The Strange Antiquity of Modernity: the Seriously Fantastical World of the painter Neo Rauch

There is to be lunch, on the stroke of noon, at Neo Rauch’s third-floor studio in the Spinnerei, and we are minutes late. We hurry up many flights of concrete stairs, past walls of painted brick whose bareness is interrupted only by the occasional defiant shout of graffiti. Having passed through the giant metal door into the sanctum of the studio, we all sit down at an old wooden table which looks as if it has served Neo Rauch well for the almost quarter of a century that he has occupied this wonderfully cluttered and phantasmagoric space. Everything is here that he needs, and more: catalogues, books strewn across various impromptu surfaces that have fallen open to particularly interesting and pertinent illustrations from the eighteenth or nineteenth century. The cover story of a magazine propped against the windowsill interrogates the insoluble mystery of Jesus Christ.

Neo Rauch in his studio at the Spinnerei, Lepizig

There are soft toys flung around, tools, a pair of black boots, posters of exhibitions of the past on the walls, partially squeezed out tubes of paints, besmirched painting gloves flung down at random, silver tins a-bristle with brushes, ladders, easels, and, here and there, propped or hanging or taped to the walls, many large paintings in the making. There is also much dried paint spattered about the floor itself, which occasionally feels alarmingly uneven. ‘Images rise up from these encrustations on the floor. Paint me, they seem to be saying. You have summoned me to life right on this spot,’ Neo Rauch once remarked.

There is also a long, leather punch ball, hanging down from its chain, for working off creative frustration, a mesmerising silver mirror ball suspended directly in front of a tidal wave of plants which seems to come surging forward from the windowsill, and a stage for stepping up onto when painting – this stage is a survivor of his fiftieth birthday party, which happened all of eight years ago. Three hundred crowded in. What a night that had been! It reminded him of those parties he so loved as a teenager. ‘It also makes me feel that there is an audience in the background,’ says Neo. Music plays in the background, drifting jazz. There is always music on in the studio. Sometimes it is very loud indeed.

Neo and his wife, the painter Rosa Loy, who has her own studio a little way along the corridor, bring the food in, dish by dish: sauerkraut, boiled potatoes skinned and trimmed, and goose, floating in its rich and tasty juice. And, ah yes, some seasoning: pink Himalayan salt, offered in an old tin from the Camargue. There is also a jug of drinking water in which a giant stick of charcoal is suspended. A little later there will be dessert too: slices of wintery stollen cake, from his native Saxonia, as Neo reminds us, and thin, curved biscuits from Korea. We are here to contemplate the present – and the future. When we sit down, Smylla the pug wedges himself between me and the back of my seat. He rumbles, contentedly, like a small motor, as we talk. He is always hungry, says Neo resignedly.

Spate Heimkehr (2013), oil on canvas

I ask Neo Rauch about his influences, and whether or not he has any sense of fellow-feeling with other German painters of the post-war era: Keifer, Baselitz, Polke, Richter. He hesitates to suggest common ground. I mention that he once spoke approvingly of a single word used by Jorg Immendorf: insubordination. Was that not what he had been seeking too as a young painter? Yes, he nods in agreement. Otherwise, not. He tells me that he is not the sort of artist who moves around in a pack or belongs to a group of any kind. I don’t want to be a leader, he tells me. I would rather be a lonely wolf. No, he has no collaborators. And, generally speaking, it is better to avoid having idols. He cannot think of a single living painter who might be one. He mentions some idols from the past though: Bacon and Velasquez, for example. Nor could he be the master painter of a studio like Rubens’, doing the important parts: face, hands, etc. – and leaving the rest to the assistants. In fact, he seems to despise those artists who use fabricators. His fabricators consist of his own two hands. He tries to be responsible for every square centimetre of his canvas.

Der Lehrling (2015), oil on canvas

I probe further, about other German painters, seeking out the names of those he might admire. There is one above all, that fellow Leipziger, Max Beckmann. He has always revered Beckmann. What exactly does he revere him for though? ‘I do feel very close to Beckmann, and the way he painted. He is very strong. It is a very German way, and it became more so the older he became. It is something about the avoidance of easy beauty. He didn’t care about harmony. Things are always a little disturbed or broken. Quite brutal and strict. He was always very connected with his own subconscious. He was in contact with the other side of reality. He would ask visitors to read his paintings, tell him what he had painted.’ He pauses. ‘I have often been asked: why do you describe yourself as a German painter? The fact is not changeable. I am connected to German history.’ But there are older and newer Germanies. ‘My identity as a Saxon and my identity as a German, the two work together. The Saxons often fought with Napoleon. Then they fought against him. There is a certain Saxon mentality. They were more interested in the good life than, say, the Prussians, who were more strict. The Prussians liked order.

