FROM BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN INTO THE METROPOLITAN
Neo Rauch (° 1960) grew up in the former DDR. After accomplishing his three-year military service, he studied under Arno Rink and Bernhard Heisig at the Leipzig academy, where he became assistant after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. In 1993, he starts his career as a painter in the gallery Eigen+Art in Leipzig, to arrive in the Metropolitan in New York in 2007 - a blitz ascent that can only be explained by the renewed interest in painting in the nineties, at least in the official art world, where painting had been declared dead for the umpteenth time, although it was alive and kicking all the time, especially in the DDR.
We already answered some critical questions about two other surfers on this wave: Luc Tuymans and Michael Borremans. What should be our stance on Neo Rauch?
Just like with Luc Tuymans, not only the 'return to painting' was welcomed here, but above all the return of the narrative, especially the political narrative. Whereas Luc Tuymans seduced many a progressive heart with paintings that - al least in the comments - seemed to handle themes like the holocaust and Imperialism, the work of a painter 'who came from the cold' seems to tackle other popular topics, especially that of 'really existing socialism'.
As a matter of fact, the many people at work cannot fail to catch the eye, although it is often outdated activities like handling a pickaxe, forging in a smithy, or rather peripheral activities like vacuum cleaning, spraying insecticides, fighting fires, sweeping streets, yes even emptying latrines (Höhe 2004) or controlling borders. Sometimes the workers are replaced with machines: cranes ('Fang' 1998), silos ('Lieferung' 2002), or working places, often in desolate industrial landscapes ('Das Neue' 2003). But, whether they are at work in outdated or peripheral branches, the workers do not look exploited, but rather alienated.
Other figures are engaged in political activities: meetings ('Vortäger' 2006, 'Ordnungshüter' with a booklet above and a stick below the table), demonstrations ('Demos' 2004), celebrations (Jacobins waving Phrygian caps in 'Neue Rollen', 2005) and commemorations. More violent forms of political activity are represented with - although merely marching - soldiers ('Schmerz' 2004, 'Mammut' 2004), executions with the guillotine ('Kommen wir zum Nächtsen', 2004), but above all with - equally not actually used - weapons, reaching from mythical ancestors like sticks, swords, spears and armour (Die Lage, 2006), over industrial items like a bomb (Vorort, 2010), a tank ('Der Vortäger', 2006), a gun ('Korinthische Ordnung, 2003 and 'Der Vorhang' 2005), and missiles, to the do-it-yourself-version of suicide bombers with bomb girdles ('Demos', 2004 and 'Ordndungshüter', 2008).
Even more important is the depiction of apolitical violence between individuals. A transitional stage is violence that is political, but performed in an individual interaction: people abducted in shackles (Verrat 2003, Hinter dem Schifgürtel), a man roped up on a chair (Konspiration 2004), two women reprimanding a kneeled man (Vorhang, 2005), a woman whipping a crucified man (Ordnungshüter 2008). But in other, really private situations sadomasochism blooms unencumbered, like in the drawings of Michael Borremans: a man riding another man on hands and knees (Der Ritt, 2007, Revo 2010), a naked man who is whipped, a woman piercing her hand with a knife (Anima 1995), a woman holding a man with a sefiroth on his back with a leach (Das alte Lied, 2006). And, next to the mistreatment of men, there is also that of animals, withhybrids as an intermediary stage: hunting and maltreating beetles (Nest 2012).
But people are not always doing something on these 'history paintings'. Perhaps more often they are mere passive onlookers: they just come along (Vorführung 2006), gesticulate at somebody (Schöpfer 2002), have a look (Haus des Lehrers 2003, Stickerin 2008, Revo 2010), or smoke a cigarette (Der Nächste Zug 2007). Still other figures do not even look, but withdraw in themselves (exemplary in his self-portrait, from which a detail below the heading to this text), or seem to be sleepwalking or falling asleep ('Diktat'2004, 'Chord' 2011 and 'Ware' 2011). In still other cases, finally, the figures have fallen asleep or are dead: no longer able to act, they are sometimes brought into position as if it were marionettes (Interview 2006, Bon Si 2006, Crooning I 2008, Fluchtversuch 2008).
Even though these actions are perfectly understandable in themselves, we nevertheless cannot read them as parts of some coherent 'history''. Either the actor does not fit to the action, as when hunters are wielding golf sticks instead of shotguns (Hatz 2002), or when an 18th century soldier handles a drill ('Scheune', 2003). Or the action has no object, as when firemen are handling fire hoses where no fire is to be seen ('Die Fuge', 2007), or when two people are gaping into a empty corner in the room ('Paranoia', 2007). Or the instruments of the action are undetermined ('Pressebild', 2010). Or the action has no apparent use, as when people are holding a kind of lianas ('Übergang', 2003) or when a woman is dumping some fluid over a fence ('Ausschüttung', 2009). Or the action is bluntly impossible, as when inn 'Die Flamme' someone is walking with planks tightened to his legs in a way that makes walking impossible altogether. But, above all, there is no relation between what the actors are doing. What kind of story to construct by 'Die Fuge' (2007): four firemen on the foreground, behind them a man reading a book on a table, two women and a man floating above them, and a man who emerges from the earth on their right, all this against the background of what could be hill of mining waste?
Although its seems, hence, as if Neo Rauch has something to tell us about the DDR, the French Revolution, yes even about painting, he only leaves us with mere disparate narrative elements, and it is not at all clear what these elements are supposed to convey.
