‘…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’ (N. Rauch, quoted in A. Lubov, ‘The New Leipzig School’ in Neo Rauch: para, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art., New York, 2007, p. 69).
‘…The most important quality features in painting for me are peculiarity, suggestiveness and timelessness’ (N. Rauch, quoted in Neo Rauch: Neue Rollen: Paintings 1993- 2006, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art., Wolfsburg, 2006, p. 166).
Towering above us, Neo Rauch’s Bergfest engulfs the viewer, offering a profound allegory of the artist for the people. Set against an illusory backdrop of a fête canopy, the celebrations of a traditional Bavarian festival unfold with robust archetypal figures crafting sculptures in front of an audience. Surrounded by onlookers, and absorbed in their artisan crafts, these characters stand as artists for the people. Silently, they sculpt and chisel totemic idols. At the composition’s centre is a figure, illuminating and enlightening the image from its core, this sculpture appears like a burst of flames. The scene is fronted by a Christ-like figure erecting a crucifix, a man thrown into the contemporary by his pink running shoes. In Bergfest, the idea of observing the role of the artist is crucial: the world that these figures inhabit is itself painted, and it is painted with acute self-awareness, using a variety of techniques. The features of the various characters have been captured with a portraitist’s accuracy replete with emphatic brushstrokes. Furthering this metaphor, the craftsmen are each presented creating their own artworks, which in turn, take the forms of religious symbols or fetishized idols. These are juxtaposed with the surreal floating green orbs that hover in the foreground. In this jarring fusion of the traditional and the supernatural, Rauch underpins his bucolic festivities with a sense of the uncanny. The varied thickness of the oil paint on the surface further emphasises heightens our awareness that it is representation itself that is in question here.
Painted in 2010, its title holds a double meaning in German, literally translating to Mountain Festival, yet also standing as a metaphor for a half-way point: a temporal pause in an unfolding series of events. Allegorizing the history of his homeland, the theme of the festival reveals the significance of Rauch’s native history within his practice. However, any nostalgia associated with this motif is confounded by the surreal elements of the scene. As the artist has said of his paintings, ‘having set the fundamentals and 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’ (N. Rauch, quoted in A. Lubov, ‘The New Leipzig School’, Neo Rauch: para, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art., New York, 2007, p. 69).
Neo Rauch’s career has been fiercely dedicated to painting and his medium is heavily influenced by his background. Through his skillful manipulation of thickly-textured paint, Rauch engages with the dialogue of craft in the new East. The bold figures, rendered in primary colours are set in stark relief and echo German Expressionist woodcuts. Rauch’s bold outlines and stream of thick colour evoke an aesthetic that owes something to the agitprop and other materials of the GDR in which he grew up. The surreal elements of the composition stand in contrast, shining white hot against the muted palette of the rest of the picture. The dream-like quality of the landscape echoes the sudden transformation that the artist experienced in his hometown of Leipzig after the move from Communism to Capitalism. The backdrop is an intriguing mélange of the old and the new, the historic and the futuristic. The timeless quality of this world offers a deeply personal insight into Rauch’s own conflated recollections. The evocative atmosphere absorbs the viewer, embracing us in the chase and in the mystery of the picture as a whole. As the artist himself has stated, ‘the most important quality features in painting for me are peculiarity, suggestiveness and timelessness’ (N. Rauch, quoted in Neo Rauch: Neue Rollen: Paintings 1993-2006, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art., Wolfsburg, 2006, p. 166).
The Romantic past, the idyllic landscape, the machinery of the Socialist state, the consumerism and technology of capitalism: these have all been held out as examples of societal perfection and yet have proved ineffable and impossible, mirage-like visions that have little to do with reality. Rauch calls his paintings ‘pictures from our collective archive’ (N. Rauch, quoted in Neo Rauch, exh. cat., Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, 2002, p. 6). In Bergfest, there is 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 intersection of the Christ-like figure and workers touches upon this change.
Born in 1960 in Leipzig, then East Germany, Rauch is part of a generation of artists who came of age in a war-torn, divided country. While his older East German peers, including Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter, emigrated to the West during the Cold War, Rauch spent his youth in the Eastern Bloc and received his arts education at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig. Following the collapse of the communist regime, Rauch has emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall with a new painterly vocabulary which amalgamated his Communist training in the East with an exposure to the culture of Capitalism. Raised under the pervasive influence of Socialist Realism, it was with the end of Communism that Rauch experienced the strength of the new competing images that flooded the border. From 1990 onwards, artists working in the East suddenly had access to a wealth of material hitherto beyond their reach. Rauch and his contemporaries - who had grown up in a relative, state-controlled, cultural seclusion - were suddenly exposed to a flurry of media images and vastly increased opportunities for travel. For Rauch, these all trickled through into his depictions of a mystery world in flux. He drew upon and used his own personal system of elusive visions and social memory as a means of depicting a wider malaise. Rauch’s unease with the ideologies that have preoccupied so much of twentieth-century German history - the impossibility and impracticality of the perfect worlds that they promised - is vividly evident in Bergfest.