‘My family has lived here for many generations, since the 16th century. I feel deeply connected with the tragedy of my country, with the destiny of the people here. I cannot cut that connection.’ And yet the idea of political art is anathema to him.

After lunch, we stand and walk around the studio. He introduces me to these new paintings of his in the making, one by one. There are seven of them, all very large figure groups with various elements of a hinterland – a snatch of landscape, the backdrop of buildings, a clustering of trees. There are often seven of them here at any one time, he tells me, as if that is a particularly pleasing number. He moves from one to another, pointing out this and that. Oil paint dries slowly. You have to be patient. He gradually coaxes them all into being. He brings them along together. It gets more and more difficult, he says. He is forever seeking out virgin territory. He needs to surprise himself. ‘I need to stay awake in front of my own canvas.’ That is why he could never take to abstraction, although he tried once, because when he was very young, he was striving, above all things else, to be a Modern Painter. It was just too boring in the end. He missed the figures. ‘I came close to abstract art in the late 1980s, but then I came to the conclusion that by producing non-figurative stuff, I would be turning myself in to one of the thousands of Sunday painters. It was at that point that I was in a real danger of losing myself. It was a dream that saved me. I had to concentrate, throw out the colours, concentrate on the stuff I had left over. It has been a very gradual evolution. There has been no revolutionary moment.

Reiter (2010), oil on cnvas

‘You see, there seemed to be no other way back then, at the end of the 1980s. I wanted to be part of the narrative of modern art. I had to behave like a modern painter, and abstraction was the hottest thing. How could I enter this stream of modernity? Finally I concluded that it was not only impossible, it was not even necessary. I had to tell things, and for me the only way was by painting figures. That striving, that yearning to enter the mainstream of modernity, now strikes me as both ridiculous and embarrassing. And anyway, it would not even have been possible for me to to be amongst the wildest of the wild because we didn’t have drugs! We lived in very different circumstances…’

He speaks very fondly of these latest paintings in the studio, I notice. He talks of the figures – many of them are life size, so it would be all the easier to step across and into their imaginative worlds just as Alice stepped through into her looking-glass world in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass – as if he is their guardian, and it is his duty to protect them from that dangerous world beyond. ‘I have to bring them in safely, out of the main problems of our time, under the roof of a house perhaps, or within the safe walls of a panic room. I must above all protect them from the disaster of politics. They should not be usable for political purposes. I always try to avoid political statements, meanings. You have to keep them clean.’ The worst art is political art then? ask him. ‘Yes, and as Picasso once said: I am not a messenger. On the other hand, political meanings do happen,’ he sighs.

Der Parabel (2008), oil on canvas

That is true, of course. Some have given social and political interpretations to his work. He also recognises the problem of his own particular circumstances, where he grew up, what he was inevitably a part of, his particular historical predicament. ‘The walls of my studio are semi-transparent, porous. I cannot avoid these influences that come to me from the outside. I have to take a shower when I come into the studio. There is always some left over. Art is not a clean area.. On the other hand, if I tried to be directly connected to reality, I would produce propaganda – or those shows you see daily on TV…’

And so we return to the paintings themselves, the ones which are in the making, the ones that he is currently nurturing. They are his family, he says. They keep up with each other – like a growing family. They are his companions. They are also a haven, a sanctuary, and tools, in part, of his own survival, perhaps better than reality. ‘I have to be able to live with them.’ He walks me across to the least finished painting of them all, the one he started after his recent return from Palma. He points out a rocky coastline, land abutting sea. That is the rocky coastline of Palma, he says. There are cliffs, and cliff dwellings – you can clearly see the small, window-like apertures. These people made their homes in the cliff itself, he says. There is also a large male figure in a long frock coat to the right of the painting, standing on a promontory, pointing in the direction of the sea. Is that not an image somewhat reminiscent of Caspar David Friedrich, I ask him, of Man alone, brooding upon the immensity of the Void? The past may have caught up with him, as it often seems to do. How exactly does it work though? How does he begin, with a canvas of this enormity?

