Summary of Neo Rauch
Both the paintings and the personality of Neo Rauch are intensely poetic - they serve as poignant reminders of the continuing power of quiet internal musing even in today's ceaselessly noisy world. He unusually privileges and draws close attention to human traits of timidity, hesitancy, and reflection, and as such, certain sensitivity to these characteristics is required in order to delve in and to begin to understand the highly introspective drive of this artist's practice.
Rauch is affiliated with the New Leipzig School, and is a part of the twenty-first century renaissance in German painting. Many figures associated with this movement work figuratively, as storytellers conjuring magical dream worlds. Rauch talks specifically about his works having their own life; the characters "grow", and the canvases teem with psychological dynamics born of unravelling narratives. Often shunning interpretation and defying analysis, Rauch's world can be obscure, at times brutal, and ever fast-changing. His pictures demand that our internal lives take the lead; a call that most struggle with and duly marvel upon.
- Rauch practices an infusion of dream and nightmare, as well as a combination of academic intensity in everyday situations giving his work a typically "German" flavour. This is also the classic formula for a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, and one which seeps into visual art including the work of Rauch's influential forbears, Albrecht Dürer and Max Beckmann. Despite Germany's historical catastrophes, Rauch makes clear that typical "German" art is not political at all.
- The contrast between contemplation and capitalist material culture is highlighted in Rauch's work. Indeed, it was due to enforced modernisation in the West that many good things were declared dead, including painting. It is interesting and ironic therefore that Rauch's work is bought, sought after, and particularly revered by excessively wealthy collectors. Be it consciously or unconsciously, Rauch's pictures provide a "safe haven" for viewers to reconcile the horrors of this world, whether they are implicit in creating these, busy protesting against them, or paralysed by the ideas in them.
- The influence of Surrealism is strong throughout the oeuvre of Rauch and especially that of Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst. He shares with de Chirico the portrayal of multiple perspectives within one scene, as well as using changes in scale to highlight meaning. Like the Surrealists, Rauch privileges the role of the unconscious, and calls upon the importance of trance states and indirectness. Similar to Ernst, he adopts a vivid palette and employs what appear to be techniques of decalcomania (a branching and smudging of brushstroke). Rauch and Ernst both interestingly return to the pose of the Pietá to explore their relationships with their fathers.
- Rauch acknowledges that the tone of his art has been shaped by the tragic death of his parents. He speaks of a "dark film cast", as foreboding and melancholy linger in his work. Rauch is fascinated by the idea that his parents were much younger than he is now when they died (they were only 19 and 21). As a result the infant and elder relationship has been reversed, and it is now Rauch who has helped to bring his parents work into view by staging an exhibition of their art school drawings. There is a profound sense for Rauch that life is not linear but navigated through dizzying cycles.
- Neo Rauch's relationship with Rosa Loy, as "artists in love", and as creative collaborators is interesting. A recent documentary made by Nicola Graef on Rauch revolves around the theme of companions, with whom we decide to share our lives. Rauch talks of his and Loy's lives as "interwoven", and moving in "parallel". Loy is very involved in Rauch's studio practice, even to the degree that she offers color and compositional suggestions. Their relationship reveals that although Rauch has created his own language, that his imagery can be translated, understood, and shared.
Progression of Art
As one of Rauch's earlier works, Unbearable Naturalism features ambiguous actions in multiple spaces illustrating the artist's clear devotion to elements of the absurd and the unconscious. The title Unbearable Naturalism acts as a possible satirical critique of the Naturalist movement dedicated to the depiction of nature as it is, without the subversion and story telling aspects that Rauch always adds and considers of paramount importance.
The composition seems to be split into two, men with easels depicted in both spaces, as well as canvasses, palettes, and somewhat bizarrely, floating orange bubbles. Rauch's color choices are often so bright and saturated that they do not necessarily fit with the subject matter they sit alongside. The motif of the bubble does though reoccur in other images and one questions as to whether these signify thought bubbles, or more simply, moments of decorative pause in what is an otherwise chaotic and complex scene.
