Adrian Ghenie, ‘Burning Books’, 2014, Phillips

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From the Catalogue:
Adrian Ghenie’s Burning Books, 2014, expertly traverses the boundaries between abstraction and figuration. An exquisite example of the artist’s exploration of collective memory, the work reconfirms his status as one of the most celebrated contemporary painters practising today. Evoking the sinister history of the National Socialist regime, Burning Books is a psychologically charged depiction of the destruction of cultural worth. The sumptuous palette of scraped and swirled paint suggests the dark sky and levitating smouldering pages which float towards the heavens in great whirls of smoke. Rendered in perfected impasto, the present work encapsulates Ghenie’s engagement with the horrors of fascism, whilst also serving as a paradigm of contemporary painting.

The book burning in front of the Humboldt University on the 10th May 1933 has etched itself in the cultural memory of twentieth century European history. Exuding an atmosphere of decay and destruction, the bright orange flames rage, fuelled by the pyre of stacked books; illuminated against the eerie night sky the fire spits insidiously from the bonfire. Following the wisps of translucent smoke the viewer’s gaze rises to the dreamlike swirls of pink and blues, eventually reaching the scraped flurry of sooty paint in the night sky. The monstrosity of the scene is beguiling through the juxtaposition of the harsh obliterating qualities of the fire with the lyrical arrangement of colourful brushstrokes that seem to dance in the smoke above the inferno below. This colourful contrast against the sombre palette enlivens the scene, transporting the viewer from the black and white infamous image of the book burnings, to a temporal reality where we are physically viewing the act in hyped technicolour.

Addressing the traumatic histories of twentieth century Europe, Burning Books draws on the visceral brushwork of Francis Bacon and the textural layering of Anselm Kiefer. Opening a frank dialogue with the past, the work is multi-layered in meaning; both reflective of historical events, drawing upon iconic characters from history, Ghenie’s constructed worlds span the stratums of the artistic canon. The paint has been dripped, poured and scraped across the canvas, destroying the flatness of the plane to highlight the emotional intensity of the piece. Thick impasto is applied and then furiously removed from the canvas and this violence of method contrasts the gentle dream-like swirling brushstrokes intermingled in the soft mist of smoke. The spectator is confronted with thick slashes of paint, which lends the work an almost three-dimensionality, transporting us to that rainy evening at Bebelplatz, Berlin.

A member of the Cluj School in Romania, Ghenie grew up under the repressive Communist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu and echoes of this restrictive regime can be heard across his oeuvre. The visceral pictorial language of his painting has gained him international acclaim and in 2015, a year after the present work was executed, Ghenie represented Romania at the Venice Biennale. The artist’s decision to use the medium of painting to address the decimation of culture suggests a small victory, a liberating act of expression which cannot be quashed.
Courtesy of Phillips

Signature: signed and dated 'Ghenie 2014' on the reverse

Galeria Plan B, Berlin
Acquired from the above by the present owner

About Adrian Ghenie

In his darkly disturbing works, Cluj School painter Adrian Ghenie weaves together personal and collective memories and fears to address the traumas of 20th-century European history. Recalling the textural richness of Northern European Renaissance painting, Ghenie depicts figurative imagery in contrasting states of clarity, fluidity, and decay, dripping and pouring paint, scraping surfaces, and deploying strong chiaroscuro. His works reveal a preoccupation with 20th-century political and scientific ideologies, such as Communism and eugenics, and references to figures like Marcel Duchamp, German SS officer and physician Josef Mengele, and Charles Darwin figure heavily in his oeuvre.

Romanian, b. 1977, Baia Mare, Romania, based in Cluj, Romania; Berlin; London