Adrian Ghenie, ‘Self-Portrait as a Monkey’, 2010, Phillips

From the Catalogue:
Thematically surreal and stylistically visceral, Ghenie’s Self-Portrait as a Monkey exemplifies the artist’s unique painterly idiom and the astute lens through which he probes the uncomfortable ambiguities of human history. Against a gestural haze of emotive washes the artist interplays brush and palette knife to subtly imbue his visage with the features of a primate. With this conflation of man and monkey, Ghenie instantaneously conjures the most influential scientific theory of modern history: evolutionary biology as first expressed in Charles Darwin’s defining 1859 text The Origin of Species. As such, Self-Portrait as a Monkey is an important painting in Ghenie’s oeuvre and stands as a crucial precursor to his seminal 2015 Venice Biennale exhibition, Darwin’s Room, which interrogated the scientist’s multivalent legacy, including the harrowing ideology of eugenics as developed by the Nazi party in the Third Reich. Galvanised by this critically acclaimed show and reflected in the acquisition of paintings by numerous international public institutions in recent years, Ghenie has become inarguably one of the most important and coveted painters of his generation.

Drawing from the existentialism of Francis Bacon’s iconic bestial figures, here Ghenie’s stark profile dominates the frame. An economy of detail focuses our attention on his pensive stare and a line of cerebral concentration that cuts through abstract space into the eyes of an eerily drafted dog. The work’s uncanny life-like proportions further integrate us in what at first appears to be a psychological confrontation between man and beast, however the figure’s unsettling simian features profoundly confuse this dichotomy. Supplanting a throne for his studio chair, Ghenie amplifies his farcical take on a familiar trope of historic portraiture; a man at his seat of power. As such, the artist recalls the controversy surrounding the publication of Darwin’s then-staunchly sacrilegious The Origin of Species, and the critical cartoons made by his contemporaries. Ghenie has himself noted that: “He was caricatured during that period, as it was easy to transform him into a monkey” (Adrian Ghenie in conversation with Magda Radu, in: Exh. Cat., Venice, Romanian Pavilion at the 56th International Art Exhibition, La Bienale di Venezia, Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, p. 29).

As a young Romanian growing up in the shadow of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s savage dictatorship, the weight of Europe’s darkest times have influenced Ghenie’s semantic methods. Here an element of the absurd acknowledges the futility of attempts to express the tragic magnitude of the most harrowing atrocities committed by mankind -mass genocide and specifically the holocaust. The monkey face becomes a softer way to consider the sinister campaigns that were developed to strip targeted groups of their humanity in order to justify and encourage their persecution by the wider populous.

Transforming himself into a less evolved and primal species, Ghenie also acknowledges the totalitarian cultural policing of the Nazi Party and how some of the greatest avant-garde artists of the 20th century were branded ‘degenerate’. Facing the past whilst celebrating art’s eventual liberation, Ghenie’s luscious surface of enthralling brushwork vibrates with what he has described as “the texture of history” (Ibid., p. 29). Self-Portrait as a Monkey exemplifies Ghenie’s embrace of his status as a truly post-modern painter, now outside of the preceding (modernist) trajectory of visual evolution from realism to abstraction. Instead he composes a trans-historical dialogue of varied stylistic influences: from the radical nineteenth century realism of Édouard Manet to the squeegee abstractions of Gerhard Richter. By casting himself as both a ‘devolved’ species and a ‘degenerate’ artist, Ghenie’s offers a lesson for the future that foregrounds free thought and the avant-garde as the driving force of culture. As such, he expounds a nuanced view of the history of human experience that confronts both light and dark.
Courtesy of Phillips

Signature: signed and dated 'Ghenie 2010' on the reverse

Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2010

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