The Historical and Contemporary Painting of Adrian Ghenie

Adrian Ghenie, Romania 1977. Photo: widewalls.ch
Adrian Ghenie, Romania 1977. Photo: widewalls.ch

Adrian Ghenie’s work is characterized by macabre landscapes and disfigured figures where he investigates the violent aspects of European history. Adrian Ghenie is a contemporary Romanian painter born on August 13, 1977, in Baia Mare. He is currently living and working in Berlin, Germany. He co-founded the Plan B Gallery in Cluj (a city in northwestern Romania) which opened in 2005, after graduating from the University of Art and Design in Cluj in 2001. The Gallery was an exhibition space that was later expanded to Berlin.

The Fake Rothko (2010) is his best known painting. It shows a man who seems to have arcades, next to a Rothko painting leaning against a wall. This painting is an example of the artist’s material approach. In this work the paint strokes display a figure sitting against a wall that has been produced with stains, drips and splashes of the same oil paint.

Style & Works

Ghenie is recognized as one of the most famous painters of his generation. His works tend to be less about a specific subject and more about the act of painting itself. His work is based on historical art references and personal memories. But also on images extracted from the Internet, which he cuts out and merges to form the fabric of his paintings.

He often combines past and present, working with personal memories and collective traumas. He is inspired by the sense of national identity, in works that bridge the gap between the abstract and the figurative.

Adrian Ghenie - Self Portait as Vincent Van Gogh, 2014. Photo: widewalls.ch
Adrian Ghenie – Self Portait as Vincent Van Gogh, 2014. Photo: widewalls.ch

The history of painting and the texture of history can be seen in his paintings. They frequently include personalities whose actions have defined the course of history. Ghenie is always investigating the possibilities of his medium, fusing the narratives and the great themes of historical and contemporary painting. Ghenie often chooses to represent important figures from history. An example of this is his particular series of portraits of Charles Darwin. The style of his work painted with a spatula and stencils is compared to that of Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon.

The Romanian artist carries out a working process where he creates collage compositions, which he then transfers to the canvas with a spatula to create strokes and gestural textures. Frequently, the resulting images contain references to his artistic predecessors. Like Henri Rousseau, Théodore Géricault, and Vincent van Gogh. Ghenie uses cinematographic lighting and compositions influenced on films by David Lynch or Alfred Hitchcock in the expressive handling of his painting.

The Dada Room & The Darwin Room

In his recent work Ghenie is driven by historical conflict particularly in key ideas or moments that have incited social turmoil between the irrational and the rational. This impulse is present in Ghenie’s paintings through a mixture of abstraction and representation. It then extends to collage, assemblage and installation.

Adrian Ghenie - Charles Darwin at the age of 75, 2014. Photo: widewalls.ch
Adrian Ghenie – Charles Darwin at the age of 75, 2014. Photo: widewalls.ch

Ghenie has had exhibitions at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Liverpool. He also had a solo exhibition at Pace London. He produced several installations conceived as a ‘room within a room’. Examples of this practice are:

  • The Darwin Room (2013-14), in the collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris.
  • The Dada Room (2010), in the permanent collection of S.M.A.K. Ghent.

Dada Room (2010) was inspired by the First International Dada Fair. It is a custom-built room illuminated by a single fluorescent light. Inside it there is an amalgam of images, objects and color. All this forms a three-dimensional manifestation of Ghenie’s painting style. The Dada Room is a symbolic gesture, a revelation of the collective unconscious and of Ghenie’s artistic process.

Untitled (Study for DADA Room), 2011- Adrian Ghenie. Photo: artbasel.com
Untitled (Study for DADA Room), 2011- Adrian Ghenie. Photo: artbasel.com

The Darwin Room (2013-14) was composed of a painting located in a dark room, with golden light illuminating the space. It was exhibited at the 2015 Venice Biennale curated by Mihai Pop. The installation was constructed to frame a way of seeing, reducing the division between three-dimensional space and the two-dimensional image plane.

In this installation Ghenie attempted to convey the idea of a cocoon that is absent, but evokes human presence by emphasizing Ghenie’s meditation on intellectual and philosophical history while criticizing the iconographic and academic aesthetics that led to the despotic conditions of the 21st century.

In his installations, Ghenie combines and expands the techniques of historical painting. He shows a baroque mastery of chiaroscuro and a gestural handling of painting technique taken from the Abstract Expressionism. Certain tendencies of Dadaism can also be observed in his works, associating images to activate their symbolic meanings, and in this way they drive the conceptual components of his work.

Achievements and Exhibitions

His painting, known as “The King” was sold at an auction in June 2013 in London for 212,238 euros. Another of his paintings “Dr. Mengele 2” was sold for 140,747 euros at the contemporary art auction organized in February of the same year in London by the auction house Sotheby’s. In July 2014, “The Fake Rothko”, an oil painting on canvas, signed and dated 2010, was sold for 1.77 million euros.

Adrian Ghenie – The Sunflowers in 1937, 2016. Photo: romania-insider.com

On February 10, 2016, the painting “The Sunflowers in 1937”, inspired on the work of Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflower”, was sold through Sotheby’s famous London auction house at a price of 3,117,000 pounds sterling, setting a record for the Romanian artist. Ghenie was selected to represent Romania at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015 and, more recently, has held solo exhibitions in 2019 at the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and Palazzo Cini in Venice.

His solo exhibitions include shows at the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg (2019); Palazzo Cini, Venice (2019); Villa Medici, Rome (2017); CAC Malaga, Spain (2014); Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver (2012); Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Ghent (2010); and the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Bucharest (2009).

He has also participated in exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou in Paris (2016); the Vincent van Gogh Foundation in Arles (2016); the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco (2012); the Grassi Palace (2011); and the Tate Liverpool (2008), among others.

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