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Contemporary Art

Adrian Ghenie’s Self-Portrait in 1945

“On one hand, I work on an image in an almost classical vein: composition, figuration, use of light. On the other hand, I do not refrain from resorting to all kinds of idioms, such as the surrealist principle of association or the abstract experiments which foreground texture and surface.” 
--Adrian Ghenie


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ADRIAN GHENIE SELF-PORTRAIT IN 1945, 2015. ESTIMATE HK$4,800,000–5,800,000 / US$620,000–750,000.

Adrian Ghenie’s Self-Portrait in 1945 is among the top icons of the artist’s canon of portraiture which has become integral to his artistic practice. Like many of Ghenie’s portraits, the artist portrays himself combined with fragments of other faces, with the most important examples being the ones based off of Vincent van Gogh’s very last self-portraits as is evidenced in the present example. Aesthetically, the painting is a spectacle to behold: in a vigorous manner with reckless abandon, the face of subject is formed with lush strokes of paint where thick impasto is applied then scraped off furiously. Against a flat background of ochre and moss green, layers of alabaster and pink are twisted and scraped into an electric harmony that make up the face in the composition’s foreground, illuminating the entire painting. Swathes of abstract colours are off-set by naturalistic renderings of a man’s physiognomy, and the result is a fleshy, demented presentation of a man’s face that is monstrous yet beguiling and sensual in its intensity and beauty. This perfect balance and oscillation between realism and the artifice of representation is the very hallmark of Ghenie’s artistic style.

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(LEFT) ADRIAN GHENIE, SELF-PORTRAIT AS VINCENT VAN GOGH, 2012. SOLD AT SOTHEBY’S NEW YORK, FOR $20 MILLION HKD, MAY 2016. (RIGHT) VINCENT VAN GOGH, SELF PORTRAIT, 1887. MUSEE D’ORSAY, PARIS, FRANCE / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES

In Ghenie’s recent body of work, the subject of Vincent Van Gogh plays an integral role. Ghenie’s relationship with Van Gogh dates back to childhood memories of a magazine article entitled ‘The Tragic Life of Vincent van Gogh.’ As a youth the artist was captivated by Van Gogh’s iconic Sunflowers and fascinated by the story of a great artist and his affliction with mental illness. The lack of art books in the his household meant that this magazine would stay with the artist for years; on the front was an off-colour image of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, while the article itself illustrated a black and white image of a Van Gogh self-portrait. In 1998, when visiting the Musée d’Orsay for the first time, Ghenie’s encounter with a Van Gogh portrait in person incited such a strong and violent reaction that he descended into a fit of nausea. Whether captivated by Van Gogh’s penetrating gaze or identifying with Van Gogh’s tragic and isolated years in a mental asylum in the South of France, Ghenie’s childhood adulation for the post-impressionist master are translated onto his canvases through their subject matter.

FRANCIS BACON, TWO STUDIES OF A SELF-PORTRAIT, 1970. THE ESTATE OF FRANCIS BACON. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. DACS 2017

Ghenie’s artistic approach is often compared to the methods utilized by Francis Bacon as well—another art historical great whom Ghenie admired. As seen in both Ghenie’s Self-Portrait in 1945 and Bacon’s Two Studies of a Self-Portrait from 1970, in both portraits the figure is twisted and facial features are morphed in a raw, bold and grotesque way. Pigment is applied onto canvas via a palette knife instead of a traditional paintbrush. The result is a complex imagery where colours swirl around each other in an intricate amalgam of ambivalent sensations, mixed messages and unsettling suggestions. Behind the expressive and energetic strokes of paint lies a sense of solitude and pain. While Bacon’s paintings may come from the artist’s bleak existentialist outlook, Ghenie’s own versions are very much about the alienation and the angst that accompanied recent developments in twentieth-century European history, in particular the dark times brought about by the Nazi regime. A similar painting of the same subject, titled Self-Portrait as Vincent van Gogh from 2012, appeared at auction in May 2016.

Born in Romania in 1977, Ghenie grew up in Nicolae Ceausescu’s repressive communist regime and currently lives and works in Cluj and Berlin. His visceral pictorial language has garnered international praise and attention. Due to a limited output, these remarkable and psychologically-charged paintings are difficult to come by and highly sought-after. His work has been included in exhibitions at the Tate Liverpool, Prague Biennale, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, among others. In 2015, the same year when the present lot was painted, Ghenie represented Romania at the Venice Biennale.

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