The suspicion arises that these narrative elements are not to be read literally, but allegorically - that Neo Rauch rather seeks to create an allegory than to tell a story, That suspicion is reinforced in that, as we shall amply demonstrate below, many motifs recur in different paintings, which suggests that they are part of a kind of symbolic lexicon. That suspicion is further reinforced when also the title suggests a symbolic reading, as when in 'Krönung I' the substitution of a crown by a head suggests that, after the French Revolution, the bourgeois has become a king. Only seldom does the title thus invite to an allegorical reading, but that single example incites us to read otherwise incomprehensible representations as elements of an allegory, as when in 'Bon Si' (2006) what in a first phase is an insect, unfolds in a second phase into an man-insect, that in a third phase stands up, whereas elsewher on the painting moths are attracted to the light of a lantern. This reading suggests that the many man-animal hybrids may refer to the animal - an then mostly evil - nature of man. And an allegorical lecture equally imposes itself for the patients in their bed ('Aufstand', 2004, 'Puls', 2005), for the volcano in 'Das alte Lied' (2006), for the metal detector with which the painter scans the ('telluric'?) earth in 'Sucher' (1997), for the recurring theme of the windmill or the mushroom, and what have you.
But an allegorical lecture does not provide us the key to an adequate understanding of these images either. To begin with, it is not at all clear what the meaning of the diverse symbols is. To be sure, many of them are more or less universal: the guillotine, the sefiroth, the mandragora on 'Konspiration' (2004) and 'Kûhlraum' (2002), or the windmills on 'Neue Rollen' (2005) and 'Reaktionäre Situation' (2003) which, although they are rather 'nordic', cannot fail to remind of Don Quichotte. Somewhat less universal are symbols like the ears of the donkey which, in Germany, refer to stupidity, or the tail coat like on Prozession (2004) for capitalists, or bourgeois or..... But other symbols are bluntly idiosyncratic, not otherwise than, Beuys' fat, felt and copper: think of the crossed sticks, swordfish, rhinos, falcons and owls, not to mention the diverse hybrid beings. We could try to find the meaning through an 'intertextual' investigation of all the paintings with the same motif. But this will be of no avail. To begin with, it appears that the motifs are undergoing a continuous metamorphosis. Just take the motif of the cross. A painting like 'Tal' (1999) contains three versions of it: the crossed girders of the trough, the wings of the mill, and the sticks of the fighters. But we recognise the motif also in the crossed strips on the uniforms of soldiers (Scheune (2003), the crossed planks on 'Die Flamme' (2007), the crossed legs in 'Die Afunahme' (2008) or just the letter X (Nexus, 2006). On other paintings, the constituting lines do not cross in the middle, but join each other at the ends, like in the tripod of the camera in 'Lichtspiele' (1997), the legs of the easel ('Parabel', 2008), the ladder (equally on 'Parabel', 2008), or the ramification on 'Front' (1998) and on 'Fundgrube' ( 2011). Or they are concatenated in a zigzag or the up-and-down of the gabble roofs, or added individually like the golf sticks on 'Hatz'" (2002) or the stick in 'Seewind', (2009). In addition, the metamorphosed motifs may occur in ever changing contexts where they acquire new meanings. Thus, by both being measured with a stick, the 'Scheisse' on 'Höhe' (2004) is brought into relation with the dog-men on ''Platz' (2000). But, above all, also the symbolic lecture does not result in a coherent whole.
Just like literal reading did not yield a story, but rather isolated narrative elements, allegorical reading does not provide a closed allegory, but rather an accumulation of disparate symbols.
VON PUNKT, ZU LINIE, ZU FLÄCHE, ZU WÜRFEL, ZU ORGANISMUS....: PLAY?
The relentless metamorphosis of motifs raises, in its turn, the suspicion that the choice of the representations is not determined by a narrative, nor by an allegorical, but by a combinatory logic: it seems as if Neo Rauch fills his paintings with figurative elements that are derived from each other through a continuous transformation.
For, what we described above was only the beginning of the metamorphosis of the motif of the cross. Variations on ever new aspects of this motif are the starting point of ever new metamorphoses. Through bending one of the lines of the cross, we get a pickaxe, like onWeiche (1999), a crossbow like on 'Jagdzimmer' (2007), a wheel with spikes like on 'Fluchtversuch' (2008), or the chandelier in 'Das Kreisen' (2011). Elsewhere, a straight line is no longer contrasted with a bended line, but as a one-dimensional line opposed to a two-dimensional plane. That surface can be inflexible like the signs on Demos (2004), flexible in one dimension like on 'Ware' (2011), or flexible in all dimension like the flags on 'Vorort' (2007) of 'Die Stickerin' (2008). The one-dimensional line can also unfold into a three-dimensional tube: from the strings on 'Wahl' (1998), 'Füller' (1999), or 'Presse' (2010), over the snakes in 'Scheune' (2003), 'Die Fuge' (2007) or 'Diktat' (2004), the twisted tree trunks on 'Das Plateau' (2008) or 'Abendmesse ('2012), the twisted heaps of paint or 'Scheisse' ('Hausmeister' 2002, 'Quecksilber' 2003), the elephant's teeth in 'Mammut' (2004), to the swordfish in 'Vorhang' (2005). Diverse metamorphoses can be combined with each other, as when the drill is combined with the air hose.
Going through all these metamoprhoses, it appears that they are governed by purely formal variations on purely formal characteristics. That results in ever new abstract motifs, to which an appropriate embodiment is sought in the real world: pickaxes, crossbows, flags, snakes, and what have you. The generation of ever new figurative motifs is not confined to the motif of the cross. Thus, in 'Regel' (2000) and 'Das Kreisen' (2011), the straight line is contrasted with the circle, which, through perspectival deformation is transformed into an oval ('Regel', 2000 or 'Das Kreisen' 2011). Through combing the oval with its opposite in the triangle, we get the balloon of a comic strip, which develops into a kind of clouds on 'Verrat' (2003), into a canopy on 'Paranoia' (2007), into a guitar on 'Stereo' (2001), and into an 8-shaped projector on 'Lichtspiele'(1997). Through reading the circle not as a surface, but rather as a circumference, we get the rings on 'Fundgrube' (2011), and through breaking it up in segments, we get the broken wheel on 'Fluchtversuch' (2008). The straight line develops not only into a circle, but also into a rectangle, which through perspectival deformation is transformed into all kinds of parallelograms: tables (Konspiration 2004, Vorhang 2005, Altar 2008, Kalimuna 2010), the painting of Ad Reinhardt on 'Lehre' (1999), stands (Handel 1999) or walls (Vorhang 2005), yes even lozenges like on 'Vorort' and 'Warten auf die Barbaren' (2007). Provided with a third dimension, the rectangles turn into cubes, which are piled up into piles of books (Vorhang 2005) or of stones (Ausschüttung, 2009) or into the 'stacks' of Donald Judd (Lehre, 1999). Geometric and organic forms are contrasted with diverse amorphous formations: foliage (Das Haus 1996, Vorrat 1998), piles of mud or dung on 'Höhe' (2004) and 'Die Aufnahme' (2008), smoke on 'Verrat' (2003) and 'Haus de Lehrers' (2003), clouds on 'Reaktionäre Situation' (2003) and 'Höhe' (2004). Many of these motifs are combined in paintings like 'Zoll '(2004). There are also angular versions of the amorphous masses, (exemplary in 'Konvoi' 2003, or in 'Ausschüttung' (2009) and 'Revo' (2010). The whole array is extended through the addition of clouds on the one end of the spectrum and sharp wavelets on the other, like in 'Sal' (2010), or in the opposition of fire and steel on 'Die Lage' (2006). Many of these motifs are combined in 'Chor' (2011) or on 'Pressse' (2010). These amorphous and geometrical formations are in their turn merely two steps on a an scale that can be extended by adding a third step; organic three-dimensional horizontal quadruped animals and vertical biped men. The opposition between two-dimensional and three-dimensional as such is a new element in the combinatoric - exemplary in the opposition of the two-dimensional horizontal rectangle and the three-dimensional organic form: the motif of a figure standing at a table or a stand, ('Handel' 1999, 'Konspiration' 2004, 'Vorhang' 2005, 'Paranoia' 2007 'Aufnahme' 2008), or of the painter opposed to his canvas in 'Parabel' (2008). Also within the domain of the organic beings, vegetal and animal beings can be combined - branches like snakes -, just like animal and human beings - the many hybrids like the insect-man, the dog-man, the rat-man or the squirrel-man, or even male and female in an androgyny like on 'Kreisen' (2011).
The introduction of organic forms, especially of the human body, leaves a considerable amount of scope to a new play: that with all kinds of gestures and postures where arms, legs, trunk and head are combined in ever new combinations of verticals, horizontals and diagonals. Already Alberti advised to represent the human body in a whole array of postures. It seems as is the paintings of Neo Rauch an example to his recommendations. He extends the range to lying figures: think of the supine fireman on 'Die Fuge' (2007), whose posture is the completion of a progression of bending over, over standing upright, leaning backward standing, and leaning backwards lying. Living beings are not only combinations of limbs and trunk, they also have a front and a back, depending on the direction in which they move and the corollary place of the eyes. That is why they have also an inherent direction, which in its turn structures the surrounding space. If the figures on 'Paranoia' would have been inanimate geometrical structures, they would only bend to the left; but, since it is humans, we know that they are looking to the left, so that the whole space before them is animated by their gaze. This is - by the way - the reason why organic and living beings are so much more interesting blocks to play with than the elements - von Punkt und Linie zu Fläche - from Kandinsky's geometric building bucket.
This more or less extensive scale of figures has to be combined into an encompassing composition, which is equally determined by an abstract combinatoric. On 'Das Kreisen' (2011) the triangle of 'fallen angel' and standing figure unfolds into a pyramid through the introduction of the man with the dog, and that pyramid finds an echo in the triangle of figures on the 'painting in the painting' to the right. On 'Jagdzimmer' (2007), the complex symmetry of a standing figure in profile with lifted arm and figure in profile with arms hanging down, is framed in a second complex symmetry of a sitting woman leaning forward with arms hanging down with a man with lifted arms leaning backward, whereas, in addition, both symmetries are accompanied with a pattern of four crossbows.
There is no doubt: this breathtaking combinatorics is the basic structure of Rauch's work. Rather than telling a story or creating an allegory, the artist engages in a play with motifs that derive from each other and are embodied in concrete representations that can be read narratively or allegorically. From this play, the entire figurative universe of Neo Rauch can be derived: it determines the proliferation of motifs in the entire oeuvre, as well as the concrete constellation in single works.
THREE LAYERS: PLAY WITH FORMS, STORY, AND ALLEGORY
It is obvious, then, that Neo Rauch is in the first place interested in the formal composition of in essence abstract motifs. But, since most of these motifs are filled in figuratively or are from the beginning complex organic beings, the formal composition entails narrative or symbolic relations - germs of a narrative or an allegory. And, since it is always the formal coherence that eventually prevails, the story or the allegory remain fragmentary, if it does not from the beginning consist of mere onsets - bits of stories or local symbols woven into the fabric of an in essence abstract composition. Of course, such priority has to be understood in a structural, not in a temporal sense: in practice, it is possible, even more probable, that Neo Rauch departs from some narrative intention, or from a fragment of a dream, if not from a pattern of paint on the floor of his studio like Max Ernst. But these givens are always eventually caught in a logic of composition, that can in its turn be a starting point to a further narrative elaboration, and so on, in a continuous interaction.
