‘What interests me is the texture of history’
Monumental in scale and cinematic in scope, Adrian Ghenie’s The Collector 4 is a masterpiece of painterly and psychological drama. In a dimly-lit chamber, a man lies unconscious upon a bed, surrounded by spectral artworks. Pigment drips down the walls like molten lava, coalescing in thick visceral strands before dispersing into shifting, shimmering layers. Painted in 2009, it is the last and most complex work in Ghenie’s landmark series of four canvases on the subject of ‘the collector’. Drawing together political and art historical narratives, these works are virtuosic essays on themes of power, corruption and mania. The protagonist is Hermann Göring: the notorious Nazi military leader, whose position allowed him to assemble a collection of over 2000 looted artworks. Within an oeuvre that asks how we process images of historic figures, Ghenie’s portraits of Göring stand among his most psychologically charged. Whilst other paintings in the series depict him as a tyrant surveying his spoils, the present work captures him on his deathbed, his pose based on a photograph taken shortly after his suicide. Above him, like a nightmarish visitation, hangs John Heartfield and Rudolf Schlichter’s Prussian Archangel: a subversive Dada assemblage famously accused of defaming the German military. A bull’s head protrudes from the canvas below, like a Picasso painting brought to life. The room dissolves into hallucinogenic strata of paint, pushing the composition to the brink of abstraction. It is a portrait of a man haunted by art: one who ‘sacrificed his humanity for his obsession’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in J. Neal, ‘Adrian Ghenie’, Art Review, December 2010, p. 69).
Raised in Romania under Nicolae Ceau?escu’s dictatorial regime, Ghenie’s oeuvre seeks to interrogate the way history becomes ingrained in our collective consciousness. His work is populated by the shadows of men who changed its course: from Charles Darwin and Vincent Van Gogh to Fascist and Communist leaders. In much of his practice, these figures are treated less as traditional portrait subjects than as vehicles for examining our relationship with the past. His depictions of Göring, he explains, are thus something of an exception. ‘I was more interested in his personality’, he asserts; ‘for me, he truly embodied the archetype of the rapacious collector. I tried to grasp the psychological complexity of this man driven by a collecting bulimia, which in the end was totally compromised by his power’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in M. Radu, ‘Adrian Ghenie: Rise and Fall’, https:// www.flashartonline.com/article/adrian-ghenie/ [accessed 3 January 2019]). Ghenie’s allusion to Prussian Archangel is significant in this regard. Depicting a German soldier with a pig’s head, it was a centrepiece of the First International Dada Fair in Berlin in 1920. Works of this kind would later be termed ‘entartete Kunst’ (‘degenerate art’) by the Nazis, and were routinely confiscated from institutions on the grounds of public unsuitability. The original Prussian Archangel held a mocking sign reading ‘In order to understand this work of art completely, one should drill daily for twelve hours with a heavily packed knapsack in full marching order in the Tempelhof Field’. In the present work, Ghenie replaces it with a neutral landscape painting of the state- sanctioned variety, thereby casting it as a warped figment of Göring’s imagination. The sculpture, along with the theme of degenerate art, recurs throughout the artist’s oeuvre in various guises.
Ghenie is fascinated by painting’s ability to breathe sensory life into its subjects. The flat surfaces of photography and digital screens, he believes, serve to distance us from the visceral reality of the past. ‘I’m talking precisely about an epoch when the images spread by communist propaganda were devoid of textures’, he explains in conversation with gallerist Mihai Pop. ‘For instance,’ Pop responds, ‘when you paint Hermann Göring as an art collector, by paying special attention to texture you probably restore a psychological component that cannot be found in photographs of that period.’ ‘You cannot find it at all’, replies Ghenie. ‘His sunken cheeks, turned purple after the extensive use of morphine and alcohol, do not show in photos’ (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. 84). In seeking to rematerialize his subjects, Ghenie draws upon a rich understanding of art history: his handling of paint conjures memories of Caravaggio, Goya, Chaïm Soutine, Vincent Van Gogh, Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter. In compositional terms, his theatrical tableaux draw heavily upon the influence of cinema, most notably the films of David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock. In the present work, Göring is cast as both fact and illusion – a raw, carnal specimen simultaneously poised on the edge of total dissolution. This, for Ghenie, is where painting’s true power lies: in bringing us face to face with ‘the texture of history’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in ‘Adrian Ghenie in Conversation with Magda Radu,’ Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, exh. cat., Romanian Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia, 2015, p. 29).