From Orphaned Dreamer to Art King: Neo Rauch’s Surreal World of Brushes and Politics

  Neo Rauch, one of the most important contemporary artists in Germany and the core leader of the “New Leipzig School”, has always been at the top of the pyramid of figurative painting. His paintings are instantly recognizable and difficult to imitate, and are highly sought-after in the collecting market, with collectors queuing up to claim his works, including Brad Pitt and Bill Gates.
  This is not his first exhibition in China. Neo Rauch’s latest solo exhibition opened at David Zwirner Hong Kong in November, titled “Field Signs.” Landmarks, in the distant past, were the symbols for organizing military units, dividing plots and territories, but now they appear in Neo Rauch’s new work in an anachronistic way.
  Rauch doesn’t like others to call him an artist. He always corrects himself to calling him a painter. Although he also makes sculptures and installations, it is obvious that painterliness is the first attribute he values ​​most in his creations. Similarly, he did not like the label “social realism”, although it had been with him for a long time.
  Some people compare Neo Rauch to a bridge. At one end of the bridge is the old-school political painter of the Democratic Republic of Germany, and at the other end of the bridge is the young artist who faced the whole world after the reunification of the two Germanys. Neo Rauch Both at this end and at that end, like a ferryman. Hans-Werner Schmidt, director of the Leipzig Museum of Fine Arts, once positioned him this way: “I am not flaunting Rauch’s position in the history of Leipzig painting, but one thing is obvious. Rauch is the connection between 1970 and 1970. an important part of the painting of the 1980s, 1980s and even today.”
When I grow up I will become you

  Neo is an orphan. His parents died in a train derailment when he was 4 weeks old. To this day, there is still a portrait of his mother hanging on the wall of his studio, a small painting, with his mother’s heroic big eyes staring out from the frame. Perhaps the swaddled baby is not old enough to remember his mother’s face, but this portrait will always remind him that she once really existed. The mother in the picture was so young. She was only 19 years old when she passed away. Strictly speaking, she was still just a girl.
  Since childhood, Neo has been accustomed to people avoiding him and mentioning his parents’ tragedy in an apologetic whisper. Neo was raised by his grandparents in Aschersleben, a small town in Salzland, and is a true East German. Because he was too young, he did not feel the sharp pain of missing at first. Photos of his parents hung on the wall, two frozen young people. He grew up and gradually became similar to them in age. Then, he surpassed them and continued to move forward, becoming older than them. “At one time I even thought they were my brothers and sisters. Today, my children are older than their grandparents.”
  Neo Rauch’s father, Hanno Rauch, was born in Gera in 1939 and is also A painter who studied at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig and died at the age of 21; his mother, Helga Wand, had just completed a preparatory course in Dresden and was about to enter Leipzig to study book design. “The paintings my father left behind are impressive and an astonishing number, from which you can feel his energetic talent.” Apart from a large stack of paintings and sketches, the young couple did not have time to leave anything to the newborn. Maybe The only legacy that can be passed on is genes.
  He was named Neo, which is a prefix in ancient Greek that means “resurrection” or “new life.” He seemed to have lived on with his parents’ unfinished lives. Neo Rauch started painting at the age of two, and he still remembers that his first painting was a woodpecker. His real interest in art began when he was a child and found a picture album on his grandfather’s bookshelf. There, he saw the crazy, grotesque and fascinating works of the surrealist artist Salvador Dali, and then the works of the same genus. Surrealist Margaret, compared to Dali, appears calmer and more romantic, but equally full of strange imagination. After graduating from high school, Neo applied to study art in Leipzig, but was rejected by the school because he was too young. It was not until three years of military service that he entered the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig and followed the same path as his father. “I have to draw. If I don’t draw, I don’t know who I am.”
Living with the Berlin Wall for Thirty Years
  Neo, who was born in 1960, is truly a member of a generation that grew up with the Berlin Wall. One year after he was born, the construction of the 155-kilometer-long Berlin Wall began. When he was 30 years old, the Berlin Wall came crashing down. collapse. But Neo Rauch does not emphasize the impact of political changes on his artistic creation. In East Germany, where he grew up, art has long been regarded as a tool for political propaganda, a dagger and a gun, but Neo is just the opposite. , what he always thinks about is how to keep art away from politics, and art should be something simpler and purer.
  ”In my paintings, you can often see the combination of social realism and surrealism, which is closely related to the background in which I grew up. The Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig was originally famous for a group of social realism masters, but in the 1980s At the beginning, social realism was no longer a semantically unified term. Everyone here had a new way of interpretation. At that time, the great changes in the country also affected everyone. I personally like to place paintings in In a dream-like scene, a universe separated from the real world.”
  The art school where he attended tolerated this desire to avoid politics. Although Leipzig was located in East Germany and its teaching style was biased towards realistic depiction and focused on solid basic skills, the principal of the school had publicly promised young people that he would try his best to Avoiding the influence of ideology on students, students can concentrate on expressing their creative intentions in a relaxed atmosphere. “Politics has not overwhelmingly surpassed aesthetics, and even my teachers are no longer influenced by the social realism style.”
  The Leipzig School of Visual Arts trains students’ basic skills, which Nio relishes. “Two years of foundation research, dedicated to painting in nature. In the second year, I started to practice watercolor techniques. Then came the three-year professional course, with complete freedom in the choice of creative themes and a strong focus on painterliness – politics did not play a role in my studies to any effect.”
  With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the sudden opening up of the social environment, and the subsequent cultural integration and impact, in the former East German camp, the figurative style of social realism was considered “outdated” and art that served political propaganda. Unrecognized by the art world and curators, many East German painters turned to abstract painting. Neo Rauch also worked hard on the road of abstraction, but he continued to explore and then found a completely different style. The language of painting in the past, “I realized the importance of the order of the picture, which made me wake up from semi-abstract graffiti.” After going around in a circle, he returned to the figurative camp.
  It was a period of innovation and change. In 1993, Neo held his first solo exhibition, which was “a complete commercial disaster”. Easel painting was considered to be an obsolete art category, and no one cared about it. Images, videos and installations sold well, and the art world began to emphasize concepts over technology. , but Neo Rauch is not influenced by the market. For him, painting has always been the most essential thing in his creation.
Automatically flowing parallel novels and dreams