It pays to imagine how the interaction between the three layers may have contributed to the conception of a painting like 'Parabel' (2008). Let us assume that the artist started from the resemblance between a guillotine and an easel: next to the easel in the form of a tripod, there is also the variant whose profile looks like an inversed T. The white canvas on the easel reminds of the blade of a guillotine, especially when opposed to the black cloth draped over the latter. When the painter is painting guillotine and easel on his canvas, he feels that something is missing to the left, and fills the gap by adding a third step in the scale of easel and guillotine: a ladder as a construction of crossing lines. The ensemble of three vertical constructions asks for a horizontal counterbalance, which is provided by an element that is inspired by the guillotine: a supine painter/executed who, as a three-dimensional horizontal and organic item, contrasts with the two-dimensional, geometric and vertical props. The scale of three-dimensional and two-dimensional forms can be completed with a one-dimensional step: the hind leg of the tripod, which in its turn finds its opposite in the curved line of the rope, that turns the easel into a gibbet - on the narrative/symbolic level the handicraft counterpart of the industrial guillotine. And so on. This hypothetical reconstruction shows how disparate narrative or symbolic threads are woven into the more encompassing fabric of the composition. But, since the logic of the composition is the ultimate driving force, the narrative and symbolic elements remain mere partial intrusions, which, together with the elements that are only there for composition's sake, never can amount to a coherent whole. A similar analysis applies to all the paintings of Neo Rauch. In 'Kreisen', a 'fallen angel' is lying on the ground simply because that posture is a step on a scale of figures in which further steps are 'standing upright' and 'reaching upward', and the dog is only there because it allows the resulting triangle to unfold into a pyramid, and that has its bearings on the narrative content. And that goes equally for the man who in 'Die Stickerin' (2008) is seated on a table as a mirror image to the seamstress, who is in her turn the top of a pyramid of onlookers, or for the man who, in 'Para' (2007) is staring at a score on a (vertical) piano, as the mirrored counterpart of the central figure staring at the little dragon on a (horizontal) table.
THE GLORY OF THE HANDMADE IMAGE
Before proceeding to a closer scrutiny of the dynamics within this three-layered structure, it pays to dwell somewhat on the purely painterly qualities of these works, which reveal themselves all the better when we are no longer distracted by narrative lines or allegorical meanings. For, next to the inventiveness in developing a whole network of motifs and their often ingenious composition, Rauch's paintings have other intriguing merits.
Let us, first, stress that the insistence with which many a critic repeats that Neo Rauch, not otherwise than pop art, Richter or Tuyrmans, recycles images from comic strips or 'socialistic-realist propaganda' - the 'pop' of the DDR - only obfuscates what distinguishes Neo Rauch from many of his contemporaries: precisely that he does not provide a 'painterly' version of existing images - be it comic strips, photos or other paintings. Neo Rauch figuration is of his own making, even though he often executes his imagery in a way that reminds of other technical media.
That is already apparent from the often sophisticated composition of the figures, not only in space, but also in the plane, within the frame of the rectangle - just have closer look at ' Die Fuge' (2007), preferably armed with a compass. But above all the colours are openly unreal - since chosen in terms of a purely aesthetic logic in view of often sonorous chords of three or more colours - something you would search in vain with painters like Michael Borremans or Luc Tuymans. Especially from 2003 onwards, also tone is summoned with increasing mastery. Neo Rauch does not so much resort to gradual transitions that foreground the roundness of the objects: all his figures are, when not entirely flat, than at least not fully three-dimensional. Rauch is rather out at contrasting figures against other figures and against the background. It is fascinating to study how the play of tonal plans is counterpoised with the effect of extended monochrome expanses. Such expanses have a flattening effect, not only within each monochrome surface itself, but above all in the painting as a whole. Although coloured expanses have the propensity to structure themselves in a coloristic space with a logic in its own right, the depth of coloristic space is far more restrained than that of tonal space. That effect is enhanced in that Rauch oftenhas coloristic space counteract tonal space in a kind of sophisticated counterpoint, as when blue, which tends to recede to the background, is applied to surfaces that tend to come to the foreground in tonal or perspectival space, or the other way round, like in the reversed colour perspective in Höhe (2004), or, more subtly in the masterly 'Paranoia' (2007). The deep impact of colour chords in the installation of such dialectic between tonal and coloristic space is evident from monochrome works like 'Das Blaue' (2005). No perspectival-tonal space here, hence, but rather a colour-tone space, that is at the same time deep and flat, and therein denies the concept of space as a 'window' - or a photo. It is precisely due to the nature of this space that there is no composition in the third dimension here - the composition that is seen when space is seen from above. A reconstruction of three-dimensional space is seldom possible, mostly because diverse spaces are penetrating each other like in a kind of collaged space: either in that an inner space is contained by a surrounding space that does not fit, like in 'Vorhang' (2005) and 'Zähmung' (2011), or in that spaces are penetrating each other like in 'Neue Rollen', or in that the painting contains another painting like on 'Modell'(1998) 'Das Kreisen' (2011) or a scene like in 'Das Alte Lied' or 'Nexus' (2006).
Although the choice of the colours is above all a question of structuring space, it is also decisive in determining the emotional freight of the paintings - just think of works like 'Die Goldgrube' (2007), 'Die Lage' (2006), of 'Vorort' (2007), with that ominous yellow that breaks through the blueish grey of the sky.
