‘[Grotte] manages to capture a complex sense of a reality that is both bleak and hopeful, earnest and absurd, frozen and dynamic, beyond our control and palpable. Like dreams, Rauch’s paintings have a vividness and a connection to experience that makes us think that, with enough scrutiny, some truth can be gleaned from them. But in the end they remain parallel and self-contained, mirrors of our world into which we may gaze but not enter, somehow linked to day-to-day reality but incommensurate with it’
(M. Piranio (ed.), 54th Carnegie International, Pittsburgh 2004, p. 204).
‘Like the great gods of the nineteenth century – Ingres, Delacroix, Courbet, Degas – [Rauch] knows how to conceive a subject, compose the figures, and mount a composition. Of course Rauch’s depictions, compared against these predecessors, are not only ahistorical, they do not strive to make sense. As in dreams, he leaves all endings open, all meanings ambiguous’
(G. Tinterow, ‘A Parable of Painting’, in H. W. Holzwarth (ed.), Neo Rauch, Cologne 2012, p. 338).
Painted in 2004, Neo Rauch’s Grotte (Grotto) presents a vast, oneiric tableau set within a cavernous underground chamber. Marshalling familiar figurative imagery into an otherworldly mise-en-scène, it is a captivating example of the artist’s allegorical dreamscapes. With feathered, near-invisible brushstrokes and subtle chiaroscuro lighting effects, Rauch stages a mysterious diorama bathed in soft, subterranean gloom. Clothed in strange, anachronistic attire, his protagonists are frozen in the midst of their indecipherable ritual. Below the dark overhang of the rock-face, a seal emerges from a tar-like stream of black paint, a single fish clasped between its jaws. His master kneels to receive the offering, his head bowed in silent reverence. Behind him, his companion performs a bizarre act of revelation. The giant fish is engorged and suspended, its side pierced to reveal a supernatural effusion of glowing viscera. Magical orbs accumulate upon the floor in neon yellow, pink and black, spilling into the foreground. The standing figure looks on in awe. Robed in white, he is simultaneously a holy, Christ-like apparition and a scientist on the brink of breakthrough. The gentle light of daybreak penetrates the cave from above, illuminating a wall of Delft tiles. Within an oeuvre celebrated for its musings on the role of the artist following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the work’s narrative of transformation becomes a metaphor for art in a world liberated from state-controlled seclusion. In the shadowy half-light, the grotto becomes the artist’s studio - the dagger his paintbrush. The cloaked figure – both divine prophet and artificial creator – professes Rauch’s belief in the artist’s ability to envision new, untold possibilities.
For Rauch, who grew up in East Germany and learnt his trade under the shadow of Communism, the end of the Cold War brought about seismic shift in his consciousness. After a lifetime of cultural isolation, the collapse of the GDR surrendered a wealth of new visual material material that flooded in from the capitalist West. With vastly increased opportunities for travel and expanded freedom of the media, Rauch was catapulted into an unknown world. His paintings represent expressions of his conflicted visual memory, fusing the iconography of Socialist Realism with images from Western art history and popular culture. In Grotte, Rauch’s rugged, Teutonic protagonists, engaged in communal labour, recall the archetypal narratives of GDR propaganda posters that filter throughout his oeuvre. At the same time, however, the painting is permeated with allusions to Western tradition: from Medieval depictions of biblical scenes, to the dreamlike imagery of the Surrealists. Rauch’s meticulously-rendered figures coexist on unrelated flat planes, like pattern-book cut-outs pasted in decoupage. At the same time, however, the receding depth of the cave introduces a haltering sense of linear perspective, evoking the early efforts of the Renaissance. Whilst much of Rauch’s earlier practice had engaged the aesthetic of Pop Art, Grotte demonstrates his increasing fascination with the dimly-lit spaces of Old Masterpainting. Ultimately, however, the radioactive glare of yellow and pink overpowers the soft intrusion of daylight, bathing the composition in an unearthly futuristic glow. The folkloric, the historic and the utopian collide within Rauch’s underground atrium, poised on the brink of a new dawn.
Conceived as ‘pictures from our collective archive’, Rauch’s works allegorise the process of art-making in contemporary Germany (N. Rauch, quoted in Neo Rauch, exh. cat., Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, 2002, p. 6). ‘My basic artistic approach to the phenomena of this world is that I let things permeate through me, without any hierarchical pre-selection’, the artist explains. ‘And from the material I filter out, I then construct a private, very personal mosaic’ (N. Rauch, quoted in H. Liebs, ‘Nothing Embarrasses me Now’, in Neo Rauch: para, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2007, p. 71). In Grotte, Rauch’s two protagonists play out this very process: one acts as a receptacle, the other performs an act of transfiguration. Transplanted onto the canvas as if from disparate realms, they function as mute catalysts – shaman-like beings, brought into existence as if through the power of each other’s imaginations. Harbingers of both past and future, they hover upon the surface of the painting like displaced time-travellers, frozen in a single moment of contact before passing onto the next world. ‘You have to imagine that the process of my painting is like a game of chess which I play against myself’, says Rauch. ‘... if the result were not uncertain, one of my key motivations for painting would be gone. It’s the adventure, the desire for risky encounters’ (N. Rauch, quoted in H. W. Holzwarth (ed.), Neo Rauch, Cologne 2012, p. 262).