Executed in 1999, the vast panoramic canvas of Stellwerk, with its dynamic diagonal running right through its heart and splitting the painting in two, represents one of Rauch's greatest and most direct musings on the fall of the Berlin Wall. As one of the most important painters working today, Rauch's origins in Leipzig, East Germany and subsequent development after the fall of the Wall are legendary. His paintings speak about the unification of the two opposing principles which have driven the entire twentieth century world, Communism and Capitalism. Having trained under the Communist regime in Socialist Realism and then been exposed to the pioneering artistic developments of the West, his painting are fused with a unique pictorial vocabulary, technical virtuosity and political gravitas.
The historical changes that were wrought around the globe over the past two decades can be encapsulated in one specific moment, the Fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. It is fascinating to look at Stellwerk, which was painted ten years after that cataclysmic event, from a contemporary perspective as we ourselves approach its twentieth anniversary. With this pivotal step in the downfall of Socialism in Europe and the end of the Cold War and its contingent tension, West and East collided after decades of separation and segregation, and nowhere was this more turbulently the case than in the formerly divided Germany. The removal of the surveillance state brought new freedoms: a change in the media to which people had access, a change in the music to which people could listen, a change in the freedom to travel and a change in art. Reunification affected almost every aspect of what had been East Germany, even in terms of population. The crumbling factories and industrial complexes that surround Rauch's studio in the outskirts of Leipzig are the haunting, abandoned monuments to the old regime and the visible reminders of the shortcomings of the new.
Those edifices and that atmosphere resonate through the part-pastoral vision that is the vast Stellwerk. Here, Rauch has captured some of the sense of conflict and contradiction that existed during the run-up to Reunification, as well as some of the disillusionment that followed it. Notions of opposition are littered throughout the composition, be it in the contrast between Nature and the hyper-modern edifices that dominate the scene or in the emphatic difference between the almost rustic signal box in the trees on the right and its hi-tech counterparts across the line. Here, we are shown a dream-like vision of a faded Utopia. This depot-like area, with its rails and truck, speaks of the crisp advances of science. There is a tension underpinning the scene, though, which might be heightened by the fact that Rauch's parents died in a rail accident when he was a baby, adding an uncomfortably personal dimension to Stellwerk. Meanwhile the building in the background, which so strongly resembles Andreas Gursky's Paris Montparnasse and Peter Doig's paintings of Le Corbusier's abandoned Unité d'Habitation in Briey-en-Forêt, expresses the failures of an over-controlling power in trying to provide idealised accommodation. The architecture of these buildings recalls that of the Wall and its surveillance apparatus, it is totalitarian architecture, and even the wooden signal box, concealed in the woodland, recalls the watchtowers of previous decades.
All of this is overseen by a giant figure in heavy work boots who resembles a female incarnation of one of Georg Baselitz' Heroes surveying the scene. With her flaming hair, the most vibrant area of paint on the canvas, she is holding a flag, a prop which serves a dual purpose in the painting, acting both as an old-fashioned manual railway signal and as a demonstration of nationalism. The fact that the flag is being held down may imply the woman's disappointed loyalties. This monumental painting takes on a faux-print character that recalls both vintage propaganda posters and the illustrations of children's literature through the deliberately unmodulated colours that Rauch has used in so much of the canvas as well as the crisp rendering of the various elements. In just the same way that Warhol had tried to ape painting through the silkscreen process, here we see Rauch attempting the opposite.
While studying in Leipzig, Rauch had railed against the fetters of state-endorsed style, yet when the Wall fell and East Germany was exposed to a flood of Western imagery and Western products. Rauch began to reconsider and re-digest the artistic legacy of his own education, discovering a path that would place him at the head of the New Leipzig School, an influential group of artists such as Matthias Weischer, Tim Eitel, Tilo Baumgärtel and David Schnell, among others, who sought the means of creating valid figurative works against a new backdrop of developments in contemporary theory. Meshing together a seemingly disparate pool of influences from his upbringing in the GDR, from the still-recent revelations of access to the West, from comics, from Pop, from Surrealism and from the works of his contemporaries, all these influences coalesce and vibrantly come to life in paintings such as Stellwerk.
Rauch presents the viewer with an overtly collage-like range of styles, motifs and fragments that form an insight into a discordant parallel universe that is nonetheless wholly linked to our own. The extraordinary detailing of the areas of natural landscape recall the Romantic painters, such as Caspar David Friedrich and Italian Renaissance artists such as Piero della Francesca in the presentation of the cypress trees and the church-like edifices in the background, while the automaton-like figures appear to have wandered in from some agitprop poster, some vision of the idealised Socialist republic.
'I... refrain both from any hierarchisation and from a conscious evaluation of my pictorial inventory. This means that elements like Balthus, Vermeer, Tintin, Donald Judd, Donald Duck, agitprop, and cheap advertising garbage can flow together in a furrow of my childhood landscape and generate an intermingled conglomerate of surprising plausibility (Rauch, quoted in A.M. Gingeras, 'Neo Rauch: A Pristaltic Filtration System in the River of Time, pp. 64-65, Neo Rauch: para, exh. cat., New York, 2007, p. 64).
Rauch has said: 'Having set the fundamentals, the stage, I introduce the actors on the stage. Then it happens-- when I set the inhabitants into a relation, I am not able to plan. In between the figures, and in between the figures and me, subtle relations start to be created. A microclimate comes into being' (Rauch, quoted in A. Lubov, 'The New Leipzig School, pp. 69-70, in ibid., p. 69). This demonstrates the degree to which he allows paintings such as Stellwerk to evolve, to suggest themselves gradually. Echoing Carl von Clausewitz's words on war and politics, he has said, 'For me, painting means the continuation of a dream with other means'(Rauch, quoted in Neo Rauch: Neue Rollen: Paintings 1993-2006, exh. cat., Wolfsburg, 2006, p. 62).
Rauch uses his own idiosyncratic and highly personalised visual vocabulary to express an unease that relates in part to his own city, nation and history, and in part to the wider situation of the world itself, of the human condition. While Stellwerk provides a fascinating testimony to the uncomfortable situation that resulted in and then evolved from the Reunification, the more general atmosphere of mystery means that this picture has wider ramifications. 'The characteristics of quality that I consider important are originality, suggestiveness and timelessness, Rauch has said. 'Zeitgeist painting scrapes at spots that are already sore, while timeless art elevates us from the commonplace and at most incites a delicate phantom pain that indicates the presence of archetypal wounds' (Rauch, quoted in Gingeras, op. cit., in ibid., p. 65). Stellwerk is an imaginary, fantastical and psychological view of the history of a state of mind.