  At the beginning of the 21st century, Germany gave birth to the “New Leipzig School”, which the American art historian Joachim Pissarro called “the hottest thing on earth”. During the years when the Berlin Wall was still in existence, the modern artistic concepts of East German artists were blocked. They were neither influenced by artists active in West Germany such as Joseph Beuys, nor were they very different from the famous German Expressionism. Leipzig continued the tradition of painting by Max Beckmann and Lucas Cranach until the fall of the Berlin Wall changed everything. As a member of the “New Leipzig School”, Neo Rauch himself may have had a more diverse list of artistic idols in his early years: Francis Bacon, Max Beckmann, Gerard Gallust and Walter Libuda.
  What’s interesting is that no matter how Neo claims that his paintings have nothing to do with politics, you can still feel the political attributes in his paintings, but the political elements are appropriated as a nostalgic language and are closely related to Pop Art and Commerce. Collages, cartoons and even religious paintings are mixed together into some weird mixture.

Exhibition view, “Neo Rauch: Landmark”, Zwirner Gallery, Hong Kong, November 16, 2023 to February 24, 2024. Photo/Courtesy of Zwirner Gallery

  “In my work, elements of political posters may have become established as tiresome but sometimes amusing visual remnants of what I saw in my childhood. As long as they are seen as an ironic complement rather than as a source of content for the picture. direction, I will tolerate them with approval.”
  Political elements have even become the source of humor in his paintings. People will smile because of those familiar visual memories. The same visual residue also comes from Europeans’ attachment to religious paintings and even mythological stories. memory. Neo is good at creating illusions in the picture. He makes different characters busy in chaotic sizes and unreasonable spatial relationships, and perform all kinds of bizarre behaviors: pedestrians collecting night moths, half-naked men with wings, and allocating food to humans. The priest with his luggage, the young man digging deep in his study… He likes to use conflicting colors or semi-faded monotones. The former creates a rich spectacle full of metaphors, while the latter is reminiscent of Berlin. Abandoned posters that remained on East German walls after the wall collapsed. Neo mobilizes all of this like a magician, with characters out of proportion and space distorted, but he never explains how the magic tricks are performed, nor does he refuse to explain whether his pictures have any meaning.
  Rauch’s studio is in an old cotton mill in the west of Leipzig. He works from nine to seven every day, five days a week. He sticks to his schedule like an office worker and rides a bicycle to and from his studio and home. He does not draw sketches, and works directly on large-scale works. But before that, he will stare at the white canvas and be in a daze for a long time, waiting for the canvas to give him a signal, waiting for the possibility of the image to gradually awaken on the picture. He always paints several paintings at the same time, as if telling several sets of stories in parallel. The narrative of the pictures is also very similar to absurd novels. “Where language narrative fails, images are produced.” Mr. Neo said.
The dreams in his head are his reservoir. When painting, the painter himself obeys his subconscious mind. Everything he writes seems to flow out automatically when he is in a trance, and is an adventure on the canvas. He is willing to quote the German philosopher Hölderlin’s golden words repeatedly: “When we think, we are beggars; when we dream, we are kings.”

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