Leipzig Art Scene They’re Still Painting, and More

First an unexpected success on the art market, then a bubble: the hype surrounding the “New Leipzig School” put the city on the map of the art world, but also blinkered its vision.

Sebastian Stumpf, Video still from “Islands“ (2014) Sebastian Stumpf, Video still from “Islands“ (2014) | © Sebastian Stumpf, courtesy Galerie Kleindienst, Leipzig It was like a game of “Chinese Whispers” – only it wasn’t exactly whispered: from master-class student to “wunderkind.” That was how a small cluster of Leipzig painters were being celebrated almost exactly ten years ago. From the New York Times, specialised art magazines and political TV shows, and finally women’s magazines and tabloids. The name “New Leipzig School” has remained controversial to this day and is rejected by those involved. But it quickly imprinted itself in people’s minds with the result that the quality of the works hardly played a role any longer. The artists in question were above all Tilo Baumgärtel, Tim Eitel, Martin Kobe, Christoph Ruckhäberle, David Schnell and Matthias Weischer – at the time all in their early 30’s, painting more or less figuratively – but except for Tilo Baumgärtel, none were from Leipzig. They came here because they wanted to study painting at the Academy of Visual Arts (Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst /HGB), which in the art business was regarded as hopelessly old-fashioned. At first, they promoted themselves with Liga, their temporary producers’ gallery in Berlin, until professional gallery owners took over. They themselves were never into regional traditions: the label “Young Painters from Leipzig” was what drew buyers and collectors.

Master, student, market

One key figure is Neo Rauch. He had studied at the HGB in the 1980’s and was a teaching assistant there in the mid-‘Nineties. But he gave up the professorship he had taken up in 2005 a few years later, and now only mentors five master-class students. His success has both encouraged and blinded him. A painter through and through, with a name that could pass as a pseudonym, with charisma and the power of hand and imagination needed for large-scale formats. He had withstood the last low point of painting, which time and again had been pronounced dead, and now he became its star, esteemed and criticised in equal measure, flanked by his shrewd, business-minded gallerist Harry Lybke. “Leipzig painting was always powerful and assertive – and it still is, but under a different set of circumstances now that the hype has died down. At the moment, the bandwidth and complexity of the scene here is multiplying immensely, which is also related to the fact that the younger generation can now relax and liberate itself from a focus on a small number of role or success models,” says Arne Linde of the ASPN Gallery. Like a dozen other galleries and numerous studios, they are located in the former cotton mill (Baumwollspinnerei), now a high-profile art centre, in Leipzig-Plagwitz.

Farewell to the myth

The next generation, artists in their 30’s today are affirming technical, imaginary and sensory qualities quite naturally and in highly diverse ways in painting, and also in drawing and graphics.

Franziska Holstein, for instance, works with geometric patterns. Photographer Grit Hachmeister responds auto-didactically and with humour to media clichés. Others – like Johannes Rochhausen in his melancholy studio interiors or Katrin Thiele in mysterious sceneries – are concentrating and sublimating means and motifs.

To be sure, conceptual artists such as the group Famed, Luise Schröder or Silke Koch are still delivering friction and competition.

Thus, with a 2005/2006 installation, Silke Koch alluded – not without irony – both to the myth of the young painter as well as to the changes that have taken place in her East German home town since the fall of the Berlin Wall: “Is New Leipzig observation or assertion, fiction or reality? And where is the New Leipzig School to be located?” Please note: she found the lettering on an old school building as well – in a place called New Leipzig in North Dakota, USA. She recorded what the place looks like in photographs, a video and a map she painted over.

Leipzig as a centre of photography

Far too few are aware that some of the most exciting next-gen photographers studied at the HGB, too: Tobias Zielony, Clemens von Wedemeyer, Sven Johne and Sebastian Stumpf.

Stumpf, a native of Würzburg says that one of Leipzig’s plus points is that one can always leave and then return quickly and without complications. “This is the place where I find concentration for my work.” His photographs and videos to date have arisen primarily in metropolises: one sees the artist jumping from bridges, climbing on sparsely growing trees, lying in puddles or placing himself in the gaps between buildings. Performances without an audience. The delayed-action shutter release is the corpus delicti in these wayward explorations of himself, his surroundings and his world. The real and at the same time irreal landscape to the south of Leipzig – where leftover hollows from the days of lignite coal-mining are being “recultivated” as a lake region – is the setting for his complex and painterly new works.