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.
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