Painter Adrian Ghenie’s (b. 1977, Baia Mare) selection for the Romanian Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale is a triumph and one a long time coming. Represented by Pace gallery and Plan B Gallery, Ghenie is part of a generation of artists including Ciprian Muresan, Marius Bercea, Radu Comsa, Victor Mann and others, who went to Art School in Cluj-Napoca. A hallmark of the artists that attended this school is the combination of cultural awareness and optimism that they share. Having grown up with traumatic local histories – the era of communist rule followed by the convulsive switch to capitalism – this highly communicative group of artists do not identify as belonging to either ideology, but reserve a critical distance from human institutions and power structures.
In his solo exhibition ‘Darwin’s Room’ presented at Venice, Ghenie intriguingly takes the mode of inhabiting historical characters in order to reflect upon the difficult and often traumatic underpinnings of local histories. A series of ‘self portraits’ as other figures – for example ‘Self-Portrait as Charles Darwin’ and ‘Self-portrait as Vincent Van Gogh’ – allow Ghenie to reflect and re-imagine these key cultural and scientific icons through the horrors of the 20th Century. The lack of an extensive personal iconography of Darwin inspired Ghenie to delve further into his life and ideas to create a defining image. While we are quite familiar with Darwin’s omnivorous mind, which took in interests of geology, botany, biology and anthropology amongst many other fields, less known are his suffering of gastrointestinal symptoms, including daily vomiting which caused reluctance to appear publicly, and a recurrent facial eczema (concealed by his well known beard). It is this sense of ‘whole history’ that Ghenie pours into his exhibited ‘Self Portrait’.
A central thrust of Ghenie’s work is his obsession with the ‘texture’ of history. This is perhaps best illustrated by a proposition that Ghenie received from fellow artist Ciprian Muresan (also editor of IDEA art + society magazine). It was an idea that had troubled Muresan for some time - “do you think it is possible to paint a good portrait of Nicolae Ceaușescu?” (Ceaușescu was the General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party. He famously hated the endless kitsch portraits commissioned by the Communist Party). Taking on board both Muresan’s proposal and the usual manner in which Ceausescu was portrayed, Ghenie began his own series of portraits. However, the images which Ghenie honed on, and used as a basis to develop almost all of his portraits of the communist dictator, were based on the broadcast of his Christmas day arrest and execution – a far cry from the young and rosy-cheeked man depicted in the propaganda imagery. As Ghenie mentions, “you felt almost sorry for him, he looked like an elderly grandfather.” This shocking moment of exposed vulnerability was broadcast on National television and signified a kind of double trauma; firstly the removal of the near god-like dictator, and secondly the realisation that this person, who had wielded so much power, was a weak and frail old man.
The pursuit of perfection via the controlling of personal representation has only continued to rise today with the airbrushed and edited appearance of images spread worldwide. Ghenie observes that when seeing a detailed photograph of a film star, it can be shocking, dysmorphic even, to see them with the human texture of skin. While continuing the vigilant act of not letting historic memory slip, Ghenie’s treatment of his subjects is balanced. It is the vulnerability and ‘texture’ of his subjects that he succeeds in drawing out in ‘Darwin’s Room’ and that is in the end truly shocking.