Rauch leaves clues for the viewer, but he never fully explains what is happening. In the foreground, a man appears to be using a gun to pick up bloodied bullets from a palette. Each canvas is painted with a target like circle, and a man in the background is wearing an orange shirt that appears to be ridden with bullet holes, in an almost comic style as though he has been put through a hole punch. It is possible that all of these clues combine to suggest a sort of violent, Abstract Expressionist aspect of painting, although the message is not at all clear. Made up of a minimal but vibrant color palette featuring mainly orange, green, red, and yellow, combined with the bubbles and arrows, Rauch's ambiguous figurative world also aligns on some level with Pop Art. Building on both Pop elements, as well Surrealist techniques Unbearable Naturalism reflects Rauch's ability to use images to trigger questions. By framing the composition within an easel frame for example, the viewer is reminded of canvases by Salvador Dali and Rauch demonstrates his ability of toying with the imagination, and considering what it is that differs between a picture and reality.
Oil on medium-density fibreboard - David Zwirner
Waiting for the Barbarians
Displayed as part of the 2007 Para exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Waiting for the Barbarians is a title taken from a poem by Constantine P. Cavafy, an influential nineteenth century Egyptian Greek poet. The scene is populated by figures chaotic in motion, and carnivalesque in color scheme. It is set against the backdrop of a bright blue sky and a strip of what appears to be some sort of social housing. Towards the right of the canvas there is a man with a bull's head, and in the foreground a long-beaked "master of ceremonies" type character; both introduce Rauch's Surrealist inspired love of hybrid creatures. The largest figure depicted is a woman lying on her back holding a small red ball overhead. There are two other interesting foregrounded female characters, one of whom holds a rifle and the other who seems to have given this to her. There is an undoubtable flavour of military influence that Rauch tasted as a child and young adult brought up in a divided Germany. All of Rauch's characters are entirely individual and the feeling is that they arrive in the artist's imagination in rudimentary form, then grow and develop on the canvas during the process of painting itself.
The artist's use of a panoramic view encourages the viewer to read the composition in a similar way to a narrative that is dramatic and unfolding, from end to end. The scenes are separated by the central female, which aids the viewer in taking in each and every component separately as well as in total. It has been suggested that Waiting for the Barbarians adopts and then goes on to modernize religious iconography. The painting was highlighted by Roberta Smith, art critic for The New York Times, as part of her review of Para, in which she made particular comparisons between the central woman in Waiting for the Barbarians with the most iconic of female biblical figures including Eve and the Madonna. In Rauch's view of Eve, she grasps an unidentifiable red object comparable to the forbidden fruit. As has become Rauch's signature formula however, he only hints towards meaning, generally shuns analysis, and encourages viewers to observe over and over in order to discern anything at all. His biblical references are not obvious; they are traces and add to Rauch's love of enigma not necessarily providing answers or any overall understanding of the canvas.
Oil on canvas - Oil on canvas
The Blue Fish
In The Blue Fish, a woman is hoisted out of the innards of a large marine creature by a group of variously-dressed men. The backdrop is stormy with small patches of illuminated landscape. There is a windmill that appears twice, once foregrounded and cropped, and then again in the distance and whole. A watery path runs through the street, past the fish dissection, and towards the entrance of the smaller mill. The colors throughout are highly saturated and mostly primary. This very vivid palette with illuminated highlights is comparable to that of the Scottish artist, Peter Doig, who has also been credited with leading a "return to painting" and an interest in weaving myth and mystery into everyday life. These tendencies combined with unusual juxtapositions and the merging of time point towards the artistic movement of Magic Realism, to which Giorgio de Chirico is also connected.
