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