Abstieg (2009), oil on canvas

‘I put in the background first. I make that decision early. It is a grace to be able to discover things – like a birth from the darkness. I am trying to suggest the art of everyone’s subconscious.’ The struggle is always the same. The interest is the same. The shapes change. ‘I create things as if they existed many decades before. The gestures, the actions are ambiguous. There are many millions of possibilities. One or two are quite enough. It makes it so difficult. It makes me feel so insecure. It would be so much easier to use photographs.’ But he would never work from photographs.

We move on to another new painting in the making. Such is its state of completeness that you could readily say that this one has been surging ahead, though it is far from finished. So far it has been eight months in the fabrication. At this point in time it is a landscape with figures – and much else. A group of men with flags is climbing a hillside. ‘I began it in June of last year, when the leaves were fresh green on the trees.’ He points to that vivid greenness. And now it is winter, though summer clings on in that painting. ‘I wanted to paint a landscape – but then these figures appeared, one after the other. After that, I put in a big figure on the right.’ There are often large figures on the right in your paintings, I mention. Little by little, that early summer landscape found itself challenged, if not almost overwhelmed, by other kinds of activity – a group of buildings from perhaps the early nineteenth century, the era of the Napoleonic Wars, for example, has also interposed itself. And so the painting, little by little, is continuing to emerge.

Hohe Zeit (2012), oil on canvas

I ask him about dreams as the source of his work. Yes, he has used them from time to time, but not so much. He does not paint what he saw last night. He is trying to simulate the way dreams work, to evoke the suggestive power of dreams. He depends most of all upon inspiration. He concentrates most of all upon the white canvas. He is trying to see inside that wall of fog. ‘I don’t know what will happen next. I have no idea.’ He regards himself as a kind of medium, the bearer of a message from above. ‘There is a lot of pressure, to be gifted in this way. It is a little like playing chess against yourself. You put a piece down on the board. You make the first move. And then perhaps you change position. You play from the other side. You also have to be a player who doesn’t think, just reacts. You have to balance things. I am perhaps a juggler, a jongleur. I have to decide what elements I am juggling with.’ Neither of these paintings has been named yet. Sometimes he is quite helpless to find a title for a new painting. His wife helps. Every title has to have a good, suggestive sound. ‘West Wind,’ he mentions, giving me an example in English. That wouldn’t do though because Ode to the West Wind is a celebrated poem written by the great English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. He agrees. ‘I’m too vain to take a title from a poem.’ He weaves everything out of himself. That is how it must be.

How does he square those two things? Is he an atheistical pantheist by any chance? ‘Sometimes I feel guided in a certain sense. There is something behind the reality, something that protects me. I cannot explain this by referring to any particular religion. It is a kind of energy, sometimes present, at other times absent. It is always good – energy, nature, cosmic reality…’ The current challenge – the new challenge of every working day – is what counts (he puts in five days’ work a week, about eight hours a day, and he has the weekend off) – is to coax this new family of paintings into life. And that challenge, that burden, is quite sufficient unto the day. The weekend means an escape from the chaos within. Understood.

Der Altar (2008), oil on canvas

In 2003 the artist Frank Stella said this to me. ‘Figuration has already done so much. It has had its moment. There are so many different possibilities open to abstraction, not just geometric abstraction.’ Yet in the 1990s, even the abstract artist Frank Stella felt marginalised, almost made irrelevant, by what was then fashionably described as the New Media – video art, installation art. Neo Rauch came to quite a different conclusion about abstraction and the New Media. They held no appeal and no meaning for him. Abstract art bored him – even though he has also recognised why it was perhaps necessary for it to exist after Hiroshima and Auschwitz. ‘Man had forfeited the privileges of being depicted as a result of these atrocities – no more representational painting.’

Why would abstract art do when representational art would not? Abstract art, you could argue, is a-political, un-besmirched by images that can be interpreted – or perhaps misinterpreted – for political ends. Is this not why abstract art sits so comfortably in offices, and why an abstract artist such as Sean Scully is such a hit in China? And yet it was Neo Rauch’s experience that only by discovering a new relationship with the art of the human figure that he was able to find meaning as an artist. And now the wheel has turned full circle. Figurative art has made a powerful comeback across the globe. It is regarded as legitimate once again.Think of such important, young-to-mid-career painters as Ryan Mosley, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Nina Chanel Abney, Chantal Joffe, Toyin Ojih Odutolah, Robin F. Williams… And so you could argue that Neo Rauch, once regarded as hopelessly anachronistic, finds himself in the vanguard of the return of figuration. I put this to him as we stand beside one of his giant figure groups in the studio. Is he in the vanguard? No! No! He looks horrified, if not a little besmirched by such an idea. And perhaps not even quite so alone any more.

