For three decades, German artist Neo Rauch has been one of the leading figurative painters of his generation, his works windows into a strange world. It’s a world that operates according to its own laws, a world that is at once familiar with its bucolic scenery and sometimes industrial landscapes, and yet completely alien and alienating. Conventions of painting are disregarded. Figures appear disembodied and disproportionate in size to one another, and the rules of perspective and proportion are discarded. The paintings look like they are made up of fragments, collages of images plucked from storybooks and the imagination. It results in an unsettling atmosphere, dense with drama and discord.
Rauch was born in 1960 in Leipzig in what was then East Germany. He was brought up by his grandparents from the age of four weeks after his mother and father were killed in a train accident. Soviet-era Liepzig gave Rauch, who still lives in the city, a firm grounding in the figurative social-realist art that defined the communist aesthetic and which, to an extent, also defines his own work. He studied at the Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts and later worked at the Leipziger Academy in the ’90s as a master’s student under influential Leipzig School painters Arno Rink and Sighard Gille.
Although Rauch says that works by Balthus, Francis Bacon and Giotto had “a fundamentally stabilising effect on his formal practice” and “saved” him from “wandering off into mainstream painting,” it is impossible not to ponder how this fusion of East and West Europe, of two different value systems (if not two different worlds) that the artist experienced, come into play in his work. Unlike fellow East German artists Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, who eschewed any link to social-realist traditions and figuration, Rauch embraced the influences of East Germany. Blending these with Western art influences, he paved the way for the resurgence of figurative painting.
The mix of influences and the merging of past and present, the personal and the political, result in a singular voice and vision in painting that has defied trends and seen Rauch scale the heights of the contemporary art market. After a 1999 Armory Show presentation by Berlin gallery Eigen + Art catapulted his work into the international spotlight, Rauch enjoyed New York exhibitions at David Zwirner as well as galleries and museums in Europe. More recently, Zwirner brought the artist to Hong Kong for the first time, showing works at Art Basel in Hong Kong in March. Two large paintings sold immediately after the fair, opening for US$1 million each.
I meet Rauch at a dinner thrown in his honour in Hong Kong by Zwirner. He has a rock-star-sounding name (Rauch means “smoke” in German) and cuts a striking figure with his impeccably cut suit, piercing blue eyes and silver hair. He looks more like a statesman than an artist—controlled, poised and armed with a dry sense of humour. As enigmatic and magnetic as his paintings, it’s difficult to read what is behind the steely gaze and disarming, slight smile. Rauch is a collector of words as much as images, and with a few sentences he can further confuse the meaning of a work or clarify it.
“Painting has a reactive quality,” he explains. “It takes on the function of a trawl net, which I drag through the past and which brings me quite a bit of by-catch, but at times also large fish.” Fragments from scenes remembered and dreamed, the improbable, the nightmarish and the nonsensical, are plucked from his imagination and brought together on his canvases, forming paintings devoid of logic and narrative.
Rauch’s palette sets the mood and tone of his paintings more than anything. “Colour truly is a lubricating film through which our emotions are transported onto the canvas,” he says. “In terms of the capacity to release memories, it is less strong than the sense of smell, but very much related. I try to create a compelling colour climate. At times I don’t hesitate to apply dissonant colour arrangements. This does not happen in a deliberate fashion, but rather intuitively, and can therefore give an indication of my current state of mind.” There’s sometimes a violent and discordant clash of colours, as in Der Blaue Fisch (2014). In other works, such as Über den Dächern (2014), there’s a nostalgic feeling to the muted colours, which come across like old East German propaganda posters or faded photographs.
Fragments from scenes remembered and dreamed, the improbable, the nightmarish and the nonsensical, are plucked from his imagination and brought together on Rauch’s canvases
In any given painting, a variety of images crowds the canvas. In Heillichtung (2014), a group of protagonists dressed in a mix of military and medieval clothing gather around a patient on a bed, while a donkey’s head, reminiscent of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, sits in the foreground; behind it stands a sculpture that recalls Brancusi’s Endless Column. The painting teems with a mix of World War II, sci-fi and art history references. In Der Blaue Fische, a woman dressed in crimson steps out of the belly of a giant fish, like a bloody Madonna, in front of a small group of villagers and fisherman. Rauch’s canvases almost always seem to feature groups of people, collectives and societies working or engaging in activities together.
These images are drawn from Rauch’s personal as well as the collective sub- consciousness. “They arise dimly in front of me, like perceptions out of the corner of one’s eye, which fall apart with direct eye contact. Therefore, they are more ideas than certainties,” says the artist.
His characters, and the various surreal elements and symbols scattered across the landscape, are not intended to tell any specific story, but rather to serve the composition of the work. “Every incidentally appearing element in it has a stabilising effect on the overall mechanism of the painting,” he explains. “In the best scenario, an inner image is at my disposal, which hovers ghostlike in front of me and fills the space between the canvas and me.”
Rauch hypnotically lures us into a puzzling world of nightmares and dreamscapes that is at once both seductive and ominous—a world collectors can’t seem to get enough of.