'The poetical substance inherent in perceptions from the corner of one's eyes is usually very close to images from dreams. Everyone knows the feeling. You perceive something from this perspective, then you go after it, and then it is gone. (Rauch, quoted in H. Broeker, "The Touchstone of Painting: Neo Rauch's Pictorial Concept and Work Development," Neo Rauch: Neue Rollen: Paintings 1993-2006, exh. cat., Wolfsburg, 2006, pp. 24-25 notes).
Neo Rauch's status as one of the most important painters working today is currently being underlined by a retrospective spanning two museums, the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich and the Museum der bildenden Künste of his native Leipzig, an unprecedented event to celebrate his fiftieth birthday. This exhibition was included in the New York Times list of 31 places to go in 2010 ('The 31 Places to Go in 2010', The New York Times, 10 Jan 2010). Painted in 2004, the monumental Suche represents one of his finest and most complex paintings from a moment when his work, always managing to coalesce the previously separated histories of Western art and Eastern propaganda and Socialist Realism, began to take on a new scale and ambition, specifically looking at nineteenth century narrative painting. Rather interestingly, the title Suche means "Search" and for Rauch, painting is a quest in its own right, an organic process by which the various elements on the canvas suggest themselves, rearrange themselves, and finally coalesce to form a single dream-like narrative. It is a painting that rewards constant re-analysis as its story unravels in different and surprising ways. The almost Surrealist imagery has one foot firmly placed in the universe of the Brothers Grimm, yet the other is rooted in his own memories and art historical knowledge. In Suche, these combine to result in what appears to be a fragment from a lost Wagnerian opera, a glimpsed moment in the chronicle of some unknown quest.
Suche is a haunting vision of colliding, collapsing utopias, each having proven as elusive as this vision itself, adding another dimension to the sense of searching. The Romantic past, the idyllic landscape, the machinery of the Socialist state, the consumerism and technology of capitalism: these have all been tantalizingly held out as examples of societal perfection and yet have proved ineffable and impossible, mirage-like visions that have little to do with reality. In Suche, there is a nostalgia for hope, a desire for the promises of the past, yet also a cynical detachment which reveals Rauch coming to terms with the fact that, in the West, the artist is disenfranchised as a force for change, unlike in the Cold War-era East. There, or rather then, artists were seen as figureheads, be it within the framework of state-sponsored art or in more underground contexts. One wonders if the confrontation between the monstrous harbinger and the Romantic figure at the café table touches upon this change, with the writing on the wall for the old, respectable order, or whether a new vocation is being offered in the form of the titular world scrawled upon the placard.
Painted on a monumental scale, Suche plunges the viewer into Rauch's idiosyncratic, oneiric universe. The beaked chimera has trailed its tail along the Germanic street, a sign around its neck with the title scrawled across it, like some crazed street-herald of the Apocalypse. The sign also doubles as a limited list of specials of the day: the nineteenth-century dandy of a customer, possibly a scientist on his own quest, is awaiting some strange elixir from the waitress while inspecting minerals. Emblazoned above the door are insects, presented according to some arcane methodology, reinforcing that vestigial hint of scientific logic to this dream-like scene. Meanwhile, another man in what appears to be a sports top is sitting at the same table in a similar plastic chair, petting a black dog that could have emerged from Gustave Courbet's famous melancholy self-portrait, Courbet au chien noir. The landscape behind is itself an intriguing mélange of the old and the new, the industrial and the domestic, with the houses stretching away into the distance towards a verdant, church-punctuated backdrop. The houses are painted in such a way that they could be a grand terrace or they could be a flat stage set.
Rauch has allowed a disparate flow of images to collide in Suche, forging them together to create a liminal world, a vision of life viewed from within the melee itself. He has described his perspective as, 'the view from the corner of one's eyes. The poetical substance inherent in perceptions from the corner of one's eyes is actually very close to images from dreams. Everyone knows the feeling. You perceive something from this perspective, then you go after it, and then it is gone' (Rauch, quoted in H. Broeker, 'The Touchstone of Painting: Neo Rauch's Pictorial Concept and Work Development', pp. 21-33, Neo Rauch: Neue Rollen: Paintings 1993-2006, exh. cat., Wolfsburg, 2006, pp. 24-25 notes). The monster's sign is itself an encouragement to chase those fleeting visions.
It is telling that, when giving a tour of his exhibition Para at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York only a few years ago, Rauch said that he himself had not had time to ascertain precisely what it was about: his pictures remain alive to him after their execution, and the search continues. The intriguing and sometimes disturbing interplays that characterize Rauch's pictures have a surrealistic quality, yet are clearly rooted in a specific set of experiences. Rauch's own background, his training as an artist in East Germany while it was still under Socialist rule, the subsequent fall of the Berlin Wall and the Unification have all left their mark. This was especially the case because, from 1990 onwards, artists working in the East suddenly found they had access to a wealth of material hitherto beyond their reach. Painters such as Rauch - who had grown up in a relative, state-controlled cultural seclusion - were suddenly exposed to a flood of media images and vastly-increased opportunities for travel. For Rauch, these all trickled through into his depictions of a mystery-world in flux, tapping into wider issues using his own personal system of elusive visions as a means of depicting a wider malaise. As he has said of his paintings, 'It is more than obvious that there is a problematic core to them which has apocalyptic foundations. My basic artistic approach to the phenomena of this world is that I let things permeate through me, without any hierarchical pre-selection. And from the material I filter out, I then construct a private, very personal mosaic. And if that works well, then patterns appear which point to things beyond what is usually ascribed to the things' (quoted in H. Liebs, "Nothing Embarrasses Me Now," pp. 71-72, Neo Rauch: para, exh. cat., New York, 2007, p. 71).
In Suche, Rauch is mining his own rich seam of memories and images, rearranging them and reconfiguring them in such a way as to create an image that, while rooted in his own personal iconography, has a gnawing relevance to all viewers. It was around the time that Suche was painted that Rauch began to turn to a richer, fuller palette more reminiscent of the Old Masters and of his own teachers such as Bernhard Heisig and Arno Rink, shunning the deliberately faded, mock-print colors of his earlier poster-like works. This invocation of tradition throws the contemporary issues upon the canvas into bolder relief, a tension encapsulated in the depiction of the traditional townhouses using that same mock-print idiom. At the same time, the different techniques and aesthetics on display reveal the artist reveling in his own virtuosity, as he contrasts the highly-modeled features of the figures with the landscape and even with the almost-accidental gestural marks that articulate some parts of the canvas. These inclusions underscore the qualities that have placed Rauch at the forefront of the New Leipzig School, as they force us to acknowledge, 'the structure of the painting, and it is certainly possible that the things I do in the way of enriching the surface run counter to the effect of space, or are a hindrance to the telling of the story. In such cases, I still reveal myself as a painter. Ultimately, painting is the most important thing, even if it doesn't seem that way at that moment' (Rauch, quoted in K. Werner, "Conversation between Klaus Werner and Neo Rauch," pp. 53-55, Neo Rauch: Para, exh. cat., New York, 2007, p. 53).