Wilhelm Sasnal

Gaddafi 1


In Tate Modern

Wilhelm Sasnal born 1972
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 800 × 1000 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Roman Family Collection 2014


Gaddafi 1 depicts the body of the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was killed by rebel fighters on 20 October 2011. Rather than show the corpse directly, Sasnal depicts an amorphous mass of paint resting on what appears to be a mattress. The thick impasto of the oil paint, alludes to the ripped and torn body of the dictator, contrasting sharply with the flat paint work of the surrounding space. Gaddafi 1 is the first in a group of three paintings based on digital images of the violent death of Gaddafi, the others being Gaddafi 2 2011 (Tate T14240) and Gaddafi 3 2011 (Tate T14242). It is the smallest painting in the group and the only one to focus exclusively on the body of the dictator.

Rebel fighters captured Gaddafi hiding with his bodyguards in a large drainage pipe. In a series of frenzied events, the dictator was wounded (either by shrapnel or gunshots) before being pulled from his hideout and killed, with conflicting accounts as to the exact means of his death. Mobile phone video footage of his last moments was quickly broadcast around the world. Within days of this taking place Sasnal decided to turn three key images of the events into paintings of different styles and scale in an attempt to rescue them for posterity and from the deluge of news imagery. Gaddafi 2 depicts a group of rebel fighters looking at and taking images of the corpse of the deposed dictator. Gaddafi 3, the largest of the three paintings, depicts the body of Gaddafi lying on a mattress, surrounded by a group of rebel fighters.

Born in Poland where he studied at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts, Sasnal has produced works on paper, photographs and films in addition to painting. He typically identifies a digital image online – rather than an image printed in a newspaper or an analogue photographic print – on which to base his painting. Most paintings are completed in one sitting over the course of a single day. Experienced as a group, Gaddafi 1, Gaddafi 2 and Gaddafi 3 emphasise the editorial process of image selection involved in Sasnal’s painting practice and the wide range of aesthetic decisions involved in translating the digital image from a low-quality print-out into a ‘high-quality’ painting.

Sasnal is also represented in Tate’s collection by two earlier works, both of which were made following a visit to the United States: Untitled (a) 2004 (Tate T11915), which alludes to the mundane setting of a car showroom, and Untitled (a) 2004 (Tate T12130), which shows a sinister group of minute Ku Klux Klan-type figures in an ambiguous, nondescript landscape.

Further reading
Michele Robecchi and Craig Garrett (eds.), Wilhelm Sasnal, London 2011.
Patrizia Dander and Julienne Lorz (eds.), BILD-GEGEN-BILD/Image Counter-Image, Haus de Kunst, Munich 2012, pp.155–7.
Achim Borchardt-Hume (ed.), Wilhelm Sasnal, Whitechapel Gallery, London 2012.

Achim Borchardt-Hume
April 2013

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Display caption

Painter and film-maker Wilhelm Sasnal uses photographs as a starting point for his work. Whether finding them by chance or seeking them out on the internet, he selects images he sees as open to interpretation. His three paintings based on broadcast coverage of the killing of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi – made the same year – demonstrate how painterly concerns such as scale, technique and composition transform our relation to the image. Here Sasnal depicts the body of the deposed leader as an abstract mass of thickly applied paint to imply a visceral and violent death.

Gallery label, February 2016

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Technique and condition

The painting is in oil on canvas, and is unvarnished. The canvas is cotton and is very fine, with a thread count of thirty warp threads and thirty weft threads per square centimetre, and it is stapled to a softwood stretcher. The priming for the canvas was prepared by the artist, using animal glue sizing and then two or three coats of a water-based priming (polyvinyl acetate, PVA) that had been thinned with water. The turnover edges have been left bare. The artist has used washy green paint diluted using turpentine, which leaves visible brush stokes to depict a square room at the centre of which is a rectangular mattress. The mattress holds a mass of heavy, extremely thick impasto.

Bone black, cadmium-zinc yellow, cadmium red, ultramarine and iron oxide pigments have been identified in the heavy impasto region. Some of the impasto paint has been squeezed onto the canvas directly from the paint tube. The impasto paint is still very soft which suggests the paint is not yet fully dry. This likely relates to the thickness of the paint. Additionally, castor oil, which is a semi drying oil, was found in the soft yellow paint. Semi drying oils are often used as the binding medium or a component of the binding medium in modern oil paint formulations. Semi-drying oils do not dry as effectively as traditional drying oils such as linseed and poppy oil. This could be an additional factor causing the thick impasto paint to remain fairly soft. Talc (hydrated magnesium silicate), chalk (calcium carbonate) and barium sulphate were identified as extender pigments in the paints.

The painting is in good condition and has little to no surface dirt. The painting is currently unframed and unglazed.

Further reading
Andrea Bellini, ‘Wilhelm Sasnal’, Flash Art, no. 261, pp.231-233. 2008.
Eamonn Maxwell and Paul McAree (eds), Wilhelm Sasnal : take me to the other side’. Lismore, Co. Waterford : Lismore Castle Arts, 2014.

Judith Lee
February 2017

Research on this work was carried out as part of an AHRC funded Collaborative Doctoral Award at Tate 2013–2016.

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