“Occasionally a word can trigger a painting. It can happen that a word develops an incredible atmospheric undertow in the direction of a painting that produces itself where my only duty is to assist. Such moments are precious and they bring me even closer to my mother tongue, for it is only here that such experiences can occur.” (Neo Rauch in Alison M Gingeras, ‘Neo Rauch’, Flash Art, November-December 2002, No.277)
When the Berlin wall fell in 1989, Neo Rauch was just finishing his studies at the Art Academy in Leipzig. The events of that year had a profound effect not just on his livelihood and of those around him but also in the way that he saw the world. For a generation brought up in the East under the shadow of Communism, their rapid and relentless exposure to the Capitalism of the West gave them a unique insight into the two most powerful types of political economy in the ever growing Global village. As with many of the most important artistic movements over the centuries, yet again a profound uplifting of civilisation and a clash of historical ideals laid the seeds for an artistic movement which has now become the most innovative and groundbreaking in the new century, the so-called Leipziger Schule or Leipzig School.
As the founding father and leading light of this school, Neo Rauch has inspired a group of young painters to draw from their own individual experience and amalgamate the wide variety of histories, ideologies and environments that they have been exposed to. Formally trained in the traditional techniques of perspective, draughtsmanship and painting, these artists have an incredible facility with the medium and as a result each is able to articulate a very individual response to their own experience.
Tim Eitel, Matthias Weischer and David Schnell have all been inspired by Rauch and share with him a deep commitment to figurative painting combined with a distinctively Leipziger air of unease and disillusionment – the product of seeing the failure of two bright new dawns – those of post-War Communism and post-Cold War capitalism.
All of this is packed into Rauch’s grands tableaux which merge a whole array of signs and symbols from various histories of art and society to create complex narratives echoing the world in which we live. Merging the objects and interiors of communism and consumerism, comic influences with communist industrial paraphernalia and diagrams and a history of German art from Cranach to Beckmann and Baselitz, Rauch effortlessly plunders a dictionary of visual stimuli to try to find answers to the state of the world.
The towering presence of Losung represents one of his finest paintings to date. Executed in his breakthrough year of 1998, the painting has spent most its life in museums, most recently the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, where it has sat very comfortably amongst the international artists who have been such a big influence. One is first struck by the dramatic felling of a tree which crashes across the foreground of the composition and immediately belittles the viewer. In Rauch’s lexicon one would imagine that this is a symbol for the failure of nature that was so romantically portrayed by his 19th Century predecessor, Caspar David Friedrich. Indeed, this is confirmed by the roots of the tree which are pictured at the bottom of the composition metamorphosing into electrical cables which in turn merge into rocket-like trees lifting out of the ground towards the bright blue sky, bearing the word “Losung” depicted like a Hollywood closing credit. Like the painting itself, the German word “Losung” has ambiguities of meaning which Rauch enjoys and plays with. Most directly it means ‘password’, which bears suggestions of the vague hope of a passage to a brave new world beyond this painting.
If we duck beneath the felled trunk and hurdle over the pipe filled with live wires, we vanish down the rabbit-hole and go through the looking-glass into the world of Rauch’s imagination into the background of the painting. There we find two men depicted as if in a Socialist Realist instruction manual engaged in undefined work, pointing to empty space. Meanwhile, beneath a watch-tower and in front of a long, low workshed and neatly-ordered wood pile, three militaristic figures push and drag a stagnant leaping stag which appears to be constructed of solid paint. A symbol of energy and progress has been stopped dead in its tracks.
Above them Rauch introduces that classic symbol of German Romanticism, the forest. It is perhaps the forest of Rauch’s childhood since he grew up in Aschersleben, a small town in the foothills of the Harz Mountains near the vast forest of what is now the Harz National Park. Depicted as a dense mass of trees, this incredible image mirrors the appearance of a Max Ernst ‘Frottage’. However, where Ernst achieved this look by rubbing and scraping objects onto the canvas to take a direct ‘print’ of their reality, Rauch here painstakingly recreates every detail. Furthermore, where for Ernst the forest represented the sublime embodiment of both enchantment and terror, for Rauch it represents the old world. This is Rauch’s epitaph to the years gone by when images of Nature, its cycles of growth and decay and its ceaseless renewal, were the keys to feeling in art. If this sense has been dimmed, it is partly because for most people in the West, Nature has now been replaced by the culture of congestion: of cities and mass media. The forest of trees has become a forest of media and cables.
Thus, in this painting, through a complex stylistic amalgam, Neo Rauch presents us with two very distinct worlds, those of his past and present. If the past is painted in an extremely eloquent and longing way, lovingly detailed in its dream-like depiction, the present is painted with dramatic directness. In harsh perspective, there is more detail in the background than there is to the foreground, a reversal of the imagistic norm. Up above lies the ambiguous key to the future: LOSUNG. It is a tribute to Rauch’s talent as a painter and his compositional genius that such diverse elements work well together. Only Rauch could use eighteenth-century and futuristic references and not descend into the absurd. What is remarkable about this painting and Rauch’s body of work is his skill at juxtaposing images in such a compositionally coherent manner. As he says “With a shudder I open the various contamination chambers and remove a variety of material from them to temporarily store it in the territories of my paintings.” (Conversation between Neo Rauch and Juan Manuel Bonet, cited in: Exhibition Catalogue, Malaga, CAC, Neo Rauch, 2005, p. 76)
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