There are "two sorts of truth," Niels Bohr wrote, "trivialities, where opposites are obviously absurd, and profound truths, recognized by the fact that the opposite is also a profound truth."(1) Are Neo Rauch’s pictures of Germany trivially or profoundly true? Is Rauch a true dialectician, "living with live opposites," or is he indulging in nihilistic absurdity? Does he picture the German Geist of Yesterday or the German Geist of Today? Does he represent or misrepresent Germany? Rauch’s works are allegories of German history, but is their ironical pessimism its whole story? These questions haunt Neo Rauch’s art, enriching its significance.
Let’s get more specific: Is Verrat (2003) merely absurd or is it ingeniously dialectical? The contradiction between the violent foreground figures and the seemingly peaceful background buildings -- between the expressive action of the former and the inexpressive passivity of the latter -- is clearly absurd. But does each also convey a profound truth about Germany? Do they convey the profound split in the German mentality? They are conflicting parts of the same picture, but the "good" upper part does not seem to know what is occurring in the "bad" lower part. The people in the buildings are silently sleeping, undisturbed by the shooting going on in the No Man’s Land below -- or else afraid to do anything about it. The opposites turn away from each other, refuse to respond to each other, and this turning away, this indifference of disavowal, is the unwholesome whole truth. Each half not fully conscious of the other half is the truth of their opposition.
Verrat shows an existentially problematic lifeworld, as all of Rauch’s pictures do. It is conspicuously German, and particularly East German, as Rauch is. Is the bearded executioner with the rifle -- he re-appears with a sword in Hinter dem Schifgürtel (2004) -- a symbol of the Communist regime that occupied East Germany until its absorption by West Germany? But he may symbolize German barbarism and brutality -- the barbarism and brutality for which the Germans have been legendary since Roman antiquity, and which reached a grand climax in the second world war -- rather than Russian barbarism and brutality in Soviet Communist disguise.
The barbaric construction worker in Mammut (2004) -- his beard has been displaced to the hairy fur of his jacket -- suggests as much. The figure he has murdered represents Old Germany, as his obsolete 19th-century clothing implies: An endlessly modernizing Germany has displaced traditional undeveloped Germany. But the brave new Germany under construction is more monstrous -- and ridiculous -- than the old Germany ever thought of being. The point is clearly made in Konspiration (2004), where the traditional figure -- a naive Enlightenment rationalist, as his studious activity suggests? -- is placed, on a lower level, between two killers, one dressed in animal skins. He is clearly blind to the threat of their violence -- unaware of the pincer movement in which they have trapped him. He is innocent of the brutal truth, and thus all the more ripe for slaughter.
A horrible scene fills the foreground of Verrat, spilling over into our space, as the (SS?) lightning flash that breaks through the bottom of the inner frame suggests. Thus we are implicated in it -- participant observers rather than detached witnesses standing outside the picture. It is realistically rendered, but also contains abstract devices -- above all the flying saucer clouds -- and seems to be illuminated by klieg lights, implying that it is stage set, full of ironical verisimilitude, confirmed by the fact that the bound figure on the ground looks like a detail clipped from an old newspaper photograph. Rauch uses tabloid imagery, the modernist grid, residues of gestural abstraction, surreally absurd geometry and skewed perspective, as well as recapitulative references to modern German history pictures -- to their spirit if not their letter -- not only those of Max Beckmann, as has been said, but also, if less obviously, those of Georg Grosz and Otto Dix. The overall result is a dialectic of the grotesque -- a sort of Grimm’s fairytale of modern art’s as well as Germany’s absurdity. Populist illustration and avant-gardism are both profoundly modern, and Rauch makes postmodern use of both. He struggles to reconcile them, but juxtaposes rather than synthesizes them, thus confirming their difference and even irreconcilability. But the formal absurdity underpins the emotional absurdity that is Rauch’s basic subject matter. Formal dividedness and grotesqueness confirm emotional dividedness and grotesqueness -- and the dividedness and grotesqueness of Germany as a whole, that is, the still unresolved dialectic of East and West Germany, with their conflicting attitudes and socioeconomic reality.
In the background of Verrat, on the distant heights above the violence, a sort of Potemkin Village of anonymous apartment buildings appears. Arranged in neat rows, they suggest the sterility and dullness of the people who live in the rows of apartments in them. This degraded, modernist architecture -- geometrically rational architecture at its most barren and banal -- is inhabited by degraded, modern lives. Do some of the killers in the foreground live in them? Do they come to life -- their colorfulness, especially in contrast to the pale white apartment buildings and snow-covered terrain, makes them look very alive -- only when they torture and murder? They are, after all, one’s neighbors. Rauch’s picture is rich with narrative ambiguities and implications, even though it is clearly a postmodern Triumph of Death. Death is everywhere -- the living death symbolized by the inert apartment buildings, the violent deaths shown in the dynamic foreground. Rauch’s picture is cold with death, a cold-blooded performance of death, and not only because the violence takes place in the dead of winter.
