Lot 1
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Adrian Ghenie

200,000 - 300,000 USD
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  • Adrian Ghenie
  • Self-Portrait as Vincent Van Gogh
  • signed and dated 2012 on the reverse
  • oil on canvas
  • 19 by 12 in. 48.3 by 30.5 cm.


Pace Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner


New York, Pace Gallery, Adrian Ghenie: New Paintings, March - May 2013, p. 35, illustrated in color
Venice, 56th Biennale di Venezia: Romanian Pavilion, Adrian Ghenie: Darwin's Room, May - November 2015, p. 53, illustrated in color and p. 79, illustrated in color (in installation)


Juerg Judin, Ed., Adrian Ghenie, 2013, p. 97, illustrated in color
Exh. Cat., Venice, La Biennale di Venezia 56. Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte: All the World's Futures, Vol. 2, 2015, n.p. (checklist)


This painting is in excellent condition. There are minute losses visible at the extreme right corner tip, along the top edge, along the left edge toward the upper left corner, as well as two small losses in the figure's hair at center. Under ultraviolet light there are no apparent restorations. This canvas is framed in a wood frame, stained black, with a small float.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

From the influential (Charles Darwin, Vincent van Gogh and Marcel Duchamp) through to the notorious (Hitler, Lenin and Stalin), and the popular (Elvis, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy), Adrian Ghenie has painted both the famous and infamous. Among these however, there are only two with whom he personally identifies: of Ghenie’s titled self-portraits, the most remarkable are those belonging to a small group of recent self-images centered on the effigies of Darwin and Van Gogh. Indeed, in many ways these two historical figures form the structural pillars of Ghenie’s recent work. Based on one of the very last self-portraits by the Dutch Post-Impressionist (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), Self Portrait as Vincent van Gogh is an extraordinary composite of the historical and the personal. In layers that are pastose and wonderfully variegated, this painting embodies a painterly palimpsest of masked and spliced identity and identification. Into this work Ghenie poured his childhood adulation for the post-impressionist master and, through it, he has addressed the nefarious implications of Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolutionism. In 2015, Ghenie succinctly tackled this key dialogue for his acclaimed exhibition at the 56th Venice Biennale. Entitled Darwin’s Room and shown in the Romanian Pavilion as it would have appeared in 1938, this show explored the repercussions of Darwin’s revolutionary discoveries, following the darker implications of ‘survival of the fittest’ through to some troubling conclusions. Among the paintings of Darwin, Hitler, and images invoking the infamous Nazi book burnings and Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937, Self Portrait as Vincent van Gogh formed a crucial part of this landmark show. Furthermore, acting as a pendent piece to Ghenie’s extraordinary The Sunflowers in 1937, and as the first from a series of three works after Van Gogh’s own painted likeness, the present work is truly emblematic of Ghenie’s challenging revival of both history painting and self-portraiture.

At its core this painting is a dual image: both a re-presentation of history and a reflection of Ghenie’s own sense of self. 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. Indeed, his own relationship with the present work’s source dates back to childhood memories of a magazine article entitled ‘The Tragic Life of Vincent van Gogh’. The lack of art books in the Ghenie household meant that this magazine would stay with the artist for years; on the front was an off-color image of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, while the article itself illustrated a black and white image of the Musée d’Orsay self-portrait. In 1998, when visiting this museum for the first time, Ghenie’s encounter with this painting affected him deeply. Finding himself unexpectedly under the scrutiny of Van Gogh’s penetrating stare, Ghenie’s uneasiness descended into a fit of nausea. So strong and violent was his reaction that it echoed quite spectacularly a memorable scene in the 1967 film The Night of the Generals. In this film a Nazi officer played by Peter O’Toole inspects a warehouse full of looted and confiscated fin de siècle masterpieces; when passing in front of the very same d’Orsay self-portrait and its piercing gaze O’Toole’s character is reduced to a panicking wreck. Seen only by Ghenie after his museum visit in 1998, this film not only anticipated his own experience of Vincent’s eyes, but also the lens through which Van Gogh would come to be scrutinised in Ghenie’s own artistic production.

The purging of ‘degenerate art’ – a term used by the Nazi party to refer to any artwork deemed harmful to German sentiment – formed a key cultural policy of National Socialism and has proved a powerful subject in Ghenie’s recent work. Its aim to cleanse Germany from a culture of ‘degeneracy’ resulted in seizing thousands of artworks from public institutions and collections across Germany and Nazi occupied Europe. Comprising works by Chagall, Kandinsky, Munch, Picasso, and Van Gogh among many others, a selection of these works were famously shown together in 1937 as part of the Entartete Kunst exhibition in Munich, while the majority were sold, traded, or destroyed. In addition to the 1937 exhibition, Hitler’s final list of ‘Entartete Kunst’ comprised an inventory of more than 16,000 pieces including a Van Gogh self-portrait from the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungenin in Munich; shortly after the list was compiled this painting was auctioned off at Galerie Fischer in Lucerne for 175,000 Swiss Francs. Casting a devastating blow to cultural achievement, this campaign was borne of the Third Reich’s harrowing eugenics policy, a policy firmly rooted in Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859).

Darwinism not only changed the face of the natural sciences, it revolutionized the way we view our place in the world; in one fell swoop it liberated humanity from the feudal strictures of a perceived social and natural order. However, and this is where Adrian Ghenie’s interest comes into play, its effect wasn’t entirely positive: the pioneering work on genetic science that developed in Darwin’s wake unleashed the ugly off-shoot of Darwinian thought that is Eugenics. Alongside the sterilization and euthanasia projects, the concentration camps and their gas chambers, the purging of ‘degenerate’ culture formed part of National Socialist Party’s endeavour to eliminate ‘life unworthy of life’ in the construction of a master race. With his over-painted piercing stare and possessing a visceral texture that appears to pulsate with life, Self-Portrait as Vincent van Gogh is at once a victim and purveyor of this dark passage in twentieth-century history.