- Adrian Ghenie
- Self Portrait as Charles Darwin
- oil on canvas
- 202.5 by 238.3 cm. 79 3/4 by 91 7/8 in.
- Executed in 2011.
Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2011
Juerg Judin, Ed., Adrian Ghenie, Ostfildern 2014, p. 79, illustrated in colour
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In many ways, the subject of this painting is the preeminent focus of Ghenie’s career: Darwin is the figure around which the artist’s incessant evocation of the Twentieth Century’s most troubling historical individuals triangulates. For Ghenie, Darwin’s ambiguous legacy finds disturbing repercussions through the exploitative services of political and social gain as embodied by the cast of political despots frequently pulled into focus: from Hitler and Dr Josef Mengele through to Stalin and Nicolae Ceaușescu. In 2013, Adrian Ghenie's first exhibition with Pace in New York focused principally on this Darwinian dialogue, while in 2015, Ghenie would once again reprise the enquiry for his celebrated 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 impact of Darwin’s revolutionary discoveries and followed the implications of ‘survival of the fittest’ through to some disquieting conclusions. Among the paintings of Darwin and portraits of Hitler, evocations of the infamous Nazi book burnings and Degenerate Art Exhibition of 1937 were shown alongside a host of self-portraits fused with Darwin’s likeness. As inaugurated by the present work in 2011, the artist’s merging of himself with Darwin is initially perplexing: Ghenie is an artist and not a scientist. Yet by filtering his appearance through this wizened visage – a countenance that utterly fulfils the classical epitome of European intellectualism as defined by Renaissance and Baroque painters – Ghenie positions himself in the mode of philosopher, meditating the controversies roused by man’s promethean progress.
The precocious achievement of evolutionary science forever changed the intellectual and philosophical landscape of civilisation. Revolutionising the way we view our place in the world, Darwinism liberated humanity from the feudal strictures of a perceived social and natural order: his theories on natural selection scientifically repositioned mankind as engineer and master of his own destiny. Herein, though triumphantly embodying a figurehead of human advancement, Darwin’s legacy is ambiguous. Much like Einstein with whom he is often compared, Darwin’s theories and indomitable work has been subverted to corrupt and perverse ends. Most troublingly perhaps, his intellectual work provided the rational basis for a school of genetic science that championed discriminatory breeding in human beings: eugenics. Notoriously exploited by National Socialism in the years prior to and during the Second World War, this branch of scientific study not only provided the rationale behind the Third Reich’s policies of social cleansing, it also gave rise to a proscriptive cultural policing for anything deemed ‘degenerate’ or ulterior to a prescribed national ideal.
Casting a devastating blow to artistic achievement, 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 work. Its aim to cleanse Germany from a culture of ‘degeneracy’ resulted in the seizure of thousands of artworks from public institutions and collections across Germany and Nazi occupied Europe. Including pieces 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. After the exhibition these historic pieces were sold, traded, or destroyed. 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.
In this regard it is interesting to note the genetic disorders of which Darwin himself was an unfortunate sufferer. As outlined by Ghenie: “[Darwin] had a range of problems that made him completely dysfunctional. He also had a skin condition, which meant that he was covered from head to toe in terrible eczema. For this reason more often than not he would be completely bandaged, because he was like one big open wound… he said that for a period of every year, for seven or eight months, he was unable to work, because he felt constantly unwell. He never left the house, except on the few occasions when he presented his research” (Adrian Ghenie in conversation with Magda Radu in: Exh. Cat., Venice, Romanian Pavillion, 56th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, Adrian Ghenie: Darwin’s Room, 2015, p. 29). Isolated, medically dysfunctional, and possessing a complexion with the texture of rhinoceros skin, Darwin himself is retroactively forced under the spotlight of ‘degeneracy’. As a defective physiological specimen that would have been deemed unworthy under Nazi eugenics, Ghenie paints Darwin as a condemned victim of his own achievements.
In the present work, Ghenie/Darwin’s eye-line is directed towards what appears to be a suggestion of the Balkenkreuz: a straight-armed cross that was the emblem of the Wehrmacht (German Armed Forces) and its branches in World War II. In fact, this passage of the painting is a direct quotation from a fragment of a German bomber today housed in the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London. In this painting the distinctive remains of the fuselage recovered from the crash-landed Messerschmitt Bf 110 is readily apparent. This was the aircraft that Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess flew to Britain in 1941 with the aim of initiating peace negotiations; a plan that was neither sanctioned nor supported by either Churchill or Hitler. After ejecting from the aircraft and landing in Scotland, Hess was taken prisoner and convicted of war crimes at the Nuremburg Trails in 1946. Omen-like and hovering close to the centre of the composition, its presence here underlines the pervasive shadow of Nazi indiscretion. Sitting behind the mask and looking through Darwin's eyes, does Ghenie - whose haircut simultaneously evokes the trademark crop of Nazi Germany's notorious leader - implicate the figure of Hitler himself?
When Adrian Ghenie was a child, Romania was ruled by Nicolae Ceaușescu’s tyrannical Communist regime. With the political oppression of World War II still tangibly resonating, the figures and events of the war were prescient for any child growing up in the Communist Eastern Bloc. Today this ominous political backdrop comprises the very fabric of Adrian Ghenie’s work. Self Portrait as Charles Darwin is thus an outstanding composite of the historical and the personal. Depicting a modernist armchair that has no place in contemporary depictions of the evolutionary scientist, time, location, and identity are compressed into this painting’s genetic make-up. Imposing in scale and possessing a fluency of abstract brush and palette-knife work, Ghenie’s painterly marks coalesce into a virtuoso pictorial cogency. In a fantastical collusion of identity and philosophical reflection, Adrian Ghenie’s Self Portrait as Charles Darwin offers a powerful insight into the artist’s perception of self and mankind within the troubling arc of modern history.