Adrian Ghenie 'I Have Turned My Only Face…'
As a boy Adrian Ghenie came across a catalogue of Dutch paintings from The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, which had a profound effect on him, forming the basis for his encyclopaedic knowledge of art history. In his solo exhibition in the White Hall at the Hermitage Museum, “I have turned my only face…” Paintings by Adrian Ghenie, the artist’s new works make reference to the work of the Old Masters in an artistic homage to the museum’s collection.
I remember there was a window open and a curtain blowing in the wind; this detail and the memory of it gave me a lot of peace. To me the museum felt like a home for art, not like a temple to art.
– Adrian Ghenie recalling his first visit to the museum in 2017
Taking its title from 'On horseback at dawn' by Romanian poet Nichita Stănescu (1933–1983), the exhibition is curated by Dmitry Ozerkov, Head of the Hermitage's Department of Contemporary Art, and Anastasia Veyalko, Junior Researcher and supported by Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac. In these new works the artist has deconstructed the image more than ever before, inviting the viewer to decipher the shifting forms in his sensuously painted canvases. As he describes, ‘the eyes don’t recognise the figure but the brain knows it is there’. These works continue Ghenie’s sustained engagement with the history of painting, recontextualising the aesthetic strategies of his predecessors, including Henri Rousseau, Vincent van Gogh and Théodore Géricault.
The dialogue Ghenie establishes with the Dutch Old Masters is conveyed with particular intensity as they hang in the same museum space. The fact that the viewer is able to repeat the artist’s journey and walk through the galleries that house these masterpieces is a unique situation. The locus of the Hermitage galleries forms a particular world of references and symbols in which Ghenie’s paintings exist.
– Anastasia Veyalko
Ghenie's The Hunter (2019) relates to Hunter with Dog in a Landscape (1625) by the Flemish painter Jan Wildens (1586–1653), which has formed the basis for several paintings and a related drawing also on view. The original is a typical genre scene in which a huntsman, flanked by his three dogs, stands in a confidently contrapposto pose, holding the rabbit he has caught. In Ghenie’s version the hunter is virtually subsumed by a maelstrom of textures, barely recognisable through the diagonals of his staff and leg, and the two abstracted dogs at his feet. Taking its title and subject from the 1649 painting Farm by Paulus Potter (1625–1654), which the artist has known since childhood, Ghenie’s riff on the theme conveys the impression of a writhing animal mass against a backdrop of corrugated iron and sunset sky, identifiable as cattle from the repeating horn shapes. Sharing the Old Masters’ fundamental concerns with both composition and colour, the works that Ghenie has selected are characteristic of genre and landscape painting of the period, and therefore their representative function is more important to him than their individual status.
Ghenie’s work does not break with tradition but is linked to it through the introduction of a whole system of readable allusions: recognisable subjects, details, colour tones. He establishes particular interrelationships with the art of the past, entering into dialogue with it, as if constantly looking back to his own childhood memories. In searching for a creative tension between abstraction and figuration, Ghenie makes paintings that are similar to traditional oil paintings but the techniques he uses to apply the paints are by no means traditional. – Anastasia Veyalko
Throughout his oeuvre, Ghenie interweaves his situation with his state of mind, oscillating between the personal and the collective to create works that are simultaneously sensitive and provocative, embracing uncomfortable themes with a boldness that harks back to the innovatiions of his predecessors. Henri Rousseau (1844–1910) has long been a figure of fascination for Ghenie, who he regards as ‘the first abstract painter’ due to Rousseau’s detached treatment of surface composed of flat, overlapping planes and grids that foreshadowed many aspects of Modernism. Ghenie’s recent exhibition Jungles in Paris at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac Paris is testament to his sustained engagement with the French artist and his second rendition of Antelope Attacked Near Gas Pipe further explores this violent yet seductive subject. A similar scene is depicted in Ghenie’s Untitled (after Rousseau) (2019), based on Kunstmuseum Basel’s Jungle with Setting Sun (1910), in which a dark figure wrestles with a wild jaguar against the tumultuous sky. In The Raft 2 (2019), Ghenie also reprises his contemporary analogue to The Raft of the Medusa (c. 1818–19) by Théodore Géricault (1791–1824), a previous version of which was recently exhibited at Palazzo Cini during the Venice Biennale. Ghenie depicts a mass of vulnerable limbs against the turbulent blue sea and sky, reminiscent of the harrowing images on the news, showing the perilous journeys that refugees are forced to make to flee conflicts.
Continuing his six-year series of ‘hybrid self-portraits’, Ghenie’s small but intense canvas Lidless Eye (2019) is inspired by Vincent van Gogh’s late Self-Portrait from 1889. When he visited Paris as a student in 1988, Ghenie’s first encounter with this famous painting in the Musée d’Orsay had a profound psychological impact on him. One of the most distinctive examples of portraiture, Ghenie painted Self-Portrait as Vincent van Gogh in 2012, before expanding and elaborating upon this theme in a number of works created between 2015 and 2017. As the artist has explained, ‘What intrigued me about van Gogh is this difference between the reality of his actual existence, which was a complete nightmare from top to bottom, and van Gogh the cliché, which is a beautiful fantasy.’ In this work, van Gogh’s distinctive features are combined with Ghenie’s own, visually representing the processes of inspiration and influence. The title reflects Ghenie’s belief that artists perceive the world differently – their eyes are lidless because the creative mind never sleeps, but is always watching and looking.
Ghenie’s artistic method can be seen as a search for ideas in the real world that then undergo various transformations. By bringing these subjects, inspired by the world around him, into the new context of artistic space, he reveals them in an entirely different way: the original motif he encountered becomes subordinate to his own vision, to a new interpretation, to a mixture of other motifs; to a process of simplification or, on the contrary of complexifying through the addition of details. Ghenie’s childhood exemplars of Old-Master paintings are now replaced by his own memories and spontaneous feelings, which he transforms within the pictorial space. – Anastasia Veyalko
The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated catalogue that includes an interview with Adrian Ghenie and essays by the curators.