Adrian Ghenie: The Darwin Room and deliciously luscious paint


I took a trip to the Royal Academy today and ventured inside their Pace Gallery; What a wonderful surprise to find the work of one of my favourite living artists on show there: Adrian Ghenie.

I first encountered the painter in Vitamin P2, a huge tome that showcases modern painters across the globe who are carrying the medium of paint forward.

I’m familiar with Ghenie’s darker,  more obviously figurative works in which human bodies stand or hang isolated in decaying industrial environments.  I’m drawn to his use of light and exceptional draughtsmanship but the biggest pull for me is how Ghenie fully utilises and highlights the materiality of paint itself.

I really felt that the works currently on show at Pace exemplify his love of the medium.

Blobs, smudges and swirls greet the viewer in a storm of colour and for me there’s a real sense of an artist who is passionate about paint.


Ghenie’s subject is both figurative and abstract,  with many of the works featuring a bearded man emerging from a maelstrom of marks,  joined by elusive, distorted objects to create a narrative.

I later learned the bearded figure is a reference to Darwin,  and that much of Ghenie’s work in this series allude to the publication of The Origin of the Species (London, John Murray,  1859) and the subsequent misappropriation of its ideas by leaders such as Hitler and Stalin. Ghenie’s paintings explore how this rich history can be represented in the textural quality of paint, with caricatures of Darwin appearing as a recurring theme.


In a separate room at the back of the gallery, linked by a near pitch-black corridor,  is an installation named “The Darwin Room”, which consists of 19th century furniture and construction materials arranged to form an antique, life-sized study room. The whole composition is intended as a sort of three-dimensional painting. I found the space incredibly dark and foreboding,  as though something sinister had happened (or was about to happen!) Was this the scene of a grand scheme or a place to hide from something? The austere space with it’s illuminated corner was one of intrigue.

I left the RA thoroughly inspired today and would recommend everyone (especially fellow painters) to visit this exhibition. I’m already a lover of paint and need no persuasion to take up the brush and create, but Ghenie’s luscious,  generous brushmarks make me feel like I can do so much more with this centuries-old material.

Adrian Ghenie “Golems”
Pace London at the Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington Gardens until July 25th.




Where Does Paint Figure in Posthumanist Thinking and the Emerging Field of Critical Animal Studies? (part 3: Postmodernism, photography and painting)

Postmodernism, photography and painting

It was the development of postmodernism towards the end of the 20th century that helped to shake off the antiquated view towards the painting of animals.  Postmodernism is somewhat difficult to define, but according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

It can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.[1]

Steve Baker cites Rauschenberg’s Monogram of 1955, which consisted of a stuffed goat and tyre on a painted and collaged platform, as being one of the first convincing presentations of a postmodern animal in that it is directly confrontational and presents an obstacle to the viewer (in both a philosophical and a physical sense) by being a literal object.[2]  It creates a situation and ‘only the viewer’s presence completes the work’.[3]  Baker uses postmodernism to extol the virtues of representing animals as they are, without positing them as symbols, allegories or depreciated subjects.  We will return to this issue of the postmodern animal later in this essay, but first the significance of photography in terms of postmodernism will be presented.


The portrayal of animals in paint has been aided by a gradual return to ‘traditional’ methods of painting (traditional in this sense being about the use of the medium and a two-dimensional surface) in the last 50 years, which has ‘encompassed photography to redefine and extend its conceptual reach’.[4]  In the latter half of the 20th century many artists began using photography to develop new modes of depiction in paint as a response to ‘the ubiquity of the photographic image and the breakdown of modernism as a sustaining paradigm’.[5]  Two artists of import in regards to this are Francis Bacon (1909-1992) and Gerhard Richter (b.1932) as both were among the first to utilise fresh approaches in dealing with paint as modernist ideals began to unravel.