In this painting we are confronted by a central female figure as she emerges from an unusual object, and as such the scene recalls Botticelli's Birth of Venus. The Renaissance masterwork acquires a new Surreal and fleshy dimension, as the more "real" woman rises from a fish rather than a shell, wearing a dress the color of blood, but also appearing ethereal and bearing strong resemblance to the artist's wife, Rosa Loy. The man holding her hand in guidance steadying her emergence from the creature's insides looks like Rauch himself. As is usual, there is the sense that Rauch has very clear knowledge of what this scene "means", and where the imagery comes from. The viewer, on the other hand, is confronted with an enigma.
It has been suggested that Rauch's starting point for the piece is less mythical and art historical and more connected to biblical narrative. Therefore, in another way to look at the canvas, he seems to present a comical and personal re-appropriation of the story of Jonah, the recalcitrant prophet rescued from the belly of a whale. In the traditional narrative Jonah was expelled from the whale's mouth, whereas Rauch's protagonist steps forth from the centre of the creature perhaps in an attempt to unite the story of Jonah with that of the Madonna, for such is the tendency of Rauch, to combine disparate elements. By placing this otherworldly event at the heart of a "normal" village, Rauch seems to merge and blur boundaries between the magical and the everyday.
Oil on canvas - David Zwirner
The Offering focuses on a parochial couple that appear to be offering a writhing satyr in a gesture of sacrifice. The scene is set in a forest, but there is also a strange factory near by, as well as another similarly respectably dressed couple wrestling with the gaping jaws of a cauldron creature hybrid. The acts committed seem brutal and inhumane but the facial expressions of the people remain vacant, and their hand gestures mannered and theatrical.
Rauch has frequently commented on the importance of dreams in his work, and documentary filmmaker, Nicola Graef has referred to the artist's characters as "sleepwalkers". There is certainly the sense here, as in dream, that representation does not evoke a clear narrative, but instead a series of unconscious imaginings brought together in nonsensical cohesion. The artist is successful in his attempts to block interpretation and to suggest that viewers "feel" pictures rather than over-try to force an understanding.
Oil on canvas - Sothebys
Guardian of the night
In Guardian of the night Rauch depicts a man and woman tending to a patient as though in a hospital bed. The woman wears gloves that seem alive and look like Venus flytrap plants. The gloves move towards the lying man in tender gesture but at the same time they could be dangerous - thus maintaining distance is essential, making sure that the woman can never really tend to the patient's needs, or touch him. Similar to other paintings by Rauch, the work depicts the artist's family trio, himself and his lost parents. Rauch is shown as older than his mother and father who died so young. There is a happy scene to the right of the canvas whereby the lovers (Rauch's mother and father) walk off into the distance. But the close up scene includes the drummer - also to be recognised as the signalman who made the ill-fated decision that ultimately led to the death of the young couple - and thus signifies the catastrophic reality rather than the longed-for ideal.
Guardian of the night - and indeed other works by Rauch whereby his younger father cradles his older son in his arms- bears uncanny resemblance to Max Ernst's painting, Revolution by Night (1923). Ernst made this painting soon after WWI, and told viewers that he had been inspired by mental health problems faced by soldiers after the terrors of war. The painting points towards the onset of psychoanalysis as a new way to manage trauma, but also helps Ernst to explore his own troubled relationship with his father. The man as cradled, or here in the case of Rauch, lying down, with parents by his side, recalls the biblical story of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, as though both Rauch and Ernst give hints using self-portraiture that they come to this world with a message to share.
It is not only in content that Rauch is comparable to the Surrealists, but also in technique. Here the painted landscape appears to echo the practice of decalcomania, a brushing and smudging of brushstroke also practised by Ernst. Using a doorframe to define a space between two worlds is also a trope used in work by Giorgio de Chirico, René Magritte, and Dorothea Tanning. Rauch privileges the unconscious and the dream world like his Surrealist forbears and as such the scene is paradoxically dislocated and fragmentary, as well as whole, open-ended, and literally, still growing.
