Typical of Rauch’s choice of painting in large scale, Der Landgang, or shore leave, presents to the viewer a vision-engulfing narrative that features the artist’s idiosyncratic painterly style characterised by his use of strong complementary colours and the recurrent other-worldly pictorial settings. Suggested by the painting’s title, a term referring to the leave that professional sailors get to spend on dry land, Der Landgang seems to depict the sailor protagonist going on shore at first glance. However, the sailor’s helpless body language puzzles viewers. His legs are bound and bent at an awkward angle while his upper body is supported by two figures drastically disproportionate to his own size. The man clutching the sailor’s left arm dresses like a clergyman wearing a zucchetto while the other man on the sailor’s right wears a set of uniform that seems to belong to a different era. The scene becomes more bewildering as the weak sailor reappears in much smaller scale on the top right edge of the painting. He is held like a mannequin by an obese figure wearing a suit and an eerie elephant mask, roaming on the street of what seems to be a nocturnal townscape with strange forms of banners and balloons suspended in air. As viewers lower their gaze to the bottom right corner of the work, the painting abruptly breaks into bright daylight again while the same sailor wanders the deserted streets of what could possibly be his own hometown. Every feature in the painting is rendered in the same discoloured russet hue as if they are apparitional imageries that are about to fade out and disappear, leaving behind the lone sailor, the only character painted in garish green and yellow, to linger in the apocalyptic dreamscape like a lost spirit.
Viewers might be tempted to scour all possible hidden meanings behind Rauch’s painting, only to find that the visual references are too complex and transtemporal to decipher. Such abandonment in exploiting the symbolic and metaphorical possibilities of classical iconographies is characteristic of the New Leipzig School which Neo Rauch is a member of. However, similar visual presentation of multiple narratives depicted on one single picture plane can be found in a much earlier fresco dating back to early Renaissance painted by the Quattrocento Master Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel. St. Peter, equivalent to the sailor in Der Landgang, appears thrice in Masaccio’s Tribute Money where he is simultaneously debating with Christ in the middle, retrieving coins from the mouth of a fish on the far left and paying the tax payer on the far right. There is no doubt that successive episodes of the biblical tale are told as all scenes abide by perspectival rules with a unified focal point. In contrast, Der Landgang lacks spatial logic and natural transitions amongst the interlocking pictorial zones, resulting in the ambiguity of whether viewers are presented with a continuous narrative or an ensemble of arbitrary episodes sewed together into a visual jigsaw.
Having grown up in East Germany during the Cold War, Rauch unlike his artistic counterparts such as Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke embraces the social-realist tradition and figuration, shedding light on why his paintings often bear reminiscence of socialist propaganda posters. However, Rauch heralded the painterly tradition of narratives under a new light. While the artist dislikes the classification of his art as surrealist, the immense influence of Surrealism and the significant part that interwoven dreams and memories play in his theatrum mundi are evident. Rauch himself testifies the role of dream as his artistic medium in his modus operandi, ‘These half-awake moments in which the flotsam accumulates in my catch basin and rearranges itself to a new organisation are the essence of my painting…This is why I believe that I can view painting as the continuation of the dream with other media.’ (The Artist quoted in Alison M. Gingeras, ‘Neo Rauch. A Peristaltic Filtration system in the River of Time,’ Flash Art 35, 227, November – December 2002) Amongst the hundreds of sketches and drawings that Rauch does per year, a significant portion of them are quick graphic notes that the artist made to record the remnants of his dreams. These memorandums, however, should not be mistaken as preparatory studies for any specific painting. Rauch always paints directly on the canvas, as he describes, ‘[It] develops a kind of centre, a glowing point, from which the energy waves stream out and force me to act. There is a point where the picture is itself and has a kind of existence as a creature. Then comes the stage where I am just a craftsman: I have to decide how tall this figure should be, for example.’ (Interview with the Artist, Jackie Wullschlager, Financial Times, 6 October 2016) Thus stated, Der Landgang is a collage of enigmatic narratives driven by the artist’s primal impulse, informed by both his memories and experiences in life and especially those of German history.
Rauch’s works began to emerge within a decade after the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989. Deep shadows of historical upheaval lurk in the artist’s paintings as he fuses Western artistic traits such as Surrealism and Pop art with Socialist Realism. Der Landgang as a painterly collage recalls photomontage works by the renowned German Dadaist Hannah Höch, and in particular, her Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany. Caught in a similar but earlier transitional time in post-war Germany, Höch’s montage is an explosion of cut outs from newspapers and magazines, featuring dismembered human figures, machinery and texts in a chaotic abyss. Despite the pictorial resemblance, Höch’s whimsical political and social critique utilises imageries that are specific to a particular historical period. On the other hand, Rauch in a more sombre artistic expression derives his pictorial vocabularies from a wider span of time in history, evoking human uncertainty and fear towards historical events that are not necessarily interrelated.
Rauch’s paintings continue to lure us into a compelling realm of hypnotical fantasy, one that is both seductive and ominous—a world that human’s darkest desires and anxieties can meander freely. His works have been the subject of solo exhibitions at prominent institutions internationally, most recently in 2013 at BOZAR – Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels. Museum collections which hold works by the artist include the Gemeentemuseum, The Hague; Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin; Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Germany; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum der Bildenden Künste Leipzig; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.
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