Lot Essay

‘I am interested in the presence of evil, or more precisely, how the possibility for evil is found in every endeavour, even in those scientific projects which set out to benefit mankind’
–Adrian Ghenie

‘The artist has situated the right hand of Mengele centrally within the composition but has painted it to look as if it had been actually flayed. It eloquently echoes the tissue-exposed anatomical half-torso beyond, and Mengele with a wolf-like grin is showing his mouth with teeth that are visibly bared. The horrors of extracted gold teeth, flayed skin, and immortal pseudoscientific anatomical dissections (and not least his experimentation with twins) were of course part of Mengele’s supposed research when in charge of the racial hygiene and eugenically motivated medical unit at Auschwitz’
–Mark Gisbourne

Painted in 2011, Study for “The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute” takes its place within Adrian Ghenie’s series of portraits depicting Doctor Josef Mengele. Emerging from viscous layers of pigment, scraped and smeared down the length of the picture plane, his eerily familiar form is illuminated within a dark void. An anatomical torso flickers behind in the half-light, evoking the clinical setting denoted by the work’s title. Within a practice that has sought to visualise the workings of individual and collective memory through paint, the ghostly figures and institutions of the Third Reich stand among Ghenie’s most important subjects. Like Charles Darwin, Vincent van Gogh and Elvis, the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute represents a turning point in the artist’s understanding of global history. ‘We inevitably live in a post-WWII epoch’, he explains, ‘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 & Fall,’ Flash Art, December 2009, p. 49). Unlike previous depictions of Mengele, which had focused on his head and torso, the present work offers a full-length vision stretching nearly two metres in height. Taking cues from the histories of painting and cinema, Ghenie reduces his form to a molten, blurred mass of paint, eroding its contours to the point of illegibility. His form is at once a hazy apparition, consigned to the realms of fiction, and an all-tooreal exposure, brought from the depths of history into the immediate, tangible present. Through the pliable substance of paint, Ghenie re-enacts the slippages and ambiguities that define our relationship with the past.

Inspired by the work of Francis Bacon, David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock, among others, Ghenie’s portrayals of Mengele confront the darkest depths of the human condition. His celebrated series of Pie Fight paintings, many of which consciously evoked Third Reich officials, debased their controversial subjects with comedic swathes of custard, rendered in thick, irrefutable impasto. By recasting historical villains as victims of public gunging and humiliation, Ghenie sought to expose the ways in which their images are entrenched in collective consciousness. The present work, with its thick painterly surface and figural distortions, is born of a similar impulse. Unplanned abrasions, drips and splatters, characterised by Ghenie as ‘staged accidents’, litter the surface of the painting, creating richly expressive layers and textures. However, any attempt to bring himself closer to the subject is immediately counteracted by a sense of dream-like transfiguration: an act of distancing that shrouds the figure in dim lighting and surreal fantasy. ‘In terms of composition, colors, atmosphere, I borrow many things from cinema’, he has said, citing David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock in particular (A. Ghenie, quoted in R. Wolff, ‘Adrian Ghenie The Past is Present-And Never Resolved-In the Romanian Artist’s Absorbing, Ambiguous Canvases’, Art + Auction, March 2013). Here, Mengele’s form dissolves into a watery trompe l’oeil: a trick of the light, or an indeterminate moment of déjà-vu. By leading the viewer’s eye through layers of paint to the inescapable fact beneath, Ghenie lays bare our instinct to look away.

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