Hubert Burda Media


We meet German artist Neo Rauch, who paints fantastic figures inspired by dreamscapes

NEO RAUCH IS not bound by time, faith, politics, space, scale, style or colour, but he is a slave to size. His New York gallerist, David Zwirner, notes, “If I’ve ever seen him struggle, it’s with the small format.”

Struggle, perhaps, is not the precise term Rauch would choose. The characters in his paintings are imposing and lifelike, looming large in each of the 16 canvasses that make up his most recent exhibition series, At the Well, in colour palettes dominated by jarring yet eerily compelling combinations such as teal, brick and chartreuse. “Painting is a physical thing,” explains Rauch. “I need to wrestle with figures which are nearly life-sized, and to create them like [in] a theatre. These are actors, for me. When I’m trying to paint smaller pieces it’s like working with a dollhouse, it’s puppets inside. It’s not so satisfying for me. It’s wonderful to end the day and to know you became the father of a person; it’s different to being the father of a triangle, or a square.”

Rauch is known for his deft application of abstract qualities to the strict formality of figurative painting – in the distorted scale of human to landscape that’s common to all his work, or in the appearance of mythic motifs such as the lobster-claw gloves worn by the characters in Über den Dächern. It’s a product of his youth – orphaned at only a month old in what was then East Germany, he went to art school in communist-era Leipzig when two different creative scenes warred: “The official [art scene] was dominated by figurative painting and the unofficial one was dominated by more abstract painting and installations and concept art – they were much more orientated in the direction of the Western art scene. It doesn’t mean they made better art than the ‘officials’, but they had a better reputation from a Western point of view because they’ve got the image of resistance.”

Rauch himself was a child of the first school, and for that reason his work is often ascribed a political agenda. “You’ve probably heard about ‘socialist realism’,” the artist says, chuckling. “This topic exists from the late ’40s, but it was just a word without content when I started studying in Leipzig.” He studied Max Beckmann, Edward Hopper, Francis Bacon, early Picasso. “It was much more open than the enemies of these ways of painting suggest.”

Rauch is always precise in his choice of words, even in his non-native English. And he is adamant when he states, “I’m not a political painter. I hate this word. I hate even the word ‘art’, because these are words that are not in a good condition. Everybody fills it with their own meanings, and it’s not healthy for the future of these words. When I’m trying to make art with political intention, I can be sure that I will make kitsch or propaganda or journalism. And nothing of this has got anything to do with art. Art is kind of a second nature. Like the plants that surround us, it influences our soul through our senses, not our brains.”

When Rauch paints, it’s with romance and abandon. He is prolific, and works to a schedule – “it’s important to have structure in life as a painter because you handle very strange stuff which is not very structured” – but his process is unique, as he paints entire exhibitions instead of singular canvasses, a routine that seems unusual without the knowledge that Rauch treats each piece like a child. “I let them grow up together like a family. We call it a witch circle, like when mushrooms come through the earth in a circle shape.”

And like children, the resulting work can often be surprising, even to their creator. Rauch says that his only intention when beginning is “an inner picture” he must draw out. The inspiration comes often from his dreams, but the manifestation plays out in myriad forms. “Sometimes culture art I’m very surprised by the meaning that comes out at the end, which I didn’t plan.”

He rarely plans, having been cured of the habit early in his career. “After my studies, I tried to be a modern painter. When you are 25, you want to be a modern artist, and that meant being an abstract painter, at the time. So I tried to reduce the figurative parts and give more space to the abstract elements and at the end, I developed a kind of soup – shapeless and powerless, just colour. And it was devastating in terms of my narrative potential. It was not beautiful, by the way. So I decided to concentrate, and I threw the colours out of my paintings and I created a group of pieces based in black and white. I tried to pull out of colours just to see what is inside, what’s left over, what are my shapes, what are my figures.”

He slowly let colour creep back into his canvasses. With At the Well, the forms are often morbid yet magical – in Heillichtung, men stand around a body prostrated on an operating table in the middle of a forest; a severed donkey’s head lies nearby on a stool. In Der Blaue Fisch, a woman stands knee-deep in the carcass of a whale-like creature. In Späte Heimkehr, the figures depicted are man-bird hybrids: one a woman surrounded by birds, another a man with wings, another entirely bird but for a human head.

While dark and often disengaged, Rauch’s work is, he believes, still heavily steeped in the romance that he thinks defines German art today. “Max Beckmann is a typical German painter: very male, very rough and tough and strict and romantic in a certain way, because it’s not so explainable, what he painted. He used to let other people, visitors, explain his own paintings to him. This is the romantic aspect of the expressive art of Max Beckmann. The romantic aspect is a typical German gift to the world of art – and I would feel very honoured to be counted in this line of romantic positions.”