Oil on canvas - David Zwirner
In Marina, two men pull a crucifix figure out of the sea, part human and part statue. To the right, the situation is observed while stormy skies and crashing waves surround. The crucified figure is comparable to many Entombment and Pieta depictions of Christ made throughout the Renaissance. Rauch once again gives classical iconography a contemporary edge through his inclusion of other unusual objects and an almost florescent color palette.
Floating above the sea, to the left of the tower, and away from the drama is a sculptural object that recalls a Totem pole, but with bodily parts. The stack of indecipherable shapes appears to be composed of a heart, various valves, and a spleen, further increasing the confusion and interest as to what is actually happening here. By making biological and scientific references in art, Rauch encourages viewers to investigate and dissect what they are looking at; as such to be rigorous and active in their role as an audience.
Oil on canvas - David Zwirner
This painting incorporates many of the traits that we have come to expect in a Rauch work; the palette is vivid and carnivalesque, humans have become creaturely hybrids sometimes dramatically different in size, and the overarching meaning remains obscure and highly ambiguous. In another fishing scene, there is also a typically industrial looking building in the background combined with the swathe of nature's elements that almost take over. There is again comparison to be made with the work of Max Ernst who made a selection of graphic collage novels early in his career. Ernst's figures also tend to be dressed smartly from an era that never quite existed. Whilst for Ernst the human hybrid always meets with the bird, for Rauch we see clearly that the affinity, and perhaps even alter ego, lies with marine life. As both the feathered and the finned are the earth's most ancient of creatures, it seems that both artists aim to explore life's original story, bringing it into the present day, as a way to encourage reflection rather than continuous action in contemporary society.
It is fitting to mention Ernst's graphic novels, as Rauch is known to be a fan of comics and to have taken great influence from this way of conveying a story. Once again here, Rauch's color scheme is derivative from primary colors and he generates great kinetic viewing interest (your eye jumps around the canvas). Always seeking to retain a freshness of looking and a new perspective on life, it makes sense that Rauch points towards the early interests of children. Engaged by bright colors and multi-sensory environments, Rauch endeavours to bring the same excitement of learning for the first time experienced by children, back into the realm of the adult. The hope is that all people maintain the positive qualities of questioning and imagining that are all too often lost when growing up.
Oil on canvas - David Zwirner
Biography of Neo Rauch
Born in 1960, Neo Rauch is the son of Hanno Rauch and Helga Wand, who both studied art at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst Leipzig. Tragically, Rauch's parents died together in a train accident when their newborn son was only four weeks old, and Rauch necessarily spent much of his life growing up with his grandparents in Aschersleben, a town that forms part of the Salzlandkreis district in Germany. Rauch grew up during the construction of the Berlin Wall, and thus lived his formative years in what was then regarded as East Germany, an undoubtedly influential experience leading him to stay forever clear of making art for the purpose of propaganda or under the service of politics. For to do so would obscure opening up free dialogue in art, with politics intent on the portrayal of only one rigid message.
Rauch's passion for art began at a young age. As a child, his peers were interested in sports and playing cards whilst he recalls a natural interest in literature, culture, and drawing; this disparity of interests often made him feel lonely. Rauch remembers the importance of a day when he was 12 years old and discovered a book containing reproductions of Salvador Dalí's work on his grandfather's bookshelf. Further citing the early building blocks of his career, Rauch talks of the great opportunity that he saw in art to be able to transfer the mode of play into professionalism; any other option was simply "out of question".
Early Training and Work
Between 1981 and 1986, Rauch studied at Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst Leipzig (the very same school that his parents had attended) under the professors Arno Rink and Bernhard Heisig. It was from there that Rauch emerged as a prominent figure in the "New Leipzig School", a title for a movement that surfaced post-reunification in 1990 in attempt to unite a group of artists who seemed loyal to painting figurative scenes of East German life. However, this was a label given by critics and historians and none of the artists associated with the term actually subscribed to it or deemed it useful. Rauch's work in particular always remained distinct from the dominant Social Realism of East Germany, and from the Neo-Expressionist styles of the West. Even in his early work he had developed a poetic narrative style that was quite unique, and assertively refused to subscribe to any movement or moment in history.