No painter can be said to know his own work perfectly. It can wrest itself from his grip. Much as Neo Rauch may want to keep the world of politics and its sulliedness out of his paintings, it insists on bursting through, at all points – rather in the way that water will find its way through the smallest crack in the wall. Neo Rauch’s is not a self-enclosed world at all, subject only to the strange vicissitudes of the subconscious. European history, politics, the ever enduring presence of human conflict – everything is here for the seeing if you wish to look hard enough, and with a sufficiently super-subtle eye.

Nor does it necessarily consist of happy families. These are not safe or biddable creatures at all. They may not even be likeable or desirable. They can be the stuff of nightmare. Exactly how loveable can any enslaved dog-man of the kind that we see in Randegebiet (Periphery, 2000) ever hope to be? This is pure Gothic. It frightens and unnerves even as it purports to create an atmosphere of an unusually settled normality. The clashings, the shriekings of colours in Die Kontrolle (The Check, 2010) set our teeth on edge – and so they might because this absurdly extravagant and near chaotic scene of the oppression of the human spirit by two malignant officials in shrill green caps – what is it exactly that is being checked or accounted for? – which includes a mighty gladiatorial battle between two dog-men, one of them bespectacled, represents everything that Neo Rauch may also find abhorrent.

Vater (2007), oil on canvas

The fact is that his creatures are as unruly as the subconscious itself. They outwit us even as we endeavour to tame them, speak well of them, or even lend them a little of our own tainted innocence. They play nasty tricks on each other, at which we spectate, helplessly. They consume each other on pyres of someone’s careful devising (see Der böse Kranke, The Evil Invalid, 2012). They indulge themselves in the no-holds-barred grotesqueries of carnival. They are unstoppable, unavoidable, beyond our ken. They can embody the pranksterishness of Till Eulenspiegel. They bifurcate into alarmingly slippery doppelgängers of themselves – it is as if some terrible sickness of the inner eye has caused us to see what we see in Abstieg (descent, decline, 2009), this perpetual blundering ahead through an unmanageable terrain which forever sucks at our boots. They appear as if from nowhere in order to trouble us. They are, in short, alarming. Each of these characters seems to have the capacity – and perhaps even the malign wilfulness – to seize its maker by the throat because, as Neo Rauch has repeatedly explained to us, a painting is a living thing with the capacity to teach us that which we do not quite know and perhaps would even prefer to forget. Any piece of making is a going beyond the self, a pushing out into unknown marshlands. We cannot suppress these inner worlds, nor soothe them back into harmlessness. Nor should we. These paintings, time and time again, propose themselves as sites of great disquiet, inducers of profound bouts of sleeplessness.

And yet throughout the work, after the fundamental changes of the 1990s, there has also been a gradual, quiet evolution towards something calmer and less furiously contested, and some of the best of the most recent works are, in part at least, a celebration of natural abundance. A key painting is Hohe Zeit (Precious Time, 2012). We are so accustomed to seeing collision and fragmentation in Neo Rauch’s work that it almost shocks us to be observing a work so touchingly celebratory of the rural, so stylistically all of a piece, so full of a sweet paradisal longing, so celebratory of the power of music to heal us – and one, moreover, which seems to show off natural abundance, almost for its own sake. There is melancholy here – that wistful glance of the old jester towards the young woman, who has stopped her music-making – but there is also a certain soulfulness, some striving towards a healing wholeness of vision, a rest from agitation. Here is all the yearning of the spirit of German Romanticism, re-born afresh in the 21st century.

Does he seek out perfection? Is that a goal? He sighs. ‘It is in the nature of every painting I do, that it could better.’ He stands and looks at me. He glances sideways, towards a canvas. He walks towards it. He returns. ‘I can’t achieve perfection. Perfection isn’t really my thing.’ And yet there is no smoke without fire, I tell him.

And what is art capable of doing for us? ‘I think that art – if it produces anything at all – has to communicate with us through its sensory qualities, its pure presence, a notion of what man is capable of, a notion of what values he carries around inside himself, the kind of natural realities of sense and meaning. And that requires no justification.’

Neo Rauch, a monograph by Michael Glover, is newly published by Lund Humphries.

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