With its cinematic painterly surface stretching two metres in height, Self-Portrait in 1945 is a dark, apocalyptic vision from Adrian Ghenie’s celebrated series of self-portraits. Painted in 2014, the year before he represented Romania at the Venice Biennale, it is the only work to date to depict the artist in his studio. Amid thick layers of paint, streaked with electric flashes of impasto, he hovers surrounded by stacked canvases. Anachronistically clad in New Balance trainers, his face is bloodied to the point of anonymity. With his left arm is seemingly raised in salute, his hand mutates into a monstrous, engorged silhouette. Evocative of the satyr’s head that appears elsewhere in Ghenie’s oeuvre, it conjures memories of Francisco Goya’s The Witches’ Sabbath (1797-98), whose horned protagonist is bathed in the same eerie moonlight. Casting himself as an enigmatic time-traveller, Ghenie shifts seamlessly between art-historical role play and the trauma of the recent past. Where he had previously depicted himself as Charles Darwin, Vincent van Gogh and Elvis Presley, the present work probes a much weightier theme: the end of the Second World War, and the fall of the Third Reich. References to modern dictatorships recur throughout Ghenie’s practice, closely linked to his own upbringing under Nicolae Ceau?escu’s regime. Here, the artist inserts himself into one of the twentieth-century’s most pivotal epochs, confronting a complex, intangible moment through visceral painterly fantasy. ‘What interests me’, he says, ‘is the texture of history’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, exh. cat., Romanian Pavilion, Biennale de Venezia, 2015, p. 29).
Ghenie is fascinated by the figures, periods and ideas that, for better or worse, changed society’s course. Whilst much of his oeuvre references Europe’s violent political past – most notably the rise of Nazism and Communism – the artist insists that these are not his subjects per se. ‘Van Gogh, Elvis, Darwin, Hitler, Stalin, Lenin … what do they have in common?’, he asks. ‘If you think about it they are all figures that changed the contemporary paradigms of their times’ (A. Ghenie, quoted in Adrian Ghenie, exh. cat., Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp, 2014, unpaged). Having watched Ceau?escu executed on television in 1989, Ghenie is particularly interested in how the reality of these seismic shifts is dulled over time by printed and digital images. Through his thick, carnal handling of paint, he seeks to reanimate his subjects, stripping away their glossy flatness and injecting colour and texture into their flesh. ‘He researches their lives, studying them meticulously in text and image’, writes James Hall; ‘then finally, in his own portraits and self-portraits, he jettisons his research, and enacts a brutal kind of makeover and identity theft’ (J. Hall, ‘Adrian Ghenie: Self-Portrait in a Convulsive Mirror’, in Adrian Ghenie: New Paintings, exh. cat., Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, London, 2015). In Self-Portrait in 1945, Ghenie casts himself as history’s new narrator, wending his way between past and present. Interestingly, the combined reference to contemporary footwear and Greek mythology would feature again in one of his 2015 Venice Biennale paintings, this time in relation to Darwin (Darwin and the Satyr, 2015).
Woven into Ghenie’s ‘identity theft’ is a sharp engagement with the combined histories of art and cinema. The influence of Francis Bacon is palpable in the painterly violence he enacts upon his subjects, whilst his handling of abstract texture recalls Gerhard Richter’s squeegeed surfaces. Compositionally, Ghenie is inspired by the films of David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock, imbuing his works with dark, atmospheric suspense. His fluid, expressionistic command of pigment is shot through with the spectre of Van Gogh, whose own 1889 self-portrait famously caused Ghenie to be physically sick when he first saw it in the Musée d’Orsay. More broadly, the nature of the present work invites comparison with Edvard Munch’s Self-Portrait in Hell (1903), as well as the self-portraits of artists such as Egon Schiele and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who painted themselves as soldiers and martyrs in a bid to interrogate the spirit of their times. Further links might also be drawn with Georg Baselitz’s ‘Heroes’ of the mid-1960s: isolated wanderers, conceived as ciphers for the artist himself, who emerge like vagrants from the rubble of the Second World War. ‘There is an iconoclastic rapture about Ghenie’s presence in his own pictures’, writes Hall (J. Hall, ibid.). In the act of inscribing himself into history, Ghenie makes a case for the power of paint to revivify the past.