In an interview with Zeit.de, Rauch recalled when he first personally met his influential friend and teacher, Arno Rink. Rauch stated that Rink had an appearance akin to writer Thomas Mann combined with an attitude that demanded respect. Reminding the young artist of the demands expected whilst enlisted in the National People's Army (the national service that all young men still undertake in Germany), Rauch said that Rink's attitude was one that he understood and was happy to answer with respect. During his studies, Rauch cites that he admired Rink's precision of detail, and a sense of magic within his color palette.
During this time, in 1985, Rauch married his fellow artist and representative of the "New Leipzig School", Rosa Loy. In various interviews, Rauch discusses the couple's dynamic as two working artists, stating that they do not view each other as competition and are both proud of each other's success, jokingly elaborating upon their frequent chess games where Loy always wins whilst simultaneously knitting and listening to music with one earphone.
Between 1986 and 1990, Rauch chose to further his education by continuing to study for his Masters at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst Leipzig. The 1980s was a crucial phase in Rauch's life, as it was in the University environment that he began to feel like less of an outsider. It was also at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst that Rauch met Judy Lybke, a life-long friend who also became the founder of EIGEN+ART gallery, Rauch's gallerist, and instrumental in his commercial success.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall collapsed, and in 1990, Rauch and Loy's son was born, the latter of which events Rauch described as "The greatest change in my life...That's when I crossed over into greater responsibility, but at the same time it offered me the chance to embrace child-play once again". Between the years 1993 and 1998, Rauch decided to further his practice as an artist by working as an assistant for his teachers, Arno Rink and Sighard Gille at Leipziger Akademie. During this time Rauch had already started to exhibit his own work but he initially achieved little success and attracted no interest. In 1993, Rauch had his first solo show at EIGEN + ART in Leipzig, recalling it as a "commercial disaster" likely because video and installation were very popular at the time.
Six years later, Rauch made his breakthrough onto the international art scene following a display of work exhibited as part of 1999 Armory Show in New York. His work then quickly became popular and he exhibited work far and wide, in Austria, Spain, Holland and Canada. With recognition however came criticism, and Rauch initially found this difficult to deal with. Between 2005 and 2009, Rauch turned his attention to teaching and became a professor at his alma mater, Hochshule für Grafik und Buchkunst. In 2009 he decided to end his professorship. He felt that he could not simultaneously combine the demands of being an artist and a professor, stating that teaching working was not a "quiet zone".
Always based in Leipzig, Rauch was often asked whether he would consider leaving the city. He responds with a definite "no" expanding that he feels he has the space he needs for his house, garden, and studio in the city, and fears that he wouldn't elsewhere, such as Berlin, which is too crowded for his taste. Rauch's studio is in a former cotton mill known as the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei. Many other members of the New Leipzig School also have their studios there. The building has been converted into many artist workshops, and he finds the creative environment very inspiring. Every weekday morning, Rauch cycles six miles to his workshop, with the intention to arrive there by nine in the morning and to finish at seven. During lunchtime, Rauch prepares lunch for himself and his wife, who works across the hall. Situated adjacent to him is Tilo Baumgärtel's workspace, a Leipziger artist who shares a strong working relationship with Rauch. Rauch spends his weekends gardening, telling the New York Times "I also need those weekends off to put some kind of distance between me and my paintings...When I come back on Mondays, the paint on the canvases has dried, and only then I can really judge my own work."
Rauch has enjoyed much commercial success and has many esteemed and wealthy clients including Brad Pitt, who, in 2009, bought the work Stage (1998) at Art Basel. Rauch is frequently asked how he feels about the money that his works sell for, to which he has replied that he acknowledges and appreciates the sheer enormity of these sums, but he believes that the "price" paid for the paintings does not necessarily coincide with "value".
In 2012 der Grafikstiftung Neo Rauch was founded. This site, built specifically for the artist is now a foundation that has become home to all of Rauch's graphic works created since 1992, and will also be the home for future work, as well as a space where exhibitions can take place. Rauch stated "The foundation in Aschersleben will be the perfect combination of my own interests and those of the town...I practically have my own museum to be under constant pressure to produce high quality work. At the same time, the foundation will be a boost to the town's cultural life." Der Grafikstiftung Neo Rauch stands as testament to the importance of the artist's own roots, situated in the town where he was brought up. It also confirms his dedicated commitment to disseminating art more widely, and his massive power of positive influence on the international art world.
Rauch continues to paint daily, and exhibit regularly. In 2015, he had a joint exhibition with Rosa Loy at the Society of Friends of Contemporary Art (in Zwickau - Loy's town of birth) in celebration of the couple's thirty years of marriage. Many of Rauch's paintings include a figure that resembles Loy. In The Measuring (date unknown) for example, Loy can be found dressed in black in the background. Director and curator, Klaus Fischer has remarked that when Loy appears she takes the role of an observer in Rauch's paintings, presented as though watching over the situation that plays out as a whole, a likely reflection the couple's everyday life.
This particular exhibition was very tender and personal, also consisting of paintings of a smaller scale, which Loy described as gifts the couple had given to each other on special occasions, such as on Christmas, birthdays, or wedding anniversaries. Rauch and Loy have jointly exhibited their work numerous times over the years, and most recently they held a show centred around a painting called The knitters (2018) including paintings that the couple had actually worked on together.
In 2017, Rauch's teacher and life-long friend Arno Rink passed away, Rauch was with him during his last days, and says that he will remember him as a 'fatherly friend'. Having achieved much success, Rauch was asked in the 2017 documentary directed by Nicola Graef - Neo Rauch: Gefährten und Begleiter - as to whether he would ever consider taking a break having been painting now for so long. He responds by saying this is something that he has tried but it bought him nothing, stating "it made everything worse...because the absence of painting simply generated a feeling of uselessness. Who am I when I am not painting?"
The Legacy of Neo Rauch
Along with other artists affiliated with the New Leipzig School, Rauch can be accredited for returning a figurative practice to the forefront of the art world. Through his combined application of Renaissance, Surrealist, and Realist elements, Rauch creates work that cannot easily be labelled or classified within any specific genre. He creates intrigue in his non-conforming approach engaging the viewer through a certain repulsion of the usual channels of analysis. It has been suggested that it is Rauch's approach of combining reality and unreality that attracts the interest of Hollywood actors.
Rauch has influenced many other artists including fellow German Stefan Kibellus, and the Pop Surrealist artist, Marion Peck. Kibellus positions Rauch in his workshop backed by a figurative painting with his clothing covered in splatters of paint in Portrait Neo Rauch (date unknown). Having observed Rauch in order to make this portrait, Kibellus summarized Rauch's working process as, "Armed with two paintbrushes. The canvas is his arena. The doubts are his opponents. Courageously he faces the uncertainty. I love his paintings." Kibellus, like others, admires Rauch for the dramatic nature of his work. He alludes to the enormous amount of energy that Rauch invests in his work, a sort of contemporary heroism that is visibly described in a metaphor akin to going into battle.
Rauch however, sees himself less as a hero and more as a human needed to "re-enchant" the world: a timeless figure destined to weave people and history together. His canvases bear no reference to particular places or periods in universal time; he tries simultaneously to understand his own personal, "family time". Due to the fact that his parents died tragically, and so young, it is as though Rauch has come to express his own legacy as one entwined with that of his parents. In 2016, Der Grafikstiftung Neo Rauch hosted a special exhibition featuring the work of Hanno and Neo Rauch under the title Father and Son. As Hanno Rauch died so young, it is only thanks to Neo that such a wide audience now knows his father's early drawings. Typically self-portraits, or portraits of Rauch's mother, there is a strong sense that Hanno's art, and indeed the exhibition hosted in his name, is a legacy in turn fuelling and supporting the legacy of his son.