‘I like the difference between the official story and the personal perspective’
‘My work is less sociological, and more psychological. I seek images that go straight to your brain, which you can’t help but submit to’
In Lidless Eye (2015), Adrian Ghenie explores one of the most recognisable faces in art history. A swirling palimpsest of strokes conjures the passion and turmoil of the great Expressionist; his left eye and ear are suffused with violent deep purple, while swathes of auburn hair and skin blend in an impastoed vortex of features. A fractured, almost demonic visage emerges, somewhat reminiscent of the multifaceted faces of George Condo, while the background fades to a delicate, sepia-toned green. Amongst Ghenie’s recurring cast of historical characters, which ranges from Adolf Hitler to Elvis Presley, Vincent Van Gogh holds particular significance. Ghenie kept a print of Sunflowers, from the cover of a Romanian art magazine, under his pillow as a six-year-old; between 2012 and 2014 he painted several versions of his own portrait as Van Gogh, alongside self-portraits as Charles Darwin, another key figure in his pantheon. Upon first encountering the artist’s piercing stare in his 1889 self-portrait at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, Ghenie recognised an inward, self-critical gaze looking out at him. Van Gogh’s internal tumult, so intensely wrought on his countenance, provides a perfect vehicle for Ghenie’s interwoven expression of art history, European conflict and his own biography: the wild eye watching in this electrifying portrait has seen more than we can dream of, and challenges us to look away.
‘I am particularly interested,’ Ghenie has said, ‘in the state of exceptionality that characterizes everyday life in totalitarian regimes, not just Communism. In such circumstances everything is being distorted’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in M. Radu, ‘Adrian Ghenie: Rise & Fall,’ Flash Art, December 2009, p. 50). Works by Van Gogh were seized as ‘Degenerate Art’ as part of the despotic campaign to purge modern art from Germany; he thus takes a place in the 20th century history of violence and repression which fascinates Ghenie, who grew up in Romania under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceau?escu. His landmark work The Sunflowers in 1937 (2014) reimagines Van Gogh’s masterpiece on a vast scale in its death throes, burnt, warped and ruined by the ideological violence of the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition. Fertile as such associations are, however, the painterly ties between Van Gogh and Ghenie are perhaps more significant. Ghenie is a master of oil paint, bringing traditional training into conversation with a staged, filmic quality learned from David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock, and an acute awareness of the mercurial life of the modern image. Layering his canvas with searing force, he sends it out into the world to take its place among the iconic artefacts that permeate our visual consciousness. ‘My work is less sociological, and more psychological. I seek images that go straight to your brain, which you can’t help but submit to. If you paint a successful image, you’ll find it months later with a life of its own, scattered all over Google’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in S. Riolo, ‘Adrian Ghenie, Pie Eater,’ Art in America, 26 October 2010).
In terms of their approaches to image-making, there are surprising affinities between Ghenie and Van Gogh. Ghenie has said that ‘[a]n antagonism is embedded in my paintings … On one hand, I work on an image in an almost classical vein: composition, figuration, use of light. On the other hand, I do not refrain from resorting to all kinds of idioms, such as the surrealist principle of association or the abstract experiments which foreground texture and surface. If the distribution of elements is precisely premeditated, paint is nonetheless applied freely, with unbridled gestures’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in M. Radu, ‘Adrian Ghenie: Rise & Fall,’ Flash Art, December 2009, p. 49). Van Gogh, a man utterly dedicated to the exhilarating truth of his artistic vision, is clearly an inspirational figure in this sense: he too trod thorny ground between abstraction and figuration. In a letter to Emile Bernard in 1888, he wrote that ‘I won’t say that I don’t turn my back on nature ruthlessly in order to turn a study into a picture, arranging the colours, enlarging and simplifying; but in the matter of form I am too afraid of departing from the possible and the true … I exaggerate, sometimes I make changes in a motif, but for all that I do not invent the whole picture’ (V. Van Gogh, Letter to E. Bernard, Arles, 7 October 1888, The Complete Letters of Vincent van Gogh, London 1958, vol. 3, B19, p. 518). Similarly, in Lidless Eye Ghenie anchors his gestural invention and psychological intensity in a recognisable model. Van Gogh’s likeness is made jarring through its defamiliarisation, forcing us to acknowledge the ubiquity that has perhaps numbed us to some of its original force: through the power of paint Ghenie reassesses the face of one of its greatest masters, bringing him very much alive into our ruptured and saturated age of images.