Nicole Eisenman - 20th c. & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session New York Thursday, July 2, 2020 | Phillips
  • Essay

    “Ultimately it’s about making a picture, which reflects my life, my unconscious or conscious desires.”

    Nicole Eisenman


    In Hunnenschlacht, 2001, Nicole Eisenman reinterprets Wilhelm von Kaulbach’s painting of the same title from 1850 in her inimitable style. The works’ titles translate to “The Battle of the Huns”, and each painting aptly depicts the Huns’ attempt to invade the Roman Empire in 451 CE, notoriously considered as one of the world’s fiercest and most decisive military engagements to date. So merciless was this battle that legend reports the souls of dead warriors continued to fight as they rose into Heaven, as depicted in von Kaulbach’s 19th century masterpiece. Eisenman’s reinterpretation is similarly composed of an entangled assemblage of men representing these souls as they float among the clouds, all donning identical nondescript unitards. Eisenman’s choice to render one of history’s most violent wars through her satirical visual lexicon exemplifies the artist’s commitment to highlighting the prevailing injustices of society. The intricate narratives such as the one in the present work that compose the artist’s oeuvre embrace painterly traditions from the art historical canon and draw from past events to comment on contemporary themes such as identity, gender and inequality in America.

    Portraying The Battle of the Huns through a satirical contemporary lens, Eisenman depicts the men in Hunnenschlacht with zombie-like expressions, flailing their limbs with little intention, and in turn, evoking a dystopian uniformity; the work’s caricatured aesthetic, so distictive to Eisenman’s style, further upends the credibility of the figures’ heroism. This disquieting scene likely alludes to the rejection of the stifling gender stereotypes and herd mentality that perpetuate the predilection for a homogeneous society. As Eisenman has remarked, “the power of a crowd is the offer to let individuals dissolve into it. Elias Canetti talked about the moment when the individual gets rid of his difference; that when he joins the crowd. It sounds wonderful or like a nightmare. In drawings with a lot of people, the crowd becomes a block, a world unto itself.”

    Referencing other art historical masterworks, this eerie dreamscape analogizes the pioneering genre paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Just as the renowned Dutch Old Masters painter is celebrated for subverting his detailed renderings of commoners engaged in various activities with moralistic convolutions; Eisenman, likewise, challenges the injustices of society under the approachable guise of her cartoon-like imagery.

    Eisenman’s rejection of established societal systems combined with her seemingly ironic embrace of art historical traditions have cleverly defied her work of definition. Her familiar mural-like scenes such as Hunnenschlacht disrupt conventional gender paradigms that inspire her viewers to question these long-standing expectations. As feminist writer Laurie Weeks proclaims, “[Eisenman] restores the ambiguity, uncertainty, and unfamiliarity to the world, and in the process she RE-ENCHANTS it!”[ii]

    [i] Laurie Weeks, quoted in, “Eat Me”, Nicole Eisenman, exh. cat., Zurich, 2011, p. 8
    [ii] Nicole Eisenman, quoted in, “Nicole Eisenman in Conversation with Lynne Tillman”, Nicole Eisenman, exh. cat., Zurich, 2011, p. 16
  • Art Historical Inspiration

    • Provenance

      Leo Koenig, Inc., New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Kunsthalle Zürich, Nicole Eisenman, March 31 - May 20, 2007, p. 90 (illustrated on dust jacket)

    • Literature

      Mathieu Victor, ed., Nicole Eisenman: Selected Works 1994-2004, New York, 2006, pp. 76-77 (illustrated)

Property from an Important European Collection



oil on panel
40 x 50 in. (101.6 x 127 cm)
Painted in 2001.

Full Cataloguing

$120,000 - 180,000 

Sold for $212,500

Contact Specialist

Rebekah Bowling
Head of Day Sale, Afternoon Session
New York

1 212 940 1250

20th c. & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session

New York Auction 2 July 2020