Details & Cataloguing

The History of Now: The Collection of David Teiger


Neo Rauch
B. 1960
signed and dated 03; titled and dated 03 on the reverse
oil on canvas
200 by 140.3 cm. 78 3/4 by 55 1/4 in.
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Galerie EIGEN + ART, Leipzig/Berlin

Acquired from the above by David Teiger in 2003


Wolfburg, Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Neo Rauch, Neue Rollen - Paintings 1993-2006, November 2006 - March 2007, p. 135, illustrated in colour

Catalogue Note

At the intersection between personal and national history, Neo Rauch’s Januar exhibits the artist’s complex and elusive visual language grounded in an ever-colliding vocabulary of Socialist Realism, German Romanticism and Surrealism. Through such an amalgamation, dreamscapes – equally horrifying and intriguing – occupy the core of the artist’s highly unique pictorial expression, and a profound sense of German-ness pervades his compositions; they are in equal parts critical, complicated and nostalgic. Rauch’s characteristic employment of saturated, industrial colours, acute realism and ambiguous narrative elements are central to the Surrealist composition Januar, which exhibits a young man sitting on the stump of a dead tree, a large lute cradled in one arm, and a branch with budding leaves held tentatively in the other. The man appears both passive and haunted, his eerily sallow skin casting a disturbing allusion to illness, even death. Before our eyes he becomes a spectre, forming part of Rauch’s eccentric iconography of characters who “seem impassibly resigned to playing the role he assigns them, the viewer is invaded by indescribably yet strangely familiar feelings of unease. These are feelings which we once believed erased once and for all, feelings similar to the idea of loss which induce us to a profound state of melancholy” (Fernando Francés in: Exh. Cat., Málaga, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga, Neo Rauch, 2005, p. 9).

Born in Leipzig, formerly part of the German Democratic Republic, Rauch’s symbolic universe offers continual reference to his native city. The artist studied at the renowned Horschule für Grafik und Buchkunst and he is now considered a leading figure of the New Leipzig School. Yet his compositions continuously allude to the city’s grand historical past; in Januar, the lute manifests a significant motif evoking the city as a great centre of the arts and letters during the Eighteenth Century, when its citizenry included luminaries such as Johan Sebastian Bach and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Thus Rauch’s works executed between 2003 and 2004 illuminate a complex mix of styles poignantly recalling Prussia’s Golden Age, and in turn a deeply rooted nostalgia. This sense of longing might be the result of residual tensions and a confused sense of Germanic identity in the post-war years, but also during the Cold War, and at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As such, the artist’s blatantly ideological approach endeavours “to characterise the East German situation in a re-united Germany and to symbolise by extension the difficulty of integrating the country’s pasts into the present” (Ibid., p. 81).

While the sullen figure and symbolic lute occupy the foreground of the present work, the background consists of Rauch’s celebrated mastery of the landscape genre. Adding to the sense of impending doom intrinsic to Januar, Rauch paints violent, dark clouds punctuated by a searing, apocalyptic yellow sky. The ferocious sky matches the fierce expression on the seated man’s glaring face, and the dreamlike quality of the composition transitions into a nightmare. Even the title of the work, Januar, translated into January in English, evokes the dark, cold and miserable months of winter. However in its title, Januar also relates to a series of works within Rauch’s repertoire depicting the months and seasons, such as Oktober (2009) and Sommer (2001), which also present cryptic motifs connoting the cyclical passing of time. Thus in Januar Rauch’s viewers might also see references to celebrated calendars of the European Renaissance tradition, such as the Limbourg Brothers’ January banquet scene from the gothic book of hours ‘Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry’.

Rauch’s brilliant landscape in Januar is punctuated by red birds that take on anthropomorphic qualities before surreally metamorphosing into a petroleum can, a motif seen recurrently throughout Rauch’s oeuvre. The human visages that the birds assume curiously recall the faces of the dwarves from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Snow White, offering yet another allusion to fantasy, as well as ideas of imagination and hallucination within the nineteenth-century tradition of German Romanticism. In their transfiguration, the birds seem to falter and fall out of the sky, offering the final layer of Rauch’s constructed pictorial space.

The artist’s symbolic devices, such as the humanoid birds and the lute, as well as his employment of a highly enigmatic narrative also recall the Surrealist works of Salvador Dalí, who, in his articulation of dreams and hallucinations, famously sought to “systemise confusion and thereby contribute to a total discrediting of the world of reality” (Salvador Dali cited in: Haim Finkelstein, Ed., The Collected Writings of Salvador Dalí, Cambridge 1998, p. 223). Dali’s highly iconoclastic and symbolic approach in works such as Partial Hallucinations: Six Apparitions of Lenin on a Piano (1931) exhibits similar dreamlike elements to those in Rauch’s Januar, including allegorical instruments, eerie shadows and strange anthropomorphic forms. While the earlier artist’s metaphysical paintings of fragile and exotic dreamscapes greatly informed his visual language, Rauch’s painterly imagination recasts such Surrealist elements for a contemporary audience, offering a retro-futuristic fantasy – or nightmare – with a geopolitical theme deeply relevant to ideas about German-ness and German identity today. While Rauch is widely celebrated in Leipzig, his work transcends the intellectual sphere of his native city, as well as that of Germany; he is undoubtedly one of the most important artists of the Twenty-First Century. Januar is a momentous work within Rauch’s coherent yet vast oeuvre, exhibiting the artist’s ultimate prowess with a brush, as well as his fascination with the contemporary psyche and its negotiation of a turbulent, troubled past.

The History of Now: The Collection of David Teiger