The exhibition by the German painter Neo Rauch at Gallery David Zwirner, London, showcases sixteen new large and small scale canvases. While Rauch is a household name in his native country, with a considerable international reputation, ‘Rondo‘ is his first major UK show. And it is about time this most fascinating of contemporary figurative painters was introduced to the British public.
‘Rondo‘ offers no surprises for those already familiar with Rauch’s oeuvre but shows once more the artist’s well-tried yet captivating signature formula. His art offers old-masterly figuration which is imbued with a natural sense of gravitas. Rauch lays out an abundance of bait which evoke a narrative. Canvases bristle with seemingly meaningful symbols, gestures and visual allusions and their protagonists diligently perform enigmatic yet oddly compelling actions. Some drag large fish from a lake under the watchful eye of some fantastic, Brueghel-esque creatures in ‘Der Fischzug‘ and others collectively admire a fountain in ‘Die Kur‘. In ‘Das Gegenüber‘, an anonymous man torments his opponent with eerie hand puppets. Rauch recontextualises Velazquez’s ‘Rockeby Venus‘ in ‘Der Störfall‘ and the blue and white colour scheme of ‘Das Duell‘ is reminiscent of 17th century Delftware.
The breadcrumbs do not lead to a coherent story, however, and the strange, surreal scenarios persistently defy explanation. Indeed, on closer inspection a clear reading is distinctively undermined. The gatherings of his figures are static stagings, as if they functioned as signifiers for a deeper layer of meaning instead of illustrating a specific event. Often, pictorial elements are incohesive in perspective and scale, or mingled with wholly abstract interruptions, as if they referenced multiple truths or different corners of the artist’s subconscious.
According to Rauch, the significance of his iconography lies in his personal experience and ‘inner landscape’, although he refrains from giving us any leads. He did explain, however, in a conversation with Martin Roth last month, that he accesses his ‘inner world’. He seems, therefore, to feel a deep indebtedness to Surrealism - he usually starts at the lower left corner of a canvas to build up the composition in a process he likens to automatic writing. This claim stands somewhat in contradiction to the fact that the encoded ciphers are carefully placed. The exhibition is titled ‘Rondo‘, a reference to the musical piece in which certain elements repeat themselves, and specific faces and motifs such as fire, industrial architecture and dramatically towering clouds tie the show together when they reappear throughout all the works or within one canvas.
Rauch‘s art is also quintessentially German. It is deeply rooted in the place and culture of its origin and in that localness forms a forceful counterpoint to Bourriaud’s cultural nomadism. Rauch draws his inspiration from his hometown of Leipzig, which provides him ‘with everything I need to work and live.’ It echos in his landscapes and buildings; the doorway in the background of ‘Die Kur‘, for example, is the gate to a local graveyard. Yet, Rauch renders an anachronistic, distinctively 19th century picture of Germany, in which power cables and contemporary facades barely anchor the work in the present day. The historical garments, subdued colours and distinct representation of nature evoke German Romanticism à la Caspar David Friedrich and the elusive sceneries look as though they could be illustrations from a lost tale by the Brothers Grimm. Fittingly, Rauch is currently working on a stage set for ‘Lohengrin‘ by Wagner, an artist with whom he shares a refined sense of elegance and drama. And do we not find a giant black swan in ‘Die Forderung‘?
The detour via the past, however, is neither a reactionary nor a sentimental exercise. We live in frightening times, Rauch explains, and he uses the reassurance of the past as a security blanket to encourage the audience to come closer to the abyss and catch a glimpse of the darkness. Rauch‘s subtle guidance can be felt in ‘Der Brandmeister‘, in which the overlarge fire chief treks through the landscape with a burning backpack – an uncomfortably apt visual metaphor for the political arson which is currently being committed in the east of Germany, where Rauch is from, and in so many other parts of Europe. And yet, all such interpretations remain purely associative and subjective – at the end of the day we are alone in the enchanted forest of Rauch’s imagination.
In ‘Rondo‘ Rauch sets up a dazzling web, spanning the polar opposites which characterise his work: figuration with no narrative, a strong sense of local identity in a globalised world, privacy with public significance and actuality in historical disguise. The enduring allure of Rauch’s art lies in the tension between these elements.