Adrian Ghenie cited in: Jane Neal, ‘Referencing slapstick cinema, art history and the annals of totalitarianism, Adrian Ghenie’s paintings find a way of confronting a “century of humiliation”’, Art Review, December 2010, online
Adrian Ghenie’s Duchamp’s Funeral I (2009) is an extraordinary painting that contends with one of the artist’s most significant thematic engagements: the vast influence of Marcel Duchamp and Dadaism on the canon of art history. Embodying a deeply existential fascination, allusions to the father of post-modernism saturate Ghenie’s oeuvre, appearing in such works as the immersive installation The Dada Room (2010) and Dada is Dead (2009), as well as in a painting of Duchamp's notorious 1917 Fountain. Standing at the very apex of this concern, the present work is the unmitigated masterpiece from Ghenie’s Duchamp cycle, and can perhaps be considered as one of the artist’s most profound works to date. Significantly, Duchamp’s Funeral I marks one of only two paintings in which Ghenie depicts the great twentieth-century master’s likeness; in other works from this cycle, Duchamp exists as a kind of absent presence, in which the weight of his influence is felt yet never palpably seen. Indeed, where Duchamp announced the death of painting, in the present work, Ghenie provocatively paints Duchamp’s death: his potent work seems to declare a rebirth of the genre of oil painting in the modern age. Ghenie is one of the most influential painters of the present day, and his work will be exhibited in two major institutional shows planned this year.
In Ghenie’s breakthrough work The Dada Room, the artist created an almost-life sized replica of the First International Dada Fair which took place in Berlin in 1920. Replete with symbolically laden imagery, including a German officer with the head of a pig hanging from the ceiling, in The Dada Room Ghenie subverted Dada’s anti-art ideologies by slathering viscous layers of paint in an overwhelmingly tactile manner over the walls and floors; the result is a three-dimensional reincarnation of the famous room viewed through a defiantly painterly lens. Similarly, in Untitled 209 Duchamp, which depicts the most iconic and controversial artwork of the Twentieth Century – Duchamp’s urinal – Ghenie meticulously bathed an image of the infamous art-object with great swathes of sticky, gelatinous oil paint. A sterile artistic statement, thus, once again becomes a luxuriously painterly scene. Finding its place within the trajectory of art history, Duchamp’s Funeral I creates a compelling dialogue between paintings which have similarly explored the phenomenon of human mortality in such a tangible, concrete way, from Gustave Courbet’s A Burial At Ornans (1949-50) to Gerhard Richter’s powerful painting Dead (1988), based on press clippings from the Baader-Meinhof controversy.
Ghenie succinctly sums up the importance of Dada in Duchamp’s Funeral I: “The state of painting today prompted me to choose this subject. The ongoing debate about the ‘death of painting’ may be intellectually stimulating, but I think it is also anachronistic. There is enough evidence to conclude that painting is not dead. And yet, I wanted to return to the historic context in which this problem was first articulated. I view key moments and personalities of the avant-gardes like Duchamp from a great distance and from a reversed perspective. Although I recognise the liberating effects produced by the outburst of the avant-garde movements (of which I am also a beneficiary), I can’t help but notice the extent to which some of their ideas – exposed in time to manifold appropriations – have imposed themselves with such forcefulness as to become canonical. I simply want to question this state of affairs without making accusations. But I feel I have the right to see idols like Duchamp or Dada in a different light” (Adrian Ghenie in conversation with Magda Radu in: Flash Art, No. 269, November-December 2009, online). As such, Duchamp’s Funeral I boldly presents, in the ultimate conclusion of Ghenie’s conceptual and material investigations, a triumphant declaration of painting’s unshakable longevity.
In the present painting, coarse painterly brush strokes fuse with crisp ridges from the artist’s palette knife, as emotive drips and insolent smatterings coalesce to form the crepuscular, imagined scene of Marcel Duchamp’s funeral. The patriarch of Dada lies in an embalmed state like Lenin in Red Square or Hans Holbein’s supine Christ in The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520-22). Ethereal swathes of titanium whites, shadowy greys and hints of purple denote his deceased state whilst a ghostly reflection of his body enhances the painting’s atmosphere of disquiet. Here figurative imagery is quite literally buried within drizzled and poured slathers of paint, and scraped and worn surfaces. Abounding with emblematic imagery, Ghenie's iconic studio chair appears in the bottom right hand corner and his grandmother’s Turkish rug is luxuriously draped over the casket: trademarks of his aesthetic style, they have come to personify the artist’s presence within his oeuvre. In this work, however, Ghenie has literally inserted himself within the composition: he stands behind Duchamp’s casket, his face ambiguously obscured behind an outmoded film reel camera on a tripod: it faces out towards the viewer, positioning us as the subject of his mysterious film. In spite of modern fears of painterly redundancy in the photographic age, the present work seems to declare that the genre of painting resolutely lives on. Heavy with emotional force and richly encoded with the artist’s own mythology, Duchamp’s Funeral I is a work at pains to emphasise its painterly origins. In Ghenie’s idiosyncratic manner, the man who inhabits the coffin, Duchamp, is the artist who emphatically declared the death of painting. Meditating on the passing of ideologies and artistic revenge, Ghenie exhumes the deceased Duchamp to re-bury both him and his principles.
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