Adrien Ghenie grapples with the passage of time and the shadows of history in his paintings, forming allegories for both in gestural build-ups of impasto pigment. Born in Romania in 1977, Ghenie grew up in Nicolae Ceausescu’s repressive communist regime and currently lives and works in Berlin, a city still fraught with the complexities of its own traumatic histories. Adrien Ghenie critically engages with the vicissitudes of his upbringing and surroundings in his broader allegorical tableaux, which include portraits of people ranging from influential figures like Charles Darwin and Vincent van Gogh, notorious leaders like Hitler and Stalin, and popular icons like Elvis and Stan Laurel. Through Ghenie’s celebrated portraits of these figures – or his beguiling self-portraits rendered in their guise – the artist revisits both the darkest chapters of twentieth-century history and the rich lineages of art historical expression. Elaborating on his bold conceptual pursuit, Ghenie proclaims, “I want a deconstruction of the portrait. In the 20th century, the people who did it really radically were Picasso and Bacon. They took elements of the face and rearranged it…The portrait was a landscape, basically” (The artist quoted in Andy Battaglia, “‘Every Painting Is Abstract’: Adrian Ghenie on His Recent Work and Evolving Sense of Self,” ARTnews, 17 February 2017 (online)).
Adrien Ghenie’s examination into the complex convergence between art and history especially resonates in The Trip, which distorts a famous 1945 photograph of the Modernist legend Pablo Picasso in his Parisian studio into a landscape of turmoil. Ablaze in hot hues imbued with psychological intensity, this landscape in The Trip unravels in a revelatory expression of Picasso’s cultural environment, offering a journey into the tense sociopolitical climate surrounding the legendary artist's home and studio in Paris as its title suggests.
From 1936 to 1955, Picasso both lived and worked in the grand, seventeenth century Hôtel de Savoie on the rue des Grands Augustus in Paris. The photograph depicts Picasso in his home and studio there in 1944, dressed in a thick, belted coat with his hand snug in his pockets, keeping warm as he bears the cold of the Parisian winters. On the ground before Picasso lies Kasbek, his Afghan hound; in the background, we see a monumental woodstove that could not be lit during the war, as well as early paintings of his, boarded on an easel, resting on the ground, or hanging from the wall. Despite the hardships of war, Picasso remained in his home and studio in Paris to endure Nazi occupation of the city while persisting to paint some of his most somber work as he reflected on the chaos afflicting Europe, including his famed Guernica of 1937.
Picasso was classified by the Nazi Germans as a “degenerate” artist, so his home and studio was regularly intruded upon by Germans, who forbade anyone to exhibit his paintings and continued to look for pretexts to stir up trouble for the artist. Every week or two, German authorities visited Picasso’s studio to interrogate him, request identification papers, or inspect and take inventory of his scattered studio belongings. Yet Picasso continued to daringly welcome an intimate community of intellectuals in his Parisian studio, inviting the presence of peer artists and writers also denounced by Hitler; among Picasso’s regular studio visitors included André Malraux, Jean Mollet, Françoise Gilot, Ernest Hemingway, and Brassaï, who often came to photograph his sculptures. While other intellectuals like Max Ernst and Léger had fled Paris to America before the Germans arrived, Picasso stayed throughout the Nazi occupation. Picasso once reflected on his decision to remain in Paris with nonchalant earnestness: “Staying on isn’t really a manifestation of courage; it’s just a form of inertia. I suppose it’s simply that I prefer to be here. So I’ll stay, whatever the cost” (Pablo Picasso quoted in Françoise Gilot, Carlton Lake, “In Pablo Picasso’s Studio During the Nazi Occupation of Paris,” Lithub, 13 June 2019 (online)).
In The Trip, Adrien Ghenie delivers an ode to Picasso’s commitment to art in an oppressive culture that denounced it by recreating the 1945 photograph of him in his historic Parisian studio and home. In ways the photograph could not, Ghenie’s painterly interpretation distills the uncertainty of the contemporaneous cultural moment that Picasso endured. As if in flux, The Trip distorts time and place entirely by displacing Picasso from his studio into a newfound landscape of blurred abstraction and figuration. Yet Picasso’s figure remains identifiable by his winter coat and inert in his stance, testifying to his obstinacy to remain in his studio during the Nazi occupation of Paris, even as his effigy begins to disintegrate under the disquietude of Holocaust history or distort from the impalpable weight of time. The profound uncertainty of the duress to which Picasso was subject as a “degenerate” artist finds an immediate reflection in the deluge of periwinkle, turquoise, and crimson hues that Ghenie smears onto the canvas with his signature gestural bravura. In doing so, Ghenie pays additional tribute to Picasso’s breakthroughs in abstract art and, like his forebear, successfully transforms the portrait into a landscape.