‘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).
Painted in 2006, Neo Rauch’s monumental Bon Si engulfs the viewer in an oneiric allegory infused with an atmosphere of Kafkaesque metamorphosis. Included in the artist’s acclaimed retrospective at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg in the year of its execution and formerly on loan to the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam in 2007, Bon Si represents one of Rauch’s largest paintings to date. Within an oeuvre celebrated for its unique visual iconography, the present work unveils a theatrical dreamscape that probes the surreal space between consciousness and unconsciousness, underpinned by a pervasive sense of the uncanny. In an act of self-portraiture, Rauch casts his own likeness upon a man who, crouching at the edge of the grove, empties a plate of kitchen scraps onto the ground where a waiting fly crawls over the spent bones. In an eerie appropriation of Kafka’s Metamorphosis the fly appears to undergo a reverse transformation from insect to man, tracing the inverted path of Kafka’s doomed protagonist. At its first stage of metamorphosis, the contorted body of a cockroach drags gossamer wings across the clearing; part man, part beast, the creature gazes with apprehension at the looming figure of a limping man. Supported by two smaller men, vast wings trail from his back: the final stage in the transformation from insect to mortal. Set at daybreak, the figure stumbles into the glowing light of the rising sun, while elsewhere the still dark scene is illuminated by the flickering light of a gas lantern set atop a thatched barn. Inside, a naked man hangs from the rafters, strung up across the wooden framework of the barn in a crude restaging of the crucifixion. In front of him, with arm raised, a figure wielding a hammer stands poised to strike, while a woman almost the height of the barn impassively sweeps the ground outside. Suspended next to her, two hanging lanterns are inscribed with the work’s title – Bon Si – capturing the coded complexity of Rauch’s picture-making process. He has observed, ‘These half-awake moments in which the flotsam accumulates in my catch basin and rearranges itself to a new organisation are the essence of my painting... This is why I believe that I can view painting as the continuation of the dream with other media’ (N. Rauch, quoted in Neo Rauch: Paintings, exh. cat., Museum der bildenden Künste Lepizig, Leipzig, 2010, p. 6). Probing matters of faith, morality and apostasy, the present work embodies this axiom, documenting a unique moment, which with its crucial tale of rebirth, brings the possibility of new, untold narratives.
Described by Rauch as ‘pictures from our collective archive’, his works present haunting visions of imagined worlds poised on the brink of creation or collapse (N. Rauch, quoted in Neo Rauch, exh. cat., Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, 2002, p. 6). His anachronistic and fragmented visual language challenges the ideologies that have preoccupied so much of twentieth-century European history, and the impossibility of the utopian societies that they promised. Born in East Germany in 1960, Rauch is part of a generation of artists who came of age under the shadow of the Cold War. After a lifetime of state-controlled cultural seclusion, the fall of the Berlin Wall surrendered a wealth of new visual material that flooded in from the capitalist West, which alongside vastly increased opportunities for travel and expanded freedom of the media catapulted Rauch and his contemporaries into a hitherto unimaginable world. Distinguished by the coalescence of a communist past with the culture of capitalism, Rauch’s work draws together the distinct histories of Western art and the Socialist Realism espoused by the German Democratic Republic. Forged out of a rich archive of memories and images born of the vestiges of his real and imagined experiences, Rauch’s personal iconography is mined from the depths of his subconscious: his paintings appear before the viewer like pre-formed visions of an impossible world. With its allegorical tale of transformation, Bon Si encapsulates the metaphorical resurrection of the Eastern Bloc in the wake of reunification, its seething composition an evocative reflection of the chaotic state of this new world. Hobbling into the sunrise across the dream-like landscape, the metamorphosed figure is evocative of a bridge between the old and the new. Illustrating Rauch’s nostalgia for the hopes and dreams of the past, his paintings pay tribute to the artist’s youth beyond the Iron Curtain while addressing the fundamental question of what it means to be a painter in contemporary Germany.
Drawing together the visual language of figurative realism with narrative abstraction, Rauch’s sprawling cast of characters inhabit a world of allegorical theatre, in which elements of folklore and myth combine with the strange rituals of their fictive communities. Masterfully consolidating an array of dichotomous techniques, with near invisible brushstrokes and chiaroscuro lighting effects Rauch renders his figures with meticulous attention to detail. As though collaged into the scene they stand out in stark relief against a background which, in parts, is executed with dramatic washes of vivid colour that echo the rough texture of German Expressionist woodcuts. Painted with scant regard for perspectival conventions, figures of radically different proportions coexist within a fragmented narrative on multiple planes, seemingly oblivious to the surreal quality of their surroundings. As the artist has said of his paintings, ‘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). Allowing the phenomena of his own personal universe to coalesce on the canvas without hierarchy or objective concerns, Rauch’s method has much in common with the automatism embraced by the Surrealists. However, Rauch’s practice goes beyond mere submission to chance, seeking to posit mirrors and truths in his pictorial visions. ‘A legibility, a decoding, is sought after’, he explains. ‘A selection process takes place that extends across many steps and then I choose for the time being the most pertinent variation of all those that came to mind... I then place it on the touchstone of painting’ (N. Rauch, quoted in conversation with K. Werner in Manöver, exh. cat., Galerie EIGEN + ART, Leipzig, 1997, p. 12).