Yet there is also something jarring and unsettling about the paintings’ evocation of the DDR. In Arbeiter (Workers), 1998, two earnest yet befuddled laborers wearing aprons and big hats are at work; one attempts to attach troublesome cables to a facade with rows of colored windows, the other to make sense of a small package that contains part of a broken wall with a small window. In Rauch’s paintings, diligent-looking people attempt to make baffling, and perhaps pointless, technology function. (People in East Germany constantly fixed things, if only for a time, with old or improvised tools and scrounged materials.) Mittag (Noon), 1997, shows a city inexplicably quiet and almost empty at midday. In the foreground, three traffic tollgates in a cluster make little sense, since there is no traffic at all; next to them looms an odd vertical contraption that perhaps was once some futuristic marvel, but is now of indeterminable purpose. A pensive male worker steps across the empty street toward a female comrade standing on the steps of an institutional-looking building, as the gray sky and a yellow-gold section at the left close off the whole scene. The oddly sealed city feels apparitional, as if about to fade out and vanish altogether.
At all stages of his career, Rauch combines styles: he is as much an abstractionist as a realist. Parts of the paintings are meticulously rendered, with acute attention to detail, while others look willfully clumsy, casually streaked and smeared, or abruptly left raw and unfinished. While obviously a master of brushwork and perspective, Rauch positions figures of wildly different sizes next to one another, ignores gravity, collapses distance and fuses seemingly separate scenes into a choppy whole. During a public conversation at the Goethe-Institut New York in 2008, the artist was asked by an audience member about the meaning of his characters. He candidly admitted that he couldn’t always say for sure, but sometimes his figures are there simply because the picture requires it, in really formal terms: color, balance, scale and proportion. Rauch, an artist identified with resurgent figurative painting, may be developing and positioning figures much as an abstract painter works with basic formal elements. The bizarre, knife-wielding guy in Das Gut (The Manor), 2008, pinioned against the hood of a car by a woman and a raging man, may have two fish-shaped legs not because the artist is making mythological allusions or crafting an allegory, but because the painting demanded something light blue and curving at that point.
Rauch’s many, oftentimes stylish figures, well-coiffed and well-dressed (albeit in eccentric clothing), are vivid and intense, yet you never really identify or empathize with them as individuals. Perhaps they are not intended to be individuals at all, but to function as representatives of society. A sprawling cast of workers, students, bureaucrats, engineers, pilgrims, musicians, soldiers, scientists, fishermen and artists populate the paintings. Many observers have commented on their theatricality, as if these colorful “actors” are performing roles, however mysterious and absurd, though with a pervasive air of cool detachment and emotional reserve. Routine and familiar matters—a professor lecturing to students, a man on an afternoon stroll, technicians tinkering over some machine, a parent cradling a child, a café scene—are infiltrated by bizarre, unruly and at times surreal elements that make things seem fantastical and precarious to the point of impending mayhem. Mundane situations become outrageous and freakish, while outlandish ones seem inevitable and commonplace.
A 19th-century gentleman in a dark suit and top hat, clutching an odd, squiggly cane almost like a serpent, gingerly steps into an expanse of shallow, yellowish water (Vorhut, Vanguard, 2003). The landscape behind him is benighted, even post-apocalyptic; a building on a plateau looks official and scary; and the yellow water resembles some terrible toxic spill. (For the entire DDR period, extensive coal mining outside of Leipzig, along with heavy pollution from chemical plants, seriously befouled the city and ravaged much of the surrounding landscape.) Call this painting Rauch’s reeling version of the German Spaziergang,a revivifying walk in nature. Actually, nature is essential in Rauch’s work, and while it retains a residue of romanticism and a hint of the sublime (bountiful skies, pine forests, distant mountains and sweeping vistas), it is also often gouged, buckling, fissured and bleak, suggesting the aftermath of some environmental disaster.
One is tempted to scour Rauch’s paintings for meaning, to decipher his silent stories and crack the code of his obtuse symbolism, but that’s completely futile. His symbolism, if indeed it is symbolism, is too hermetic, his references too complex. So you give yourself up to his paintings, approaching them with something of the bewilderment with which the characters themselves seem to respond to their perplexing conditions. In Suche (Search), 2004, a gigantic but rather exhausted-looking brown bird with a reptilian tail and sandwich board sporting the painting’s title dangling from its neck has wandered into an outdoor café. No one seems rattled by the creature: not a waitress in an antiquated black dress, nor a seated gentleman in 19th-century garb, nor a contemporary man in a track suit bending over to pat a poodle. The whole semi-grimy, rickety neighborhood is coming apart at the seams; a growing tree blasts through the café’s interior.
Rauch has been called an heir to German Expressionism—one is reminded of the cabarets, stages, bars, actors and clowns of Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann (who were themselves descended from Bosch and Brueghel)—as well as to Surrealism. Yet what might be even more pertinent is his connection with a far older tradition: that of the European carnival. Costumed village festivals in which everyone is a participant, religious celebrations with pagan roots and the pre-Lenten celebration known as Fasching or Fastnacht (Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras) license all sorts of ribaldry. Carnivalesque excess, antics and exaggeration abound in Rauch’s paintings, but in a way that’s usually conflated with mundane, everyday life. According to the Russian literary critic and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, the carnival is a temporary and oftentimes uproarious suspension of normality, an upset to rigid patterns of behavior and social stratification; it is daily life turned upside down and inside out, drawn out of its “usual rut.”1 Something very similar happens in Rauch’s paintings, in which elements of the status quo coexist with things that have been decisively, even riotously, transformed.
Among the motifs appearing in Rauch’s paintings of the past couple of years are processions, costumes, crowds, combinations of humans and animals, acrobatic feats and holy fools—all staples of the carnival. In Fastnacht (2010) the midwinter nocturnal festival takes place in a small, snowy village, but the mood isn’t one of revelry. Two Cossack-like marauders, each waving a curved saber and clutching a severed head, show up to attack a house with several people inside. (As often happens in Rauch’s paintings, the front wall of this house has vanished to expose the interior.) Dressed in opulent teal and crimson uniforms, which include goofy hobbyhorses at their midsections, these ungainly invaders manage to look at once dangerous, comical and completely out of place: they’re from the wrong century and they’ve arrived at the wrong village, but still they go about their duty, which is to attack. Several men and women in the house, wearing an odd cross of military and equestrian gear, are engrossed in some indecipherable research and remain oblivious to the commotion outside, while an artist in a green T-shirt and paint-splattered jeans kneels on the snow-covered ground, holding several paintbrushes in his hands like pathetic little weapons. Nearby, another sword-wielding invader chases a frenzied crowd into a building. An alarming red glow emanates from behind dark pine trees. Next to a boxy church steeple, the twin smokestacks of a factory or power plant billow out terrible clouds of black smoke. While this painting is antic, even hilarious, it simultaneously evokes more serious matters: wars, scientific inquiry and breakthroughs, mass protest movements, repression and rampant pollution.
Unlike many prominent figurative painters—Richter, Marlene Dumas, John Currin, Luc Tuymans, Lisa Yuskavage and Elizabeth Peyton among them—Rauch often paints “mini-societies” in his works. People gathered in proximity, though also in confusing relation to one another, are not treated primarily as individuals. There is a collectivist energy in Rauch’s paintings, a sense of shared community, and for this he may well be indebted to growing up in East Germany. I’m not referring to official government ideology but rather to life as it was actually led in trying circumstances: people banding together to help one another, sharing responsibility for common enterprises, suppressing egos in service to communal efforts and making do, despite an authoritarian government and the ubiquitous Stasi. Still, Rauch’s oddball communities are anything but lovely and inspiring. Much as the figures participate, they remain uncomfortably solitary, ensconced in their own private, unfathomable psyches.
I mentioned earlier that Rauch’s paintings seem curiously trans-temporal, to the point that a single work might suggest both Germany now and East Germany a couple of decades ago, 19th-century Romanticism, 18th-century soldiers, medieval times and a science-fiction future. Rauch seems to understand that the eras of the DDR and reunification are simply moments among many, that it’s all embedded in the limitless reach of ages, in endless cycles of growth and decay, creation and destruction. Against that vast backdrop, his characters pursue their eccentric enterprises, even as things break down and go awry. You find yourself empathizing with their fabulous, sputtering, ridiculous attempts to make something wonderful, or even viable, despite the fact that they, like us, are subject to time, mishaps and disasters.
Currently On View
“Neo Rauch: Begleiter” at the Museum der bildenden Künste, Leipzig, and the Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, through Aug. 15.
1 All quotes from and references to Mikhail Bakhtin are from Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, ed. and trans. by Caryl Emerson, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1984, pp. 122-24.
“Neo Rauch: Begleiter” is on view in Leipzig at the Museum der bildenden Künste and in Munich at the Pinakothek der Moderne [through Aug. 15]. It is accompanied by a catalogue published by Hatje Cantz Verlag. There will also be an exhibition of Rauch’s paintings at the Zacheta National Gallery in Warsaw [Nov. 26, 2010-Jan. 10, 2011].
GREGORY VOLK is a New York-based critic and curator, and professor at the School of the Arts, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond.