The dreamlike paintings of the German artist Neo Rauch are as mystifying and enigmatic as those of any artist at work today, although his figurative scenes, carnivalesque in their rich, surprising colors and tricky shifts from the real to the fantastic, are also among the likeliest to grab the attention of twelve-year-olds. In pictures marked by a naturalist’s precision about light, decor, and weather conditions, and that might be set in a factory office, on a farm at night, by the side of a cliff, or in many places at once, vaguely somnambulistic men (and rarely more than one or two women) can be seen conferring about a document, say, or playing cards, or trudging about in one heavy-going endeavor or another. They might even be caught up in violent incidents, like upheavals in the earth or street demonstrations with flags set on fire—events that occur in a number of the fourteen pictures in a show the artist is currently having at the Metropolitan Museum of work made this year.
The story line, however, is never fully the point with the forty-seven-year-old Rauch, a native of Leipzig, in the former East Germany, where he still lives. With their often slumpy and weighty bodily presence making them seem like persons from some earlier time, his figures and their doings are less our chief focus than aspects of paintings that are made up of freakishly strange, ingenious, and sensuous and opulent elements virtually everywhere we look. These might include startling shifts in human scale in the same picture, giant toadstools with openings that reveal whole rooms inside, or a forest treated as an expanse of flat patterning, like a vast doily in spring green or autumnal orange. Next to this lacy, ethereal passage, the roof or side of a building might be painted with a slablike, emphatic juiciness, while in many different paintings we encounter a range of gleaming, phallic entities that suggest oil paint squirted directly from the tube—squirts that, like the worms in Dune, can get ominously big and threatening. There are oddities, too, that are plain amusing, as when, for example, Rauch’s characters, stalwartly dealing with one issue or another, wear red Converse sneakers.
Strongly reminiscent of political posters of burly workers from a bygone era, Rauch’s paintings bring to mind as well the anything-goes thinking of Surrealism and of science fiction. Viewers might spot even deeper similarities with the look and spirit of classic comic strips (of which the painter is known to be a fan) such as Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin and especially Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. It is in McCay’s strips, which appeared weekly in American papers in the early years of the twentieth century, where, as with Rauch, shapes and objects—car tires, say—can have a headstrong life of their own and where space itself is like an ever-changing liquid substance.
In their puzzling and theatrical nature, Rauch’s pictures have rightly been compared with those by Bacon, Balthus, and de Chirico. And not that they necessarily influenced him, but Lyonel Feininger’s earliest (and finest) paintings—images from the years before World War I of people of fantastically different sizes, wearing the clothes of earlier eras and set in realms of dazzling, confectionery color—could be called harbingers of Rauch’s art. Yet what his pictures leave us with is less their many associations with other artists than the particular fluidity with which he works—the way he brings together not only the bizarre and the everyday but a sense of foreboding and of enchantment. His pictures are fantasies, yet the deeper magic lies in the way he seamlessly weaves together one style of representation with another.
The Met’s exhibition has its strong works, especially the thirteen-foot-long Para, a painting of a few people in a theater setting where the curtains that take up most of the background, a stretch of pale tans with shadowy creases, form a kind of sentient being in themselves. Yet the show, set in a low-ceilinged gallery and hung with too many pictures—made, however, expressly for this space—could be improved upon as an introduction of the painter to a general audience. Rauch is not known beyond the international art world, and no doubt even many artists are uncertain who he is. For people who follow contemporary art, however, the painter with the improbable first name has for some time been a subject of considerable interest. Since 2000 he has been seen in New York in three solo gallery shows and, in addition to significant exhibitions devoted to his work in Montreal, Málaga, and Vienna, he has been in group shows around the world. A large traveling retrospective of paintings, moreover, entitled “Neue Rollen” (“New Roles”) and covering the period from 1993, when he had his first one-person show, to 2006, was organized last year by the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg and has recently been on view at the Galerie Rudolfinum in Prague.
Rauch often uses epically large formats, and he works with a degree of confidence and ambition that makes mush of the doubts about the relevance of painting as an art form that were rife about a generation ago (and remain in place for some teachers and administrators in graduate art programs today). He is hardly the only artist who has come to maturity in the past few decades whose work indicates that the art of painting can have the same potency for our time as it did for, say, that of the Abstract Expressionists. Rauch, however, is on his own to some degree because of the decidedly old-fashioned skills he brings to the job. He was trained in Leipzig’s conservative (and centuries-old) Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst and teaches there himself, and he has academically correct drawing skills down pat. He brings such a sense of vigor and sensuous enjoyment to the brushwork that goes into rendering skin, clothing, or a distant mountainside—or a wood bench, a stormy sky, or a muddy road—as to make illusionistic painting seem like a brand-new endeavor.
What makes Rauch’s work inebriating, though, has more to do with color than with his skills in rendering. Color is as much a character in his pictures as the people are. In a single painting, the color can be fittingly naturalistic and appropriate for some aspects of the scene but also wildly keyed up—with deeply saturated zones of tart green, purple-red, copper-red, orange, lavender, yellow—in others.
But then in the same picture Rauch can also use color musically and rhythmically. That is, he can give all the men in the scene, for example, red shirts and white pants, or green outfits from their shoes to their hats, or he can put them in orange trousers and have them carry orange baseball bats—all in the way an abstract artist or a cartoonist might say, “I need this orange to come back here and here.”
Rauch has said that aspects of his images occasionally derive from his dreams and that he constructs his pictures intuitively, without prior planning (much to the disbelief of artists I have spoken with). Facing the blank canvas, he first determines what the background will be, and then fills it in with incidents taken from his dream bank or from whatever comes to him as he paints. Maybe this is why his pictures are essentially assemblages of disparate elements, with one area, say, painted flatly and tightly, like a silhouette, and the next rendered not only in a traditional volumetric realism but in a brushy, soft-edged version of it, with special care to show subtle shifts in light and tone.
A third passage might stem from comic strips, whether it is the role-playing slithery shapes or (empty) speech balloons that sometimes hang in the air. One of the more elegantly inventive aspects of Rauch’s art, and one possibly also indebted to the strips, is the way he can make a picture’s title or words a part of the painting. “Para,” for instance, a word playing up the uncertain and ambiguous nature of the images, can be found in some of the works in the Met’s show. Still other parts of a typical painting might be streaked (as though a wet canvas had mistakenly been laid against it) or unfinished—lovely touches, as it happens, because they cut against the artist’s almost too assured brushwork elsewhere.
Like artworks of any era, Rauch’s paintings win us over at first (and then again at the end) in nearly nonverbal ways—for reasons to do with color, touch, mood, emotional credibility. As with other artists, the subject or story behind his work is almost a secondary matter, and the one Rauch is telling is especially hard to sum up, as the writing about him by his compatriots over the years makes clear. (A generous sampling is conveniently included in the Met’s catalog.)
Although Rauch’s art isn’t generally thought to be specifically about his society, his pictures, at least for a non-German audience, certainly have a political undertow. It is hard, anyway, to imagine how an artist who grew up in the German Democratic Republic in the 1960s and early 1970s—an era when its leaders sought first to modernize its economy and later claimed to make it a model worker’s state—could not be commenting on his nation’s history in pictures that repeatedly show somewhat anonymous folk intently and sometimes a little robotically involved in one occupation or another. It adds to the pictures that we aren’t sure if Rauch is being critical and showing us a society where work seems pointless, or if, in a warmly ironic way, he is celebrating a supposed utopian experiment.
Rauch’s own statements about his art are as elusive as those of his critics. He has wittily said, however, that his “real work” is the “production of pictures” and that his “subjects,” by which he perhaps means the settings of his paintings and the actions and appearances of his characters, are his “hobby.” He has also said that, in making pictures, “I am drawn back to earlier lives,” and here one feels that Rauch’s extraordinary personal story must be a factor in his work as well. It is staggering to learn that when he was six weeks old his parents, both in their early twenties and art students, were killed in a train crash. Digesting these facts (which, like our knowledge that the artist grew up in East Germany, is information we bring to his pictures), we involuntarily re-see his art. In their lumbering but also gentle way, his factory hands, adventurers, and technicians become almost a team of heroes. They can seem like representatives of adult behavior as envisioned by someone who may have grown up with a simultaneously vaunted and intangible sense of what adult experience was.
Even if Rauch’s biography had nothing to do with parents who were never there or with life in an overbearing, parental state, a constant in his work is a quest to convey an enveloping bigness in itself. Whether his pictures are ten feet long or a foot long, he makes viewers feel they are looking at a land of giants, themselves surrounded by gigantic poles, beams, railings, and trees. The liveliest aspects of the Met’s exhibition, as it happens, involve size and scale.
In the theater scene Para, people are seen simultaneously from far away, at middle distance, and in extreme close-up. The equally powerful Vater (Father) centers on a fully grown fellow being held in the arms of a gigantic man who wears the clothes of a much earlier historical period (and whose hands, in a brilliant and daring touch, are cartoonish mitts in yellow that are like versions of Homer Simpson’s fat fingers). Rauch may never before have made figures that are this massive, or take up so much of the spaces they are placed in—or inspire in us such a childish dread of the mammoth.
Whether or not these paintings represent a terrain he will be exploring, Rauch’s work is ready for a new terrain. As the “Neue Rollen” catalog of his recent retrospective suggests, he has been putting his energies in the last few years into paintings with many figures and many elaborately odd happenings, including visitations by angels, rifle-toting Amazons, and a general sense of hell on earth. A number of works in the Met’s show, including Warten auf die Barbaren (Waiting for the Barbarians), a tumultuous street scene, give a sense of them. They are epics of ambiguity, and, when seen in number, they blur together. They feel portentous and leave the impression that Rauch is, to use his own words, in the “production of pictures.”
If the full body of his work is any guide, however, it doesn’t seem likely that Rauch will get caught in a rut. Going through his “Neue Rollen” catalog, one is astonished at the number of changes he has made in his approach since the early 1990s, when his pictures were more like abstractions with figurative elements. It is no longer even fair to say that his typical figure is some variant of a lumpy, blond, expressionless mechanic. The faces of Rauch’s male figures, at least, are increasingly individualized, handsome, and sensitive, and they can be found attired now in fairly sexy (if still outdated) clothes. The smoldering, dark-haired young men in some of the pictures in the Met’s show are unimaginable in his work from a few years earlier.
Rauch’s renown, at least as seen from New York, has derived in part from the fact that since he first started being talked about roughly eight years ago, his work has been seen only in glimpses and there hasn’t been much to read about him. With the Met’s show and catalog, the “Neue Rollen” retrospective catalog, and those from his shows in Vienna, Málaga, and elsewhere now available—and accompanied by English translations—some of the artist’s mystique is inevitably being dissipated. Yet his work is powerful and varied enough to make every publication worth a good look.
The sweetest (although not the most complete) is the Málaga catalog, which is weighted toward the artist’s rare, pure landscapes and his figure paintings with crucial amounts of architecture and landscape in them—works such as the subtly hallucinatory 2002 Acker (Field), with its red rocks and fields, and, from the same year, Bestimmung (Classification), of students apparently bird-watching out by marshes. It is not that they are by definition Rauch’s finest. His color, though, is especially radiant in these scenes set in fields and farmyards, by streams and out in stormy weather. The images are less frenetic in tone than Rauch can be, and seem to show more of our known world. Not so oddly, they make us feel more a part of his dreams.
September 27, 2007