The Sunflowers in 1937 (2014) by Adrian Ghenie. Image courtesy of Sotheby's.

The van Gogh copy that became a 21st century classic

Learn how this monumental oil painting by the Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie serves to vindicate 21st European art

There has been quite a bit of commentary in recent months about the cooling of the art market. Yet, could recent auction-house figures represent a kind of recalibration of artistic worthiness? This is how the Financial Times is characterising them, following the remarkably high sale price for a single, monumental work by the young Romanian artist Adrian Ghenie.

Ghenie’s painting, The Sunflowers in 1937, sold for £2.6m or £3.1m including fees at Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 10 February in London, far exceeding the auction house’s high estimate of £600,000. The hammer price, as the Financial Times’ Georgina Adam put it, “showed a selective market, robust for the very best works but unforgiving for lesser offerings.”

So, what is it about this painting that places it among the very best? As the British curator Laurence Sillars puts in our contemporary painting survey Vitamin P2, “Ghenie’s work is bound in history: artistic, social political and economic. His robust compositions, sombre palette and twists and turns between genres and techniques are part of his love affair with the history of painting and a dissection of how history itself is recorded in this and many other forms.”


Detail from The Sunflowers in 1937 (2014) by Adrian Ghenie
Detail from The Sunflowers in 1937 (2014) by Adrian Ghenie

Ghenie has used his expressive, blurred style to examine relatively recent events, such as the 1989 show trial of Romania’s former head of state Nicolae Ceaușescu.

However, more recently the artist has reached further back into Europe’s turbulent history. His 2014 Berlin Noir series dwells on the diabolical German politics of the 1930s.  One monumental, heavily incised work in this series is The Sunflowers in 1937. Measuring 280 by 280cm (110 1/4 by 110 1/4 inches), the piece is a homage to Vincent van Gogh’s sunflowers series from the late 1880s, one of Ghenie's favourite works.

However, the flowers in this painting seemed to be inflamed, blackened or smouldering, suggesting that something else has happened to this image since its formation in 19th century southern France. A clue lies in the title’s date. 1937 was the year that Germany’s Nazi party began its campaign against ‘degenerate art’, a loose term to describe mainly Modernists works – Van Gogh’s included – which the party deemed antithetical to their warped ideals of the German fatherland.

While only one of Van Gogh’s Sunflower pictures was lost during the war – thanks to an Allied air raid on Japan – the scorch marks in Ghenie stand in for the all the burned books and incinerated canvases that were destroyed during this period, as well as perhaps darker events from this time.


Vitamin P2
Vitamin P2

It’s certainly an impressive, important work, that continues in the European tradition of Richter, Kiefer, Tuymans and Bacon. Yet the sale’s success is also wonderfully ironic; who would have thought a work about Modernism’s darkest days could actually serve to vindicate contemporary European painting in the 21st century?

For more on Ghenie and his contemporaries order a copy of Vitamin P2 here; for more on van Gogh get this sumptious monograph; for more on how the war changed art history, consider our book Emigres; and for greater insight into the art market, get a copy of Collecting Art for Love, Money and More.