Neo Rauch: ‘For Me, Painting Means the Continuation of Dreaming by other Means’
Rauch is regarded as the main exponent of the ‘New Leipzig School’. Within the doctrinally strictly supervised painting of the German Democratic Republic before the fall of the Wall, there existed a few painters – Bernhard Heisig, Wolfgang Mattheuer and Werner Tübke – who worked figuratively and to whom the all-watching GDR state permitted more freedoms than to the rest. From these painters Rauch is separated by worlds. He operates as a painter much more freely, and his treatment of the legacy of the GDR is more brash and ironic than bitter.
Brand name Leipzig
When painters from Leipzig are the subject, the question is usually not far away whether there is today, still or again, something like ‘German painting’. Rauch is undoubtedly a ‘German painter’, and he is even recognisably an East German painter. This is a kind of painting with political undertones, which responds artistically to its times and their upheavals and contradictions. Its landscapes and motifs awaken inevitably in those who know even a little about Germany associations that lead into the eastern part of the country. But its references are by no means slogan-like and above all never nostalgic.
In response to the question whether he is a German painter, Rauch replied in an interview in the magazine Spiegel: ‘I wouldn’t at any rate refuse the designation, because I believe that the world is really fully coloured only when there are strongly moulded regionalisms at a high level. As opposed to some sort of cultural Esperanto’.
Neo Rauch has developed, and this too is a qualification for a good position on the market, a recognisable style, typical of him alone. His art is above all a representational and figurative art. He favours an idiosyncratically mat, broken colouristic that unites all his works. It originates in his predilection for an old-fashioned form of children’s books and especially from his joy in the shrill colours of cheap comics.
How Rauch represents the world also has much to do with the blithe irony of the first years of Pop Art, to which he vividly responds with the distance of a generation. With regard to Pop Art one never really knew whether it was a hard criticism of the fetishes of the consumer world or perhaps itself only a hyperbole of that world.
The iridescent titles of his works play a particular role in the fight against banal unambiguousness. The title ‘Leitung’ could mean anything from the claim to leadership to a piece of electric wire; the ‘Sucher’ for Rauch is not a ‘thinker’, but a gentleman who seeks explosives in a terrain mined with abstract forms.
For his Wolfsburg exhibition Rauch has chosen the title Neue Rollen (i.e., New Roles), and one is not sure whether he has in mind the contemporaneity of his pictures (the most recent ones came from his studio still moist a week before the opening) or whether he means the search for a new pattern for his art. The world in new roles or the artist in search of his new role in the world, commentator or dreamer, fencer with his mirror image or mirror?
Pictures full of pictures. The canvass as a multiple stage
The large-scale painting with the title ‘Neue Rollen’ adds together three scenes. In the foreground a women explains the world to a child using a pasted model of a natural catastrophe. Next to it students holding beer glasses and dressed in costumes of the French Revolution thresh the world into phrases with flailing sabres. And in the third scene three people play at death under a guillotine decorated with garlands. All three scenes take place before a gigantic wall of shelves full of books and a jargon-spouting audience.
In the narrative style of painting typical of him, Rauch has spliced the bizarre scenes together as if they were happening upon a multiple stage. Boldly conveyed with hazy zones, the whole simultaneous event gives the impression of a collection of extracts from an absurd world theatre full of mini-dramas. It seems almost as if this form of painting wants to go to school with the mass medium of television and learn to ‘zap’ through the channels of the apocalypse, without thereby spoiling the good mood.
Rauch loves to play freely with all the means of painting. He makes outrageous use of the (jester’s) license of art. He uses people like props that he pushes back and forth on his surfaces. Spaces merge into each other, are wildly blended contrary to the laws of perspective. A spirit of collage and the dream-like interleaving of motifs mark his works. History as a maelstrom of stories.
Neo-Surrealism, a game with the tradition
It has become increasingly clear that Rauch’s painting stands in the tradition of surrealism. In several pictures in which objects lose their contours as if by melting, the allusion to the pictorial magician Salvador Dali is plain. But in contrast to the classical surrealism of the 1030s, Rauch’s stories do not originate in the intoxication and automatism of the unconscious. His dreams give the impression of having been constructed wide-awake.
Rauch refuses to become involved in the false dualism between abstract and representational painting. His works unite both qualities in a single style. Narrative painting needs a sequence of images so as to develop motifs or the resort to familiar scenes that can be illustrated. In Rauch’s work there is not only the adding together of images and their collage-like interlacing, but also the use of speech bubbles – which always remain significantly empty. The picture says something, means to say something, must say something – and yet makes its statement in silence. This is a language that seems like child’s play and yet lives from its enigmaticness.
‘For me, painting means the continuation of dreaming by other means’, says Rauch and thereby gives the decisive nod towards the world of dreams. In dreams we can recognise props from reality, but we cannot simply read the dream like a written page because of its scrambling. It demands interpretation and sabotages every interpretation by its artful ambiguity. Only so can every dream, even nightmares, appear as the ‘guardian of sleep’ (Sigmund Freud). The dream of painting plays with the irrationality of reality.
Rauch’s neo-Surrealism lives from constructed dream worlds. Typical for Rauch is the attempt to elude the dictates of the present and to keep alive at least an artistic freedom. Many of his figures seem as if they had lost their way and wandered into his pictures from past centuries. There are numerous references to the inception of middle-class society and the French Revolution, upon whose heels followed Biedermeier and German Romanticism.
In recent years Rauch’s pictures have become ever bigger. The formats have currently reached 3 x 4 metres. Along with the dream world, the scene-like quality is now much more developed than in his early pictures. Rauch’s world is a world of theatre that displays extracts from the great theatre of the world. The artist conceals himself artfully in his scenes. With all his allusions to the present, he has reserved for himself the role of the director and, of course, the main role of the dream-walker
former member of the Goethe-Institut online editorial team
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Online-Redaktion, Goethe-Institut
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