Neo Rauch: The Obsession of the Demiurge. Selected Works 1993-2012
20 February - 19 May 2013
Review by Rebecca Castermans
The Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in Brussels is currently showing ‘The Obsession of the Demiurge. Selected Works 1993-2012’, the very first retrospective in Belgium of internationally acclaimed German painter Neo Rauch who, with his monumental canvases full of drama, violence and mystery, has almost single-handedly made figurative painting cool again.
The exhibition includes more than forty large paintings and dozens of smaller drawings on loan from museums and private collections all around the world. It spans the artist’s entire career, beginning in 1993 when, according to the artist, he ‘discovered his own voice’. The retrospective starts with some of his more recent work and then continues in a reverse chronological order. The first canvas you see is an enormous piece called ‘Zähmung’ (2011), which immediately pulls you into the imaginative dream world of Rauch.
From afar, it almost looks like an abstract painting: a collection of squares and triangles in grey and blue tones, with hints of neon pink and green. But as one gets closer, various shapes and figures begin to take form and the canvas starts to buzz with activity: in the background, a man holds a torch to bring light in the darkness while behind him a house is being demolished; on the right, the viewer can peek into an interrogation room; and on the left, a girl and a man have their hands full with a giraffe. This strange and ominous assemblage of tableaus and structures and objects and people that don’t belong together is emblematic of Rauch’s entire oeuvre.
In addition to the reverse chronological structure of the exhibition, every room has its own overarching theme or motif, so as to better understand the different stages in the development of the artist. The paintings in the room called ‘Difficult Terrain’ for example, deal with the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the feelings of hope, confusion and disillusion accompanying that event. In ‘Schwieriges Gelände’ (1997) charts and maps become useless: it’s no longer clear in which direction art and society are heading. Another example is the room ‘Role Playing and Rebellion’, which focuses on people’s motives and disappointments in social interactions throughout a distorted history. ‘Revo’ (2010) - one of the canvases in this room - shows a host of characters who are looking out for themselves without any regard for their fellow man. Only the children in the staircase appear to be doing something together, but their costumes and revolutionary fervour are fake: it’s all for show.
A painting by Rauch can best be described as a riddle without an answer. Looking at one is like trying to remember a feverish dream. With every fresh gaze, you discover new elements, new figures and new meanings. You could look and look and look without ever coming closer to solving the mystery. But then again, some mysteries are meant to remain mysteries; if solved, they could very well lose their magic.