Not only the figures, their composition, and the use of tone and colour are rather different from the everyday world as it is captured by the camera. unreal altogether is the use of various modes of painting, which stresses unambiguously that we are dealing with a mimetic medium. The early Rauch (1993-2003) mostly confines himself to flat surfaces combined with figures the three-dimensionality of which is merely suggested through the addition of light or shadow in a restricted amount of plans, whereby the painter often resorts to a black or white cloisonné, and rather exceptionally also of surfaces with visible brushstrokes like on 'Haus' (1996). From 2002-2003 onwards, there is an increasing diversification of the kinds of surfaces - especially the rendering of clouds, smoke, water and soil as mentioned above, whereby the use of tonal plans is complicated through the introduction of continuous transitions (e.g.. 'Der Vorhang' 2005). Nevertheless, the contrast between surfaces with gradual and scaled transition remains in place (exemplary in 'Der Vorhang' (2005). The contrast is even enhanced in works where more or less important surfaces are monotonal, like in 'Demos' (2004), 'Abstraktion' (2005), 'Der Vorträger' (2006), 'Garten des Bildhauers' (2008), 'Die Stickerin (2008), 'Vater' (2010), 'Kreisen' (2011) and the clouds on 'Nest' (2012'.
No paintings, hence, ''à la manière de' like with Odd Nerdrum or Borremans, and certainly no paintings after photographs, as has become endemic in the wake of Pop Art, Photorealism with painters like Gerhard Richter en Luc Tuymans and their countless imitators, but rather a self-conceived world with a self-conceived painterly idiom that in many respects is a true heir to a genuine painterly tradition.
FROM PLAYTHING OVER PLAYER TO MALIN GENIE
The question is why,notwithstanding the emphasis with which Neo Rauch foregrounds this aspect of his work, it is nevertheless so easily overlooked, and hence seldom properly analysed. We could remind that, in an era when it is no longer evident what an image is, the understanding of it cannot but decrease and the language to deal with it becomes increasingly inadequate. But, at best, that suffices to explain why critics prefer to dwell on the narrative and symbolic content, rather than on the purely formal and painterly qualities.
The proper explanation is, of course, that the narrative and symbolic content is not at all indifferent or neutral. With painters who play with figurative elements as if it were abstract forms, like Schlemmer on his 'Bauhaustreppe', we just look through the figuration to enjoy the abstract composition. That is no longer the case with works like Balthus' 'La Rue', where it is not only the composition of the figures that catches the attention, but also the narrative - erotic - proceedings on the left. But with Neo Rauch the narrative elements are so freighted, that it is rather impossible to install the 'aesthetic distance' needed to fully enjoy the formal qualities of his work. That is all the more the case, since the impact of this material is only enhanced precisely in that there is no coherent narrative or allegory: a swordfish in the net of fisherman is less frightening than one that appears totally out of context. It seems as if Neo Rauch is drawing a smoke screen when he contends that his figuration is of no further concern - although it is purely formal beauty that has the onlooker continue to admire the paintings, rather than recoil in the face of often blunt repulsiveness indeed.
Apparently, we did not really hit the mark when contending that the real logic of Rauch's paintings is a logic of composition. The question remains why Rauch does not confine himself to a mere abstract composition stuffed with mere neutral figurative elements.
A first conceivable answer is that the repugnant content is a kind of defence against or a negation of the strive for beauty that is apparent in the composition of the figures: it is as if Neo Rauch indulges in a devilish delight when refusing to adorn the beauty of his compositions with the beauty of God's Creation - as with say a Raphael - and rather wrapping it in the rags of an abhorrent figuration like on 'Höhe' (2004)
On the substance, however, it could not be denied that Neo Rauch intends to tell a story indeed, although it turns out other than intended.
That is, to begin with, apparent from the many paintings in which he undoubtedly intends to tell something about painting, like with 'Die Wahl' (1998), 'Unerträglicher Naturalismus' (1998), 'Front' (1998) 'Lehre' (1999), 'Teer' (200), 'Abstraktion' (2005), 'Pergola' (2005), 'Vorhang' (2005), 'Rückzug' (2006), 'Nest (2012). Thus, on 'Lehre' (1999), we see a Donald Judd 'Stack', painted in Mondrian's three cardinal colours, and contrasted with a black canvas that cannot fail to remind ofAd Reinhardt. We could speculate on the meaning of the crossed sticks, or of that of the canvas that is unrolled by a woman, and so on, but nobody will be able to give a clear account of what Neo Rauch is trying to tell us here - probably something on the contrary developments of figuration and abstraction in the BRD and the DDR. Until it dawns on us that, in any case, we are dealing here with the familiar play wit abstract motifs: contrasting with the crossed sticks: the twisted wisp;as opposed to the canvas unrolled: the tight canvas on the wall; and as an opposition to those two-dimensional forms, the three-dimensional stacks of Donald Judd. What was perhaps intended as a statement on painting, ends up as a formal abstract composition, that holds the onlooker in its grip, and turns the intended story of the painter into a mysterious riddle.