Bacon drew from Muybridge’s photographic sequences of movement, as well as books of photographs on subjects such as radiography or natural history.  He is said to have never worked from life, preferring only to work from photographic material and in a number of interviews made from 1962 to 1974 with art historian David Sylvester he spoke candidly about his use of photography to produce several series of paintings.[6] Some of Bacon’s work featured animals, such as Study of a dog from 1952, which showed a canine subject distorted and fragmented in an observation of movement.  By using Muybridge’s studies of motion, Bacon directly transposed the filmic images into paint.  His loose, smeared brushstrokes portrayed the blur-effect of motion and of a subject appearing to stretch and contort in an instant of film. Bacon’s other works featuring bestial hybrid forms suggest the importance of animality in relation to both human and non-human subjects, and how that animality or the movement of animals could be translated into paint.

Study of a Dog 1952 by Francis Bacon 1909-1992

His work is a significant part of the history of animal depiction in paint, primarily because of the way he dealt with his subject.  Bacon’s paintings are often described as bestial and animalistic, particularly in his treatment of the human figure.[7]  In a chapter by Matthew Gale, a reference to Bacon’s religious stance reveals the significance of the artist in terms of human identity:

In a world without God, humans are no different to any other animal, subject to the same innate urges, transient and alone, they are victims and perpetrators of meaningless acts.  This is the theoretical context for his creation in the 1940s of animalistic humanoid figures and his superimposition of animal features on to the human form.[8]

With such an attitude towards human identity in relation to animals, it can be argued that Bacon is one of the most significant artists according to posthumanist themes of hybridity and human integrity, themes that will be explored in a later chapter of this essay.

Gerhard Richter’s foray into animal representation is exemplified by Stag   which was painted almost ten years later in 1963.  Like Bacon’s works, this subject was not painted from life, but from a photograph.  In the image, the animal appears to float amidst a tangle of branches, separated from the forest by its depiction as a black and white photographic image.  The stag’s dislocated quality is further exaggerated by Richter’s painterly technique which is similar to a photograph’s blur; the viewer is forced to repair what is presented.[9]  In his essay Post-conceptual painting: Gerhard Richter’s extended leave-taking, Jason Gaiger describes the painting as ‘a sudden but fleeting emergence of the real within the strained and artificial conventions of late 20th century painting’and that ‘photography…allowed Richter to approach reality (in paint) yet again’.[10] Following Stag, Richter painted a variety of animals as photo-paintings, however it was not his intention to change the way animals were perceived in art; indeed Stag is so early among his works that it could be considered atypical.  Rather, his aim was to use photography as an aid in re-establishing the vitality of paint. ‘The animal’ simply happened to be one of many useful subjects in subverting previously held assumptions about each medium.


Above all, artists like Richter were interested in the way meanings and information within a photograph altered when transformed into a painted image on a canvas.[11] Richter’s imagery questions the modes of representation photography and paint offer, as well as challenge the experiences both mediums strive to appropriate, so that the process of forming meaning in the emerging image is left to the viewer.  The pioneering work of Richter and his contemporaries has re-established the credence of paint for animal artists in the 21st century and engendered a new way of utilising the photograph and screen in relation to representation.



[1] Aylesworth, Gary, “Postmodernism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), <;.

[2] Baker, Postmodern, p.51.

[3] Baker, Postmodern, p.53.

[4] The Hayward Gallery, The Painting of Modern Life: 1960s to Now (London: Hayward Publishing, 2007) p.16

[5] Gill Perry & Paul Wood, (eds) Themes in Contemporary Art (London: Yale University Press, 2004) p.99.

[6] Peter Hay Halpert, ‘Influence and Inspiration: Francis Bacon’s Use of Photography’ Aperture Fall 1996  <; [Accessed 20th January 2013] (para. 3 of 10)

[7] Matthew Gale & Chris Stephens (eds) Francis Bacon (London: Tate, 2008) pp.94-95

[8] Gale & Stephens (eds) p.27.

[9] Gill Perry & Paul Wood, (eds) Themes in Contemporary Art (London: Yale University Press, 2004) p.101.

[10] Perry & Wood, pp.101-102. (italics mine)

[11] Perry & Wood, p.102.