Adrian Ghenie. The Graces

18 Nov 2017 – 3 Feb 2018

Galerie Judin

Berlin, Germany


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The open­ing of Adrian Ghenie’s exhi­bi­tion The Graces marks—to the day—the 10th anniver­sary of his first solo exhi­bi­tion for gal­lerist Juerg Judin.


The works in that exhi­bi­tion, Shadow of a Daydream, were all painted in muted, somber col­ors that upon closer inspec­tion were revealed as rich hues of unexpected var­i­ety and depth. Cre­ated at the very be­gin­ning of his career, they attested to what would make his paint­ings so dis­tinc­tive, rel­evant and ulti­mately influ­en­tial: his abil­ity to stage his per­sonal expe­r­i­ence of history, an under­stand­ing of the col­lec­tive mem­ory and his profound knowl­edge of art history in complex, mul­ti­lay­ered and sug­ges­tive paint­ings. In the ten years that fol­lowed this aus­picious be­gin­ning, Ghenie’s paint­ings have gained color and mate­r­i­al­ity—at the same time as they have become more abs­tract. He applies paint in broad brushstrokes, only to scrape it off the canvas. The richly tex­tured surfaces are the yield of what could be described as ‘action paint­ing’, reveal­ing the scars of the tackling that occurs dur­ing the artist’s bat­tle with his sub­ject. In his endeavor to fuse image and paint­ing, Ghenie welcomes ‘acci­dents’, alternat­ing between action and reac­tion.

In The Graces, Ghenie is not pre­sent­ing a homoge­nous group of works, as regards either the sub­ject mat­ters or the media he uses. As is often the case in his gallery exhi­bi­tions, Ghenie combines revis­i­ta­tions of sub­jects that he has explored in pre­vi­ous exhi­bi­tions with entirely new picto­rial inven­tions. Seasoned vis­itors of Ghenie exhi­bi­tions know that they will expe­r­i­ence both, the pleasure and comfort of recog­ni­tion, as well as the shock of the new. In this exhi­bi­tion (and the simulta­ne­ous exhi­bi­tion at Gale­ria Plan B), Ghenie reveals his skills as a drafts­man in a group of large charcoal draw­ings. This surpris­ing and highly successful foray into a, for him, new technique con­cerns both the con­tin­u­a­tion of the Berghof se­ries, and the new thematic groups.

Ghenie’s fas­cina­tion with the Berghof, Hitler’s hol­i­day retreat in the Bavar­ian mountains, can be traced back to a paint­ing he made in 2008. It showed an untidy stack of presum­ably stolen paint­ings left behind by Nazi lead­ers. The next Berghof, painted in 2012, did not allude to the chaos of the inglo­ri­ous end of Hitler’s rule, but rather showed a peaceful scene with a seated male fig­ure on the famous terrace, looking onto the spectac­u­lar alpine panorama. In the new Berghof paint­ings, the mon­u­mental Alpine Retreat 2, Study for ‘Alpine Retreat 2’ and Berghof,as well as the large charcoal draw­ing The Happy Host and the collage The Way of All Flesh, Ghenie returns to the iconic terrace. It is the unsettling histor­ical footage of Hitler as a fam­ily man, friendly uncle and car­ing partner of Eva Braun, that fuel the artist’s imag­ina­tion. All the while, the fact that in Alpine Retreat 2 Eva Braun can be seen as being preg­nant starts off a whole differ­ent movie in the view­ers mind.

Both the large paint­ing Hunt­ing Scene and the charcoal draw­ing The Hunter are based on a typ­ical genre paint­ing by a minor Dutch mas­ter, which Ghenie dis­cov­ered in the Her­mitage. In it, a well-dressed hunts­man, flanked by his loyal dogs, stands in a graceful pose and looks confi­dently at the viewer. In the draw­ing, Ghenie picks up on this fig­ure’s grace, dis­clos­ing the pos­si­ble ori­gin of the com­po­si­tion. In the paint­ing, how­ever, only the dogs are dis­tin­guish­able, in the foreground of a furi­ous landscape. Rampant abs­trac­tion has gained the upper hand in this com­po­si­tion.

Beauty of a more con­cealed nature emerges from the paint­ing Grace and the charcoal draw­ing of the same title. The fig­ure of the walking woman, if it is indeed a woman, reminds us of the voluptuous­ness that was the def­i­ni­tion of female beauty in the days of Rubens. Ghenie is reflect­ing on the pre­em­i­nence of light skin (i.e. the ‘Cau­casian race’) in art history. It’s not just Euro­pean art that favored a white complexion. In Asian art from past cen­turies, the depic­tion of human flesh rarely relates to the darker skin color of the local pop­u­la­tions. This is a phe­nomenon that Ghenie intends to address in future works. The fig­ure’s lat­eral pose is atyp­ical in West­ern art history—it reminds us of Muybridge’s pio­neer­ing photo­graphic studies of motion. And indeed, the paint­ing is based on a black & white photo­graph of the artist’s mother walking on a Black Sea beach.

In The Toy, the white­ness of the fig­ure’s skin con­trasts sharply with the rich reds of the background. The fig­ure’s gen­der is unclear, but since it has shoul­dered a rifle, we assume it’s a boy. Like the female fig­ure in Grace, the body in this paint­ing seems over­ex­posed by an unlocat­able source of light.

The three self-por­traits in the exhi­bi­tion are a con­tin­u­a­tion of Ghenie’s exam­ina­tion of his own phys­iog­nomy. Recently, the por­tray­als have become more and more decon­struc­tivist. In the paint­ing On the Beach, we see him sitt­ing in front of a spectac­u­lar seascape. It, too, is com­posed in a decon­struc­tivist manner, made up of oddly shaped ele­ments in col­ors that we don’t nec­es­sar­ily asso­ciate with water. The artist has painted him­self face­less, rec­og­niz­able only by his silhou­ette, famil­iar from many other self-por­traits. His desire to merge his own face with that of a histor­ical fig­ure (Darwin, van Gogh, Hitler) or an ani­mal seems to have given way to a more exis­ten­tial­ist inquiry into human nature—using his own face as read­ily avai­l­able stand-in for the common man.

Exhibiting artists

Adrian Ghenie


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