I n Adrian Ghenie’s monumental 2014 painting The Arrival, the boundaries between fact and fiction, memory and myth, figuration and abstraction blend and blur in a dreamlike haze. Rendered in the hallmark style of Ghenie’s masterful visual practice, the work draws together different aesthetic elements into a surrealistic amalgamation of colour, form and subject matter that slips in and out of focus like a half-remembered dream.
Standing six and a half feet tall, the painting depicts a jungle scene filled with tropical plants. Amongst the exotic foliage stands an enigmatic figure in a suit, heavy fur coat and bowler hat, a vibrant yellow suitcase clasped in his hand. Disconcerting and disquieting, his presence seems strangely at odds with his surroundings. One of the great hallmarks of Ghenie’s practice, this sense of incongruity provides a powerful lens through which the artist explores the contradictions and paradoxes of a contemporary world both shaped and informed by the atrocities of the past.
Indeed, Ghenie’s practice frequently contends with the darkest chapters of human history – “I’m fascinated by Nazi Germany” he has proclaimed – and the present work is no exception (Adrian Ghenie in conversation with Michael Peppiatt in: Juerg Judin, Ed., Adrian Ghenie Paintings 2014-19). Its protagonist is based on one of the most notorious figures of Nazi Germany: Josef Mengele. The doctor in Auschwitz, known also as the Angel of Death, Mengele has recurred in a number of Ghenie’s paintings: his presence offers a means of probing the extremities of human nature and evil incarnate.
Born in Romania in 1977, Ghenie grew up under Nicolae Ceaușescu’s repressive communist regime. Today, he lives and works in Berlin – a city laden with the complexities of its own fraught and fractured past. Through his practice, Ghenie seeks to address how the events of the past – particularly those of the troubled 20th century – infiltrate, impact and haunt the present. “I’m not a history painter,” he explains, “but I am fascinated by what happened in the 20th century and how it continues to shape today. I don’t feel any obligation to tell this to the world, but for me the 20th century was a century of humiliation – and through my painting, I’m still trying to understand this” (Jane Neal, Art Review).
“I’m looking for a fragmentation of the surface… There’s always a vibration inside, a fragmentation. For me, every object you look at in reality has this. There are no objects simply in a flat color. Human skin, wood, everything has this grain.”
The surface in The Arrival is densely packed with layers of iridescent paint, against which the figure of Mengele is juxtaposed. There are only a handful of known photographs of Mengele, all of which exist in black and white, yet in the present composition Ghenie reimagines the war criminal’s infamous escape to South America post World War II in a melee of swirling colour and form. By the time Mengele died a natural death in Brazil in 1979, the Polaroid’s instant camera was sweeping the world: indeed, no longer rendered in the distancing black and white language of old photographs, newspapers, memories and the past, the scene’s vibrancy seems to implore the viewer to recognise and contemplate the severity of Mengele’s deeds.
The Arrival was prominently exhibited in 2014 at the Galerie Judin, Berlin, alongside Ghenie’s Pie Fight Interior 11 – now in the collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris – in a show which borrowed its title from British author Philip Kerr’s popular trilogy of crime novels, Berlin Noir. All executed in the same year, the paintings in this exhibition allude to an array of sources spanning history, art history, literature, memory and myth. From the deep, sombre palette and chiaroscuro of Renaissance painting, to the raw psychological intensity of Francis Bacon, and the deft manipulations of the painted surface in Gerhard Richter’s work, the Berlin Noir paintings are rich in evocation and metaphor.
“On one hand,” Ghenie has stated, “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, Flash Art). Through Ghenie’s signature conflation of abstraction and figuration, alongside his gestural style and tactile application of paint, The Arrival feels imbued with a sense of uncertainty: as if in flux, the painting becomes evocative of the plasticity of time and the fallibility of memory. Indeed, in Ghenie’s expressionistic and painterly rendering, Mengele’s face has begun to distort and disintegrate as if under the impalpable weight of time. The title of the work itself is equally ambivalent, at once suggesting Mengele’s arrival in his Latin American hideout as much as a more metaphorical advent and dispersion of evil into the world.
Ghenie has garnered international acclaim for his visceral pictorial language and psychologically charged paintings, which address some of the most sinister figures in contemporary history to explore themes of malevolence, totalitarianism, dictatorship and the volatility of human nature. As the artist explains, “We inevitably live in a post-WWII epoch, which means that we constantly have to look back to that watershed moment in order to understand our present condition” (Adrian Ghenie, Flash Art). In his works, pigment is applied directly onto the canvas to create a complex composition where colours forge an intricate and impasto amalgam of ambivalent sensations, mixed messages and unsettling undertones.
His meticulous build-up of pigment forms a compelling allegory for the layers of temporality, perception and reality that accumulate over time, spilling over one another ad infinitum. Ablaze in vibrant hues, chiaroscuro tones and gestural brushstrokes, the present work hints at the manifestations of evil embedded within society today. Behind Ghenie’s expressive and energetic strokes of paint lies an empty space of solitude, which speaks to the frailty of recollection, and the transience and inadequacies of mortal existence. An extraordinary composite of the historical and the personal, the real and the imagined, the ancient and the contemporary, such resonating elements are exulted in The Arrival.