‘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).
‘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’ (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).
Executed in 2002, the same year as Neo Rauch’s landmark retrospective at Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht – his frst museum exhibition in the West – Reaktionäre Situation (Reactionary Situation) represents one of the artist’s largest paintings to date. Within an oeuvre celebrated for its unique visual iconography, painterly technique and subtle musings on the reunification of East and West following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the present work unveils a grand panoramic parable of rural living in an age of conflict. Infused with allegory and symbolism, it presents a visionary dreamscape in which the futuristic and the industrial, the spiritual and the domestic, collide in a single, spellbound moment. In an act of self-portraiture, Rauch casts his own likeness upon the central figure, kneeling in a reverential state of prayer. Through the force of his private incantation, an impossible landscape is conjured into being, populated by a disjointed cast of characters and props. Amidst a deserted wheat field, a pair of ancient gold steps rises totemically from the ground. Above it hovers a large green and white windmill, its arms frozen in the shape of a cross like an oneiric holy apparition. A brightly-coloured weapon is poised in the foreground, following the central figure’s line of sight to an unseen target. Whilst one man fees the scene, another continues his labours in neon overalls. A young girl stands with outstretched arms, her eyes raised to the sky, caught in a moment of transcendence. Behind her, a large, empty house looms large, flanked by a row of Cypress trees whose traditional associations of mourning lend the scene a disquieting aura. Inscribed above the scene like some cryptic message or Pop-inspired billboard, the work’s title – Reaktionäre Situation – captures the very essence of Rauch’s picture-making process, invoking the collisions, fusions and filtrations that are transplanted from his mind onto the canvas before him. ‘Having set the fundamentals, the stage’, he explains, ‘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 present work demonstrates this axiom, documenting a unique moment of confluence between alternative realms – some ancient, some alien, some yet to be imagined – bringing with them the possibilities of new, untold narratives.
Described by Rauch as ‘pictures from our collective archive’, his works present haunting visions of utopias poised on the brink of creation or collapse (N. Rauch, quoted in Neo Rauch, exh. cat., Bonnefantenmuseum, Maastricht, 2002, p. 6). His paintings profess his unease with the ideologies that have preoccupied so much of twentieth-century European history, and the impracticality of the perfect worlds that they promised. Rauch grew up in East Germany and learnt his trade under the shadow of Communism. It was only following the fall of the Berlin Wall that he took his place within a new artistic generation, enthralled by the new visual material that flooded his consciousness after a lifetime of state-controlled cultural seclusion. With vastly increased opportunities for travel and expanded freedom of the media, Rauch and his contemporaries found themselves in a new world, and were entranced by its relationship to past modes of existence. Coalescing the separated histories of Western art and the Socialist Realism espoused by the German Democratic Republic, Rauch’s work draws upon a rich archive of memories and images, born of the vestiges of his real and imagined experiences. Forged from a distinct personal iconography mined from the depths of his subconscious, his paintings appear before the viewer like pre-formed visions of an impossible world. In Reaktionäre Situation, overtones of Surrealism, Old Master painting and Renaissance frescoes combine with the flat, unmodulated aesthetic of poster graphics, populated by robust Germanic figural archetypes rendered in the style of pattern-book cut-outs. His protagonists - his so-called ‘personnel’ - are realised with minimal or no shadows: composed of flattened motifs and spaces, his figures appear before the viewer as strange half-beings, remnants of humanity that have lost their physical substance. Frozen in time, they are snapshots of flickering visual memories, suspended in space in a state of rarefied hyper-tension.
In Rauch’s timeless yet evocative visions lies a deep nostalgia for the hopes and dreams of the past. However, his paintings are also coloured by a sense of detachment which reveals Rauch coming to terms with the disenfranchised status of the Western artist. Unlike the Soviet East, where artists were seen as figureheads within the framework of state-sponsored image-making, this new world viewed the profession as a force for change. For Rauch, this brought about a heightened awareness of the visual material that saturated his memory and imagination. Fully embracing this chaotic repository of images, he sought to position himself as an outside observer of his own subconscious. ‘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 has explained. ‘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). Whilst this method has much in common with the automatism embraced by the Surrealists, 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). It is through the process of painting, emblazoning images onto canvas, that Rauch is able to reconcile the conflicts and disparities of his mental source archive. In this sense, his works may be seen to address the fundamental question of what it means to be a painter in contemporary Germany. Through their semantic ruptures and disjunctions, they allegorize the process of painting in a fleeting, transient world, standing as metaphors for the artist’s own uncertain reality.