The same wintry coldness appears in Amt (2004), and the same dramatic juxtaposition of opposites, most conspicuously the conflict -- but also inner relationship -- between the small bomb and huge bone. The harsh terrain -- a brooding mixture of black, white and gray -- and the few patches of color, as well as the faceless foreground building with its modern electric light (more "technological enlightenment" and "instrumental rationality") and the downcast faces of the weary figures, are also in radical opposition. Is this a picture of an East German concentration camp or a general comment on modern bureaucracy, with its own version of Cold War? Is the regimented concentration camp, along with the banal apartment blocks, what social idealism has degenerated into? Does the reality of oppression and terror -- overt in the concentration camps and violence, covert in the apartment buildings and the lives of quiet desperation lived in them -- always stand behind the idealism of progress? Is the former its unexpected but unavoidable consequence?
This is the central critical question raised by the polarization of images in Rauch’s pictures. On the one hand, the opposition between the barbaric technological giant -- ostensibly a symbol of progress (like the giant in Mammut) -- ironically emerging from the primitive German forest in Waldsiedlung (2004), and on the other hand backward little people, with their old-fashioned provincial houses, ready to be torn down and replaced by a development resembling the one in Verrat. They are opposite sides of the same social coin. Each is the inner truth of the other.
Rauch’s picture is pertinent to modern society in general, not only to East German society. In a sense, East Germany was a social space where the contradictions inherent to modern society were openly exposed and writ large; where the heroism of modern life showed its true barbaric, depressing colors. Rauch’s larger-than-life East German worker heroes are a modern species of tribal barbarian, all the more so because the enlightened progress they represent has emotionally barbaric side-effects -- depression and annihilation anxiety -- as social barbarism always does. One might even say the barbarism pictured by Rauch is compensatory for the deadening effect of modern progress -- a way of feeling alive by inflicting death. Rauch’s pictures are about the "soul murder" (Freud’s term) of human beings in modernity -- the emotional slaughter perpetrated in the name of socioindustrial progress -- and, more particularly, in East Germany, determined to be socially and industrially progressive, but ironically backward.
The same dialectical paradox -- the fact that the opposites of barbaric violence and stultifying depression are both profoundly true, especially because they deny each other -- is presented in Trafo and Runde (both 2003). The person-to-person violence of Verrat also appears in Runde, and impersonal, universal violence -- the threat of world catastrophe -- appears in Trafo, in the symbolic form of the monstrous mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb explosion, dwarfing and threatening the figures and row houses like a giant. The people living in the modern world cannot help but feel depressed, as the dull hollow men in Der Hort and Die Mauer (both 1997) undoubtedly are -- their spirits are clearly broken, suggesting that they are mindlessly functioning automatons -- and their world desolate, a sort of social desert symbolizing emotional bankruptcy and helplessness, like the vast empty space in Buhne (1997) and Ausflug (1998).
Both the stage and the airfield are political show places -- anonymous theatrical spaces the sterility of which becomes evident when they have been abandoned and emptied -- which have nothing human to show after all the social effort to build them. The blue is a void into which life flees and disappears. They convey the interior emptiness and subliminal despair of the modern lifeworld as well as of East Germany, an emptiness and despair -- sense of meaninglessness -- that are the inevitable consequence of the threat of man-made disaster that hangs like an atomic cloud over the whole earth. The particular human disaster that was East Germany is a major example of such suicidal destruction. East Germany was no doubt a place of serious scarcity, where the water of life itself was rationed, as Quelle (1999) suggests, but the dread built into Rauch’s pictorial space is universally modern.
Rauch, then, is both a dialectician and an absurdist. Using the resources of Modernism and Populist Realism -- both of which have become decadent -- against themselves, he constructs a dialectical fable of modern suffering, seen through the lens of East German suffering, with which he is personally familiar. To reiterate: He makes it unambiguously clear, by way of the ambiguity of his imagery, that the ostensible heroism of modern life is a facade on its emotional decadence. The housewife dressed in black pictured in Anima I and Anima II (both 1995) is the epitome of this psychic deadness. For Rauch, mindless suffering is implicit in heroic pretension: His grotesque Übermensch workers leave misery and repression in their wake -- the misery and repression embodied in the "progressive" apartment blocks and ironically quaint row houses they build. Both are monstrously homogeneous; their bland uniformity conveys the forced conformity of the Big Brother State. State supported killers keep the citizens in line -- threaten them with actual death, not simply the living death to which they are accustomed. For Rauch there are no heroic societies nor heroic individuals, only cases of unlived, meaningless lives.
Thus the upwardly mobile working class figures in Pfad (2003) deceive themselves. They climb the steep path of life, heroically determined to reach the modern house isolated on the heights. It symbolizes wealth, power and privilege -- economic and social success and superiority: everything the humble, hardworking figures do not have. But it is a dream house -- a fantasy, as its ghostly appearance suggests. They are clearly in an absurd situation: They are climbing to an illusion. The house is strangely empty, a sort of hollow abstract structure, like the apartment houses in Verrat. The figures are colorful with life, while the house is pale with death. They are raw with reality compared to it.
They are grasping at a mirage -- their heroic effort is in vain. They have left the lower realm, in which life humbly flourishes, as the huge plant and basket of bread indicate, for the higher realm, which unexpectedly turns out to be the colorless realm of death -- an ironical underworld. Rauch’s ghostly house is a critique of abstraction, which has become a ghost of itself. More particularly, it suggests the spiritual bankruptcy of geometrical abstraction, just as the flying saucer clouds in Verrat suggest the spiritual bankruptcy of gestural abstraction. But the larger critique is of the modern worship of material success -- a secular religion whose goal is as abstract and remote, indeed, as otherworldly and spiritual, as that of traditional religions. The "transcendental" house -- it has a grandiose otherworldly look, as all dreams do -- on the heavenly heights suggests as much. It is both an idol dedicated to what William James called the Bitch Goddess of Success and a heavenly paradise. Both Capitalists and Communists want to live in such a Dream House -- it is a universal modern dream. Rauch’s picture is a brilliant critique of the misplaced hopes, not to say futility and pathos, of both Capitalism and Communism. Both are political religions, as has been said; their paths may be different, but they promise the same illusion. The goal of living in a Dream House can only be realized by the privileged few, but when they arrive at it they discover that they have lost their spirit and humanity -- their taste for life, and the colors of life.
One last annoying question: How true are Rauch’s pictures to the mood of contemporary Germany? Rauch shows a world divided against itself. Is Germany still divided against itself, whatever economic and emotional division remains between what was once East Germany and West Germany? Is it still pessimistic because of its past? Has anything changed since the re-unification? It seems so. The headline of an article in the June 30, 2006, issue of the Financial Times in London declares, "Germany finds its voice as a new generation waves the flag." The occasion was the World Cup 2006 football games. "The German team, playing against Poland [in Dortmund], locked their arms around each other shoulders and to the accompaniment of tens of thousands of their compatriots belted the anthem out. ‘I have never heard it sung even a quarter as loud before,’ one fan declared. ‘For the first time in my life I feel really proud to be German and the joy when we scored [in the 90th minute to win 1-0] was immense.’ Another fan said, ‘For the first time I am not embarrassed by the history’." Chancellor Angela Merkel said (she was born and raised in East Germany, like Rauch), "People are waving flags without having to justify themselves." In another article, in the July 3, 2006, issue, Bernd Bransch, "who captained communist East Germany’s team in the 1974 cup -- the last time the competition was staged in Germany -- remembers no displays of ‘such relaxed patriotism’ back then, in either the west or the east. ‘Things were much more restrained back then’ as memories of the country’s Nazi past were still relatively fresh. . . . The fall of the Berlin Wall and the euphoria of unification of east and west in 1990, and Germany’s emergence as a ‘normal’ European country that has become a vital player on the world stage," has boosted German confidence.
Where is this new confident mood -- German self-confidence and optimism -- in Rauch’s pictures? It is nowhere to be seen. Rauch belongs to a new generation of German artists, but, like the old generation -- like such artists as Baselitz, Kiefer, Lupertz, Penck, Polke and Richter (many once East Germans) -- he remains attached to and obsessed with the old bad Germany, which lived on in East Germany. (Baselitz once said to me that the only difference between East Germany and Nazi Germany was the uniforms.) Rauch’s art emerged in the mid-‘90s, suggesting that he is the last surge -- a vestigal afterthought? -- of the so-called "Deutsche Welle" that emerged in the early ‘80s. Baselitz et al belonged to it, but its power and thrust seem spent in Rauch’s art. It is no longer convincing -- indeed, absurdly nostalgic -- in the freshly confident Germany. It is peculiarly redundant -- a compulsive repetition of an old German narrative that was milked for all it was worth by the "Deutsche Welle" Neo-Expressionists. Its tragic morbidity -- Rauch seems to romanticize violence even as he critiques it -- looks out of place in the first truly new German generation. Rauch, after all, does not really belong to it. (It is worth noting that Anima I and Anima II are as aggressively black as many Neo-Expressionist works, suggesting that Rauch is acknowledging his debt to the "black generation" that preceded him.)
Rauch and the older generation of artists had to work through -- metabolize through art -- their dark memories of the historically obsolete but haunting old Germany. No doubt this was necessary at the time, but it is now behind the times -- out of step with the new generation of Germans. Rauch’s art remains committed to -- bogged down in -- the (East) German past. It seems that sport rather than art is the path to the future. Germany needs a new generation of forward-looking, optimistic artists; it is no longer possible to play the art game by the old emotional rules. Mourning and melancholy -- suffering and shame -- are no longer emotional credentials for making German art. They are backward-looking mental states that are out of place in confident contemporary Germany -- whatever its economic and social problems -- as the euphoria that greeted re-unification and the World Cup games makes clear.
(1) Quoted in Leon Wurmser, The Mask of Shame (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), p. 5
This text was originally published, in German and in somewhat abbreviated form, in the catalogue for "Neo Rauch: Paintings 1993 to the Present Day," Nov. 11, 2005-