Christmas Day, 1989. I would have been six, living in Devon with my parents, two elder sisters, two cats and two dogs. I remember seeing a big box under the Christmas tree with my name on it. I knew, with absolutely certainty, that inside the box was a spaceship. I would be going on adventures from the fields of Newton Poppleford to lunar landscapes. Santa had done well. On unwrapping the box I was confused to find out that the latest spaceship designs looked uncannily like mini wheelbarrows. After some complex internal logic I realised that this was not actually a spaceship, but an actual mini wheelbarrow. I hid my disappointment well. On that same day Adrian Ghenie would have been a teenager celebrating Christmas with his family in Cluj, Romania. On Romanian National TV on Christmas day 1989 Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu were executed. Back in Devon the Queens speech, reruns of Only Fools and Horses and a Christmas movie (I suspect) were running in the background.
Nicolae Ceaușescu was the last Communist leader of Romania, from 1965-1989. Ceaușescu’s regime became increasingly repressive, with speech and the media aggressively oppressed. The violent clampdowns reached a peak in 1989 when security forces shot dead protesting citizens. The demonstrators gained support and momentum leading to the Romanian Revolution overthrowing the regime. Weeks later Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were trialed and found guilty of a variety of political, economic and human crimes, including genocide. The trial ordered them to be shot by firing squad.
In his painting, ‘The Trial’ Adrian Ghenie depicts the married couple, Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu, towards the end of their lives. Ghenie shows us the couple sat in a table in a fairly barren room. Perhaps they are awaiting for the verdict, or perhaps waiting to be led out to their deaths. Ghenie was born in Communist Romania, and as such the story is one that is of central importance to recent Romanian History. Ghenie presents a scene which has a post photographic informality, a murky muddy naturalistic setting and an obfuscation of narrative and identity. Ghenie purposefully offers us none of the clarity or heroism of the French 19th Century History Painting models which seemingly inform much of his work. The faces of the Ceausescu’s are blurred, as if their very identity is being disrupted, annihilated in the process of painting. The manner in which Ghenie uses photographic sources and then paints images which blur, scrap and obfuscate these sources has led to the obvious comparison to other post photographic image based painters such as Francis Bacon and Gerhard Richter. It is a lazy and over simplistic comparison. Richter is the closer model, but across Richters work the manner, method and impact of the way in which he ‘blurs’ an image is hugely multifaceted. It is worth pointing out here the paradox of a blur in painting, we can blur a photographic image, but we cannot blur an image in a painting, it is what it is. Ghenie is just as varied and nuanced in the manner in which he obscures and abstracts a base image, and the impact of such approaches marks him out as distinct from either Bacon or Richter. If we were to pick out a precedent I would sooner go for the photographer Francesca Woodman. In ‘The Trial’ the faces appear to have been covered, uncovered, scrapped and scrubbed to leave both echoes and veilings of the couples faces. It is a softer and more subtle approach than Ghenie takes in his more recent paintings, which include faces which appear to be flesh masks being viscerally scrapped off by the protagonists or faces and identities obscured by the humiliation of a pie fight in which the pies are made up of flesh and paint. ‘The Trial’ is a less meaty more ghostly proposition, with the faces more like the cross between a faded photograph and the echo of an image on our retina as we flick from one channel to another. It is as if we are watching the couples death in slow motion, but not the slow shutter speed of photography (as often depicted by Bacon) but the slow motion shift between frames on a television screen. In a painting like ‘The Trial’ Ghenie is, for me at least, a contemporary History Painter. He is using the model and format of History Painting, but to deal with events from recent Romanian History in a way which is relevant to how we make paintings, how we view history and how we go about looking in the 21st Century. History is our longest and most pervasive form of mythology. Our healthy doubts of fictive literary myths and religion as myth have left us with History as the one form of mythology we can believe in, due to its basis in reality and facts. But the attachment to these values, whilst credible and real, should not lead to blind faith. History is a man made construct, it is our attempt to take the reality and facts of what has happened and to record it and dramatise it so that we can play it back to ourselves at a later date. History is, of course, of crucial importance to our understanding of what we were, what we are and what we can be, but it does not mean we don’t need to approach it with cynicism. For through the process of recording History abstractions take place; time, memory, context and the theatrics of narration obfuscate and complicate. It is this form of History that Ghenie presents us with. He provides us with a vision of a specific moment but through a lens that appreciates the impact of time, the bias of the narratives that reach us and the uncertainty of our vision. Painting can be seen to have a distinct disadvantage when it comes to narrating history, or to story telling of any sort. This is one of the primary reasons why painters were urged to move away from History Painting as a model. Painting provides us with static silent moments, it is by its nature ambiguous. If we view ‘The Trial’ with no context then it is impossible to know what led to this couple arriving in this room or what fate awaits them. It is even harder to have any idea of who they are. We are locked in the single moment, able to know nothing other than the specifics which are put in front of us, a couple who appear to be locked in a drab architectural interior, with their identities fading in front of us. The importance of their identity, the grandeur of the moment and its crucial place in recent European History have been eroded and all but lost. When we look at it like this, is that not a perfect appraisal of what often happens in History, a kind of amnesia in which vast swathes of crucially important moments and events are lost in the final cut of the populist histories that we produce and consume? Ghenie presents us with an image which both tries to rescue the moment from that lost whilst also acknowledging the inevitability of its fading.