Important Art by Neo Rauch
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.
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.
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.