Original created in oil on canvas.
"The unconscious is a never-ending source of imageries that seem to just be waiting to reveal themselves in my paintings. It’s an area where things are still all jumbled together and don’t have specific intentions, materials that the painter is allowed to configure at will."
Artist Neo Rauch was born in Leipzig, Germany on April 18, 1960. Considered one of the greatest living German artists, he grew up with his grandparents in Aschersleben, after his parents died in a train accident that occurred when he was just four weeks old. Rauch studied painting at the Leipzig Academy’s College of Graphics and Book Arts, and after the fall of the German Democratic Republic, he worked for five years (1993-98) there as an assistant to Arno Rink and Sighard Gille, and later (2005-09) as a professor.
Founded in 1764 and located in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany), the Leipzig Art Academy is highly regarded for its tradition of figure painting, which, before the reunification of Germany in 1989-90, was bound to state-mandated socialist realism. The school’s required focus on figure painting prevented experimentation with subject matter or form, but left technique free to develop. Its rigorous two-year foundation course, which focused primarily on portrait and nude studies, produced some of East Germany’s best figure painters.
In the 1980s and 1990s, after being cut off by the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall from experiments in abstraction that thrived in America and western Europe, the Academy began to attract young art students who were eager to draw from nude models, master the rules of perspective, and analyze formal composition. Artists like Rauch became proficient in traditional techniques while also exploring styles outside the previously sanctioned social realism.
The mood of Leipzig itself provided the Leipzig artists with their material. Like other cities in the former GDR, Leipzig is plagued with high unemployment and depopulation. Factories and housing projects stand closed or half-empty, many of them slated for demolition, while ornate buildings from the early twentieth century undergo restoration. With this as a backdrop, Rauch’s technically accomplished artworks convey a general feeling of world-weariness and disenchantment that is especially common throughout East Germany.
Rauch is widely celebrated for his visually mesmerizing compositions that bring together the traditions of figurative painting and surrealism into an entirely new kind of aesthetic experience. His paintings, like Abstieg, skillfully employ complex imagery, spaces, and scale to create mysterious subject matter full of surrealism and chronological irregularities. Rauch himself, however, distances his work from straightforward interpretation. “I have no use for the cultishness of classic surrealism or for its tight repertoire of methods,” Rauch says, “In fact just the opposite is true: on my canvas, as in my mind, anything is possible.”
First and foremost, Rauch’s works are a product of their time and place, mainly finding inspiration in his immediate surroundings: in the people and the flat landscapes around Leipzig. His paintings are a seamless coupling of socialist realism and the dreamlike ambiguity of surrealism, a blending of the old and the new, both with his figures and his style. By shifting perspectives and playing with the reality of space, simultaneous actions, parallel scenes and dream sequences create a jarring and unusual sense of space and forced perspective.
Though his art is highly refined and executed with considerable technical skill, Rauch himself stresses the intuitive, deeply personal nature of how he works. He writes, “My process is far less a reflection than it is drawing from the sediments of my past, which occurs in an almost trancelike state.” The painting Abstieg is clearly a visual reflection of the past. Its central character donning a romantic historical costume is at once realistic and familiar while also appearing puzzling and difficult to decipher. The word abstieg means descent or decline in German. Is the main character and his accompanying distorted visage descending the hill on which he climbs? Is his shadowy doppelgänger a reflection of the character’s ultimate decline? There is no singular answer to the narrative. His dreamlike composition can be explained in a variety of ways. Rauch leaves it up to the viewer to apply their own meaning.
How do you interpret this artwork? Write a story about what you think is happening in Rauch’s painting. Or, create a piece of art that depicts what transpires next. We would love to see your creations! Share your work at email@example.com and you may be featured on our V.I.A. (Very Important Artists) webpage.
*aesthetic – Relating to or characterized by a concern with beauty or good taste (adjective); a particular taste or approach to the visual qualities of an object (noun).
*figurative art – Also called figurativism, the term figurative describes artwork (particularly paintings and sculptures) that is clearly derived from real object sources and so is, by definition, representational.
*formal composition – In the visual arts, the formal composition is the placement or arrangement of the visual elements, as distinct from the subject or the style with which it is depicted. It can also be thought of as the organization of the elements of art according to the principles of art. The formal elements of an artwork are the parts used to create an artwork. The art elements are line, shape, form, tone, texture, pattern, color and composition. They are often used together, and how they are organized in a piece of art determines what the finished piece will look like.
*perspective – The method of representing a 3-dimensional object, or a particular volume of space, on a flat, 2-dimensional surface. The term perspective refers to an entire scene, while perspective applied to a single object within a scene is called foreshortening.
*socialist realism: an artistic practice using a realistic style to create strictly optimistic pictures of German life. It is a form of propaganda based on the principle that the arts should glorify political and social ideals of communism.
*subject matter – In artwork, the subject matter would be what the artist has chosen to paint, draw or sculpt; it is what an artwork is about.
*surrealism – An artistic and literary movement led by French poet André Breton from 1924 through World War II. Drawing on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud, the Surrealists sought to overthrow what they perceived as the oppressive rationalism of modern society by accessing the sur réalisme (superior reality) of the subconscious. In his 1924 “Surrealist Manifesto,” Breton argued for an uninhibited mode of expression derived from the mind’s involuntary mechanisms, particularly dreams, and called on artists to explore the uncharted depths of the imagination with radical new methods and visual forms. These ranged from abstract “automatic” drawings to hyper-realistic painted scenes inspired by dreams and nightmares to uncanny combinations of materials and objects.
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*The Emergency Art Museum claims no ownership, or copyright to any materials found here, or on-site. The Emergency Art Museum functions solely as a non-commercial, non-profit, educational resource for the community. All artwork represented or reproduced, has been done so for educational purposes only under the fair use act.
-Johnny DePalma, Owner / Curator
-Janelle Graves, Art Historian / Museum Educator