Adrian Ghenie - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale London Wednesday, October 4, 2017 | Phillips
  • Provenance

    Galeria Plan B, Berlin
    Acquired from the above by the present owner

  • Catalogue Essay

    Adrian Ghenie’s Burning Books, 2014, expertly traverses the boundaries between abstraction and figuration. An exquisite example of the artist’s exploration of collective memory, the work reconfirms his status as one of the most celebrated contemporary painters practising today. Evoking the sinister history of the National Socialist regime, Burning Books is a psychologically charged depiction of the destruction of cultural worth. The sumptuous palette of scraped and swirled paint suggests the dark sky and levitating smouldering pages which float towards the heavens in great whirls of smoke. Rendered in perfected impasto, the present work encapsulates Ghenie’s engagement with the horrors of fascism, whilst also serving as a paradigm of contemporary painting.

    The book burning in front of the Humboldt University on the 10th May 1933 has etched itself in the cultural memory of twentieth century European history. Exuding an atmosphere of decay and destruction, the bright orange flames rage, fuelled by the pyre of stacked books; illuminated against the eerie night sky the fire spits insidiously from the bonfire. Following the wisps of translucent smoke the viewer’s gaze rises to the dreamlike swirls of pink and blues, eventually reaching the scraped flurry of sooty paint in the night sky. The monstrosity of the scene is beguiling through the juxtaposition of the harsh obliterating qualities of the fire with the lyrical arrangement of colourful brushstrokes that seem to dance in the smoke above the inferno below. This colourful contrast against the sombre palette enlivens the scene, transporting the viewer from the black and white infamous image of the book burnings, to a temporal reality where we are physically viewing the act in hyped technicolour.

    Addressing the traumatic histories of twentieth century Europe, Burning Books draws on the visceral brushwork of Francis Bacon and the textural layering of Anselm Kiefer. Opening a frank dialogue with the past, the work is multi-layered in meaning; both reflective of historical events, drawing upon iconic characters from history, Ghenie’s constructed worlds span the stratums of the artistic canon. The paint has been dripped, poured and scraped across the canvas, destroying the flatness of the plane to highlight the emotional intensity of the piece. Thick impasto is applied and then furiously removed from the canvas and this violence of method contrasts the gentle dream-like swirling brushstrokes intermingled in the soft mist of smoke. The spectator is confronted with thick slashes of paint, which lends the work an almost three-dimensionality, transporting us to that rainy evening at Bebelplatz, Berlin.

    A member of the Cluj School in Romania, Ghenie grew up under the repressive Communist regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu and echoes of this restrictive regime can be heard across his oeuvre. The visceral pictorial language of his painting has gained him international acclaim and in 2015, a year after the present work was executed, Ghenie represented Romania at the Venice Biennale. The artist’s decision to use the medium of painting to address the decimation of culture suggests a small victory, a liberating act of expression which cannot be quashed.


Burning Books

signed and dated 'Ghenie 2014' on the reverse
oil on canvas
50 x 59.8 cm (19 5/8 x 23 1/2 in.)
Painted in 2014.

£250,000 - 350,000 ‡♠

Sold for £321,000

Contact Specialist
Tamila Kerimova
Specialist, Head of Day Sale
+ 44 20 7318 4065

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale

London Auction 5 October 2017