Something similar holds for the paintings in which the subject is not painting, but rather the real world. Although many an isolated element seems to testify to the contrary, it would be a mistake to think that Rauch intends to say something about the political constellation in which he grew up. Never been an adept of the 'really existing socialism' - witness the mentioned interest for the artistic developments on the other side of the Iron Curtain - after the fall of that curtain Rauch did not become and adept of the utopias of the 'Free West', like those of Ayn Rand or Fukuyama, let alone of one of the 'post-Marxist' alternatives in France. Themes referring to the French Revolution suggest that Rauch regards the socialist as well as the capitalist alternatives as embodiments of the spirit of the Enlightenment and the concomitant belief in diverse kinds of progress, that only ends up in 'really existing' dystopias. No lost Atlantis nor Utopia to be gained in Neo Rauch's world, but rather the succession on an unrelenting series of disasters rolling over mankind - especially Germany. And such disbelief in progress finds its extension in a disbelief in any kind of cooperation. In Rauchs timeless world of 'das Immergleiche', at best sadomasochism seems to attract people to each other: no trace of parental, sexual or communal relations, let alone of the corollary forms of love - no children, no couples, no convivial drinking or dancing together, not even celebrating a mass: apart form some vague silhouettes of churches and a sefiroth on 'Das alte Lied', any reference to religion is failing. Already more inclined to cooperate are the individuals when they have to work together, although the largest group is that of four firemen in 'Die Fuge' ('2007), which is a rather small group in a world where production is organised on the scale of multinationals. Even for political or military ends people - in sharp contrast with the historical Germans, as well in the Third Reich as in the periphery of the Red Empire - seem not to be able to form larger groups: apart from a shadowy platoon of soldiers on 'Schmerz" (2004) and 'Mammut' (2004), the largest formation is that of seven 'red hats' on 'Der Rückzug' (2006), six activists on Vorort (2007) and 'Die Stickerin' (2008), four revolutionaries waving Phrygian caps on 'Neue Rollen' (2005), or a jury of three bureaucrats on 'Quiz' (2002). Although ever more people appear on Rauch's paintings, they remain fundamentally solitary, and they seem to act in utter isolation. Nevertheless, it would be mistake to contend that there are only atoms in the desolate world of Neo Rauch. Apparently, also higher entities like the state are at work, although they never appear in the image. Either we see only its instruments like tanks and bombs, or solitary individuals who nevertheless seem to be the executioners of some collective undertaking - what makes their action as estranged as alienating work ('Verrat', 2003, or 'Rückzug', 2006). On other paintings like 'Quiz 2002', we see representatives of some authority without knowing which. On still other paintings, we see planners without assistants or subordinates like in 'Konspiration' (2004) or 'Vorhang' (2005). Only in 'Warten auf die Barbaren' (2007) is a higher entity called by name, but it remains outside the painting - in the title, like with Tuymans - and it is altogether uncertain who the barbarians are. And it cannot fail to dawn on is that precisely the removal of higher entities from the image that is the cause of the alienated appearance of what is allowed to appear in the image: isolated individuals, who do not seem to act on their own initiative, and hence have something of sleepwalkers or of puppets. The estranging effect would only disappear when the encompassing whole would come into view: the higher political, military, economic or communal entities and the identity of their leaders and owners. In that respect, the images of Rauch are the negative of those of say Riefenstahl or Burtinsky.
Meanwhile - just think of the way in which we analysed 'Parabel' - the constitutive role of the abstract play described above in the construction of this strange world will have become apparent. First, the activity of isolated figures is turned into a reallyrelationless performance when the composition integrates what are in essence isolated sleepwalkers in a more or less complex composition of figures. In the same breath, the composition turns what otherwise would be an unlimited continuum into a secluded space within the confines of a rectangle - which only strengthens the impression of incoherence. And that is, in its turn, the precondition to a replacement of really existing malefactors like omnipotent emperors, Nazis, communists or capitalists, yes even malevolent gods, by an abstract malignant genius that has figurants play their role in some absurd scenario. And it then dawns on us that the gesture with which Neo Rauch systematically reduces his figures to elements of a combinatorics of forms that are subordinated in a rigid composition in its own right, is his response to the way in which the dark forces outside the image 'composed' the figures in the original context as if it were 'secular artists of life' in having them march in cohorts, work at conveyor belts, recite mantras of all kinds, and what have you. From plaything to player; after the real players on the 'Weltentheater' are driven out of the picture, the protagonist from the real world are transformed into marionettes in the pictorial theatre where Neo Rauch is pulling the strings. Les us refer in passing to what we wrote about that in our text on Borremans in the paragraph 'From relay to matryouska doll'.
Neo Rauch may well have started with the intention of 'mirroring' reality - to tell a literal or allegorical story about the real world - but since, apparently, that turned out to be not an easy undertaking, he unawares transforms himself in a kind of disappointed fallen creator who rearranges the elements of a world that he cannot understand nor handle into a kind of derivative counter-world that is meaningless and hence has not to be understood or turned for the better. From worldview to hallucination: the canvas as the theatre of sleepwalking and relationless individuals that are figurants in some unintelligible proceeding. The move with which loose figurative elements from a more encompassing spatial and historical whole are isolated and subordinated into a new immanent coherence where they get a new meaning, is, hence, the consequence of an inability turned into reluctance to tell a consistent story that, in that Rauch has to content himself with playing an abstract game, unawares comes to disclose the world as it appears to him who is no longer prepared to understand it and resigns himself to staging it as an inhospitable whole of disparate fragments.
Only against this background can we understand why these images are so misleading: lured by the bits of reality that we descry in it, we have the impression of being treated with a worldview, until, after many wanderings on sideways, we have to conclude that we only got a counter-world, which is only an enigma when we misread it as a worldview. To Rauch, the truth of the world is precisely that it is incoherent and desolate, and it is an illusion to think that there is something to be understood or to turned for the better. In that sense, his paintings are 'continuations of the dream with other means' as he uses to phrase it, indeed. But dreams then in the Freudian sense: the conjuring of a world where there is no longer any trace of what would otherwise make the dreamer wake up. In that these images do not stage anything that could motivate us to whatever undertaking, they release us from the task to change it on whatever level. Revolution nor Biedermeier here, no romantic ascent in transcendental worlds like the Greek of Hölderlin or de German of Wagner, let alone life-giving dreams in the sense of images that would reveal how the world could be, or what could be done to make it a better place to live - rather subsisting at whatever price, even when it has to be in an impenetrable embryonic fleece. Despite the romantic rhetoric of which Neo Rauch is so fond, the artist is here no longer the visionary who has access to the deepest layers of the world or the soul, who he had remained jenseits structuralism on Rauchs side of the wall, but rather a 'malin génie', that wants to sell us his private concoctions for reality.
Now that we have finally grasped the true nature of the images of Reich, we can turn to the question whether we are dealing here with a restoration of 'figuration' and 'narrativity'.
No doubt, these paintings are figurative and narrative. But, when we want to tackle the problem more thoroughly, these terms are inadequate. For, a landscape and a portrait are figurative, but not narrative. The term narrative applies rather to what use to be called a 'history painting' - a painting that tells a 'history', Biblical or Ancient, historical, but increasingly also critical. But, above all, not everything that is figurative shows us the subject as such. A peace-dove shows a dove, but not peace. That is why the term 'sensuousness' is more adequate: a portrait, as well as a landscape, a genre painting or a history painting are sensuous, whereas an allegory or a sensuous representation of transcendent beings are figurative, but not sensuous.
It is thereby very important to distinguish the representation of non-perceptible phenomena like transcendental beings, and the representation of phenomena that are all too perceptible, but rather complex and spread over countless temporally and spatially distinct appearances: just think of phenomena like 'The third Reich', 'really existing socialism' or 'really existing capitalism". Everything that has to do with man belongs to the latter kind: for even the most simple relation between mother and child or two lovers is deeply tainted by the other - communal, economic, political - dimensions of human existence. It is part of the metier of image makers to give such phenomena a proper sensuous appearance: the way in which Leni Riefenstahl succeeded in visualising certain aspects of the Third Reich, is more artful than resorting to mere symbols like a swastika, and what Brecht shows us in 'Der gute Mensch von Sezuan' is more artful than a one-dimensional 'critical' story. Already from the fact that he zooms out the larger political and economical entities from the image, and replaces them with an internal logic of composition, it appears that Neo Rauch prefers to replace a world that is sensuous in principle with a far less layered, and eventually non-existing world, that is visible nevertheless, yes even consists of element from the real world. Instead of making visible what is difficult to see, Neo Rauch conceals it behind the veil of a hallucination of something that does not exist. This move is the contemporary counterpart of that with which the painters of yore had to lend credibility to the existence of all kind of invisible entities through wrapping them in the appearance of existing beings. What presents itself as sensuousness, is merely empty figuration - although, with Neo Rauch, this is obfuscated by the construction of that private hallucination out of elements that are borrowed from the real world.
It pays to give a detailed account of how unreal the world of Neo Rauch is. Unreal is already the mere backdrop to human action: apart from some scarce leafage, that is there more for the sake of structure than for its greenness, there is no trace of natural flora and fauna: it is as if the whole world has been clear-cut, bulldozed and depopulated. Unreal is the choice of the dramatis personae: no children nor elderly people, practically no women, let alone young girls and boys, only sour men in their thirties. Unreal is the kind of interaction; all those middle-aged male people are caught in geometrical relations that are not to be found in the real world, whereas, conversely, there is practically no trace of the countless real relations - political, economical, communal, parental or sexual. No trace, hence, of all the modalities of these kinds of relations that are so close to people's hearts. No trace - and that catches the eye with someone who has grown up in a 'socialist' country and features so many 'workers' - of what Marxists used to call 'exploitation': no potato eaters or slaves with Rauch. No trace of the politico-military relations that have been responsible for the very world in which Neo Rauch grew up: fascism and communism, imperialism, the world wars and the holocaust. Apart from sadomasochism: no trace of the whole array of sexual and parental relations that have been the focus of so much attention of post-Marxists diesseits the Wall. No trace altogether of themes like population growth, globalisation (if only negatively as the omnipresence of a Deutschtum), let alone of the'clash of cultures'. Apart from a single bare-breasted aboriginal on 'Vorhang' (2005), only Europeans on the paintings of Neo Rauch. Judging from their clothes, these Europeans are inhabitants of the DDR. Only sporadically do we meet more contemporary actors like suicide bombers (Ordnungshüter 2006 and Demos 2004). To begin with the traditional outfit of hunters (Hatz 2002), Rauch increasingly features figurants from more historical times: the French Revolution and the Biedermeier period. The references to pre-revolutionary times, however, remain rather scarce: crossbows (Ordnungshüter 2008), armour (Die Lage 2006), swords and spears. And it speaks volumes that it is only men that seem to have ancestors: the scarce women continue to appear in DDR-outfit. It is very remarkable not only that Rauchs perspective does not reach further than the French Revolution, but above all that it shows important gaps: no trace of the 'Zweites Deutsches Kaiserreich', of'Das Dritte Reich', let alone of the Red Empire, in the periphery of which Neo Rauch grew up. This short and really selective historical perspective, that is in essence an extrapolation of his experiences with the 'Wende', contrasts sharply with the reach of more outgrown world views like that of Christendom, that at least covered the whole period from Fall to Last Ordeal, or of its more secular descendants with Hegel-Marx, Darwin and Gobineau, Blavatsky or Rosenberg, with whom history at least starts from the Greek, the apes or the root races, or even of the histories-with-a-before-and-an-after so typical of many contemporary world views on both sides of the political spectre. Although we cannot blame Rauch for the failure of appropriate models of world history, his perspective is bluntly myopic. For even in cyclic models like that of Ernst Jünger, Rauchs favourite author, in which each world fire heralds a new dawn, every trough is only the announcement of a new beginning. With Rauch, the 'Wiederholung des Immergleichen' is not more that the extrapolation on the entire history of what he imaged to experience in de DDR. Such deficient models of history can only be maintained when, as described above, the concrete actors are not allowed to appear in the image: there is no difference then between tribal feuds, migrations, empire formation, feudal and dynastic wars, religious wars and revolutions, the wars of Napoleon, Bismarck or the German Emperor or Hitler, colonial wars and liberation wars: in all cases we see only villains at work. And the same goes for the 'barbarians' which, like in 'Warten auf die Barbaren' conquer the civilised world: totally different from Cavafy, we do not know which is the civilisation and who the barbarians, just like with Ernst Jünger and with Coetzee. The attempt at reducing history to a repetition of an 'archetypal' drama with interchangeable protagonists, finds its prolongation in the shift from political action as such to pure sadomasochism in private human relations. To make such shift to the evil human nature credible, not only all the more or less laudable initiatives for political violence (or for cooperation) have to be obfuscated, but also all the misery that is not the consequence of human action: for, next to all the evil that humankind inflicts itself - from exploitation to extinction, there are also the countless evils that befall mankind naturally. And it cannot but catch the eye, then, that, apart form two people in bed who are rather allegorically ill, and a single, equally allegorical volcano, there is no trace ofillness, ageing, death, or of natural disasters of all kinds. And as if the evil nature of humankind did not suffice, also the world in which humans are living is thoroughly desolate: the skies are dark and ominous, the landscape desolate, the earth infertile and barren, the scarce animals dogs or rats, and the humans ugly and crude. On the countless square meters of canvas covered by Neo Rauch, you would in vain search for some beauty or kindness - that is why it comes like a bolt from the blue when he shows a tender relation in 'Vater' (2007), although it is put on its head, since it is the son that cuddles the father.
Granted, that is not precisely a 'surreal' world, like many will have it, but in the first place a really unreal - derealised - world; a world where everything what could disturb the indifferent distance of an eye that is not prepared to stop looking to ascertain itself that there is nothing threatening out there and that nothing will force it to give up its self-sufficiency, nothing that could motivate to love or hate, to emulation or loathing, even nothing that could work like a Schopenhauerians quietum that forces the will to resign - for, there is an I here that intends to to endureundisturbed. It speaks volumes that, with Rauch, there is no trace of blood or wounds; military violence is only present in the form or weapons, not in the form of mutilated bodies or corpses, like with Dix and Gross, and from all the delights of the sadomasochistic universe, we get only the bloodless variants to see. The entire real world reduced to a meaningless spectacle that at best motivates to a kind of reluctance to look at the figuration at such and the propensity to further devaluate it to a pure abstract configuration. Although this world adorns itself with the rags of the real world, there is no talk here of sensuousness, but rather of a betrayal of it: the providing of an appearance of sensuousness to what is in essence a private hallucination that empties and hollows out the real world and eventually has it evaporate into a purely formal play of abstract relations - the hallucinatory reversal of the violence with which the steamroller of reality rolled over us. When we eventually stop looking, we are left with the vague feeling that someone was out to say something about some reality that surreptitiously escaped from view under our very eyes.
CIRCLING AROUND THE IMAGE
Neo Rauch does not succeed in telling a clarifying and understandable story about the real world, not in a literal, nor in allegorical mode, withdraws in a world where merely shadows are to found of what used to be an image: empty compositions with figures that are in essence abstract motifs, only to discover that, like a malevolent demiurge, he can combine these motifs into a world as he would like it to be: the staging of the idle movement of atoms whose orbits at best cross in what then are evil encounters.
Although eventually we get to see an image, it is not an image in the real sense of the word: not a sensuously embodied and hence motivating reality, but rather a private phantasmagoria that pretends to be reality, whereas it in fact only obfuscates reality. There is no restoration of the image here, no less than with Luc Tuymans, but for other reasons. There is no restoration of the image with Tuymans, because, apart from the fact that his paintings only speak with the help of the word, past realities are featured in the erroneous supposition that they contain the essence of what is happening in our times. Already more of a restoration do we see with Michael Borremans, whose images lay bare dimensions of reality that otherwise would remain invisible, although these images fail in that this reality is not made transparent - sensuous: it is misread as sadomasochism which is then surreptitiously filtered out of the image.
That does not prevent Neo Rauch from deploying all the registers of painting, unlike Tuymans, who debases painting through resorting to the word, through clumsy strokes, and through using photographs. Al least on this level is there talk of a 'return', in fact of a return that is not regressive like with Borremans or Odd Nerdrum, who fall back on antiquated ways op painting that have been developed with different intentions. Through his technical skills, Rauch is, on the circuit of painting, the counterpart of an F-1 driver like Andreas Gursky on the circuit of the photographers.
And that helps us to explain why it is precisely the shortcomings of these paintings that contribute to their success. For this kind of non-sensuous figuration is precisely the stuff needed by all those who were tired of having to look at white panels hanging on the walls of the Whit Cube, or of having to solve all kinds of conceptual riddles. In the figuration of Neo Rauch they descry the remembrance of aneloquent sensuousness that has been relegated to the background, if not repressed altogether by modernism, whereas the very emptiness of that same figuration allows at the same time to continue to dwell in a world where the image releases from reality rather than being a window on it. The manifest unreality of images that eventually evaporate into purely formal beauty, leaves them with mysterious pieces of reality, that have the additional charm that what is recognisable in them may all too readily be ascribed to the meanwhile bygone age behind a meanwhile disappeared wall. What remains is figuration and craftsmanship that can be integrated in the sign-system of the official art circuit. That does not prevent that not everybody is a devotee of this art, not the least all those who, drenched in the tradition of French philosophy, detest the old mythology of art with its prophets that draw their inspiration from deep unconscious sources, if not from 'telluric forces', or of parallel - who knows: even Gnostic - worlds. Or all the Germans who were not particularly fond of an ode to the East-German academic tradition, and expected dissident artistslike Baselitz and Richter to integrate in the Western art system, not to mention the leftist hardliners who drop Neo Rauch's painting as a late-bourgeois skirmish in the rear-guard.
However that may be, the waiting is for a genuine restoration of the image, even when the longing for it is all the more stirred since with Neo Rauch - otherwise than with Borremans and Tuymans - behind the self-destructive urge and the impotence to tell an illuminating story turned into reluctance to do so, we cannot but descry the splendour of what a reborn image could be.
© Stefan Beyst, May 2013.