Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2011
Florence, Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina, Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi, Francis Bacon and the Existential Condition in Contemporary Art, October 2012 - January 2013, p. 96, illustrated in colour
Depicting the artist as a solitary figure positioned on a chair in the middle of an empty room, we are immediately reminded of the agony, the despair, and distortion inherent to Francis Bacon’s canonical paintings. Similar to the British post-war master, Ghenie deforms his own facial features through a process of effacing, overpainting, marking, and tracing, techniques that strongly emphasise a transformation of the human mouth into a simian muzzle. Very much rooted in the ape-like caricatures of Darwin following the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, Ghenie has commented on his conflation of human and animal: “In regard to Darwin, there are a number of famous photographs that have fixed him in the collective imagination. The typology is that of the old man with a beard. He was caricatured during that period, as it was easy to transform him into a monkey” (Adrian Ghenie in conversation with Magda Radu, in: Exh. Cat., Venice, Romanian Pavilion at the 56th International Art Exhibition, La Bienale di Venezia, Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, p. 29). In the present work, the application of expressive and abject textural surfaces with dark hues of rich burgundy contrasted by smudged and blurred areas of bright white create a powerful contrast through which an inquisitive gaze fixes the viewer’s attention. In layers that are pastose and wonderfully variegated, Self Portrait as a Monkey embodies a painterly palimpsest of masked and spliced identity and identification that ultimately culminates in a physical manifestation of the relationship between Ghenie and Darwin.
Formulating one of the leading scientific theories of the Nineteenth Century, Darwin not only changed the face of the natural sciences but also revolutionised societal hierarchies by liberating humanity from the feudal strictures of a perceived social and natural order. The legacy of Darwinism has been, however, not only positive but in fact very complex and destabilising: by appropriating and ultimately abusing the scholar’s pioneering findings, the study of Eugenics amassed a popular following with the Nazi party who began to implement its theories during World War II. Alongside the sterilisation 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 Self Portrait as a Monkey, Ghenie creates a self that at once identifies with Darwin’s theories yet is a victim of this dark chapter in European history in which differentiation from the norm through bodily distortion was equated with natural perversion and ultimately death. As such, the present work powerfully reflects on the ambiguity of Darwin’s legacy and establishes a personal link between the scientist and the artist: growing up in Romania amidst the ruins of a country destructed by the atrocious events that occurred under the brutal leadership of dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, Ghenie early on developed a sensory ability to merge the trauma of history with his own, personal experience.
In 2015, the strong resonance of Darwin’s theories on Ghenie’s artistic production resulted in his seminal exhibition in the Romanian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale. Entitled Darwin’s Room, this exhibition explored an interweaving of past and future histories as subject to the ninetheenth-century scientist’s earth-shattering discoveries. Heralding the very beginning of a body of work in which Ghenie directly combined his own likeness with Charles Darwin, Self Portrait as a Monkey telescopes the repercussions of Darwin’s revolutionary discoveries and transposes them into a powerfully contemporary painterly vision.
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