‘His words, few, but full of power, take us, as if by magic – a magic that has much to do with his painting – back to an atrocious and clownish reign of shadows, of suspicions, of latent menace, of phantasmagorias... More than once, when standing before his paintings, I think of those years. To give an example, when standing before Platz (2000)’ (J. Manuel Bonet, Neo Rauch, exh. cat., Málaga, Centro de Arte Contemporáneo de Málaga, 2005, p. 71).
A tour de force of Neo Rauch’s unique painterly perspective, Platz’s epic cacophony of colour and image interrogates the borders that have been broken down between East and West, Communism and Capitalism. Executed in 2000, Platz was conceived just a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification and is loaded with symbolic and surrealist reference to the clashing of two such direct ideologies. Rauch himself grew up in Leipzig, East Germany and learnt his trade under the shadow of Communism, but really developed after the Wall came down, leading a whole generation of painters who became enthralled by the new world they found themselves in and its relation to the old. Rauch’s work is widely recognised not just for its outstanding imagination and technique but also for the way that his experiences and compositions act as metaphors for the symbolic meeting point of social and political ideals globally. Coalescing the separated histories of Western art, Eastern propaganda and Socialist Realism, Rauch mines his own rich collection of memories and images, the vestiges of his real and imagined experiences growing up in East Germany, and the sudden freedom and access to the material culture of the West.
In Platz, Rauch utilizes three stereotypical figures or ‘types’ ostensibly culled from propaganda material and reflective of the organisational structures of a communist society to great effect: the hard-working housewife with her sleeves rolled up, the industrial worker complete with oil rag and the tailored administrator. These figures are engaged in three distinct scenes of disciplinary action upon hybrid man-animals from the artist’s imagination. The Kafka-esque animals with hirt emblazoned on their flanks recur frequently in Rauch’s works from this year, along with a menagerie of other hybrid man-animals such as the suit-jacketed centaur in Busch (2001), man and reptile or jumping bird in Orter (2001). He describes his hirt as sheepdogs, and indeed, hirt translates as shepherd. The hirt also shares a clear resonance with Georg Baselitz, an artist who managed to escape from East Germany to the West, specifically in his Helden or Heroes series from the mid-1960s which drew on subjects and themes from the German Romantic tradition as a radical mythical exploration of the individual in the barren cultural landscape of post-War Germany, which included his own Der Hirte from 1965. In Rauch’s image, however, these ‘heroes’ have been stripped of their stature in the state and are themselves being tamed and disciplined. Turning the typical power hierarchy on its head, in Platz, Rauch repurposes the symbol of sheepdogs as the guardians and disciplinarians of the ‘flock’ into the ones requiring discipline and control. The viewer could be forgiven for reading Platz simply as an allusion for the ‘people’ rebelling against their ‘guardians’, the government.
This scene’s rebellious undertow is further amplified by the grid-like band dominating the bottom length of the canvas. Built up with lozenges in an alternating red and yellow pattern, Rauch constructs a wall which simultaneously acts as a barrier to both entry and escape. The corner is topped with a Sol Lewitt-like minimalist object, a sort of public art sculpture which would not have been acceptable in the landscape conceived here in Platz. The wall is topped with shards of glass, a motif which undoubtedly brings forth the artist’s own experiences regarding the oppression experienced during the time of the Berlin Wall. Indeed 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. For Rauch and his contemporaries - 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. Platz plays on our notions of Western citizenship rooted in Ancient Greek culture. With a penchant for wordplay, Rauch’s title for this work evokes ideas surrounding the Greek agora or square, regarded as the social and political heart of the city. Here, with the ostensibly disciplinary actions taking place, the square abandons is collaborative roots and takes on a more ambiguous meaning.
Formally, this monumental painting recalls both vintage propaganda posters 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. The different techniques and aesthetics on display in Platz reveal the artist reveling in his own virtuosity. Rauch counters the buildings reminiscent of the East German architectural landscape in a propaganda-print idiom, with a more modular and two-tone handling of the figures and the newsprint dots to convey shading and depth. Executed in a style that combines the high art tradition of painting with elements from Socialist Realism, Rauch mobilizes an arsenal of distinct clothing, hairstyles, and robust physiques, to create level surfaces that give a sense that his protagonists are superimposed over each other like cut-outs from various pattern books. Rauch extends this allusion to mass media through the stamp-like quality of his trees and shrubbery, which take on an abstracted beauty when viewed up close, as well as with the placement of a comic book speech bubble at the top of the canvas, heralding the very title of the work and the scene below. As is characteristic of Rauch’s paintings from this period, Platz is comprised of flattened motifs and spaces, realized with minimal shadows or no shadows at all. Despite the crisp delineation of the collage-like figures, there are no empty passages, only intermissions of colour between them, which speak to the finely balanced relationship between intense and greyed passages, between graphic definition and painterly handling, between objective legibility and neutral passages. Of this quality in his art Rauch has said, ‘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’ (N. Rauch, quoted in H. Liebs, ‘Nothing Embarrasses me Now’, in Neo Rauch: para, exh. cat., New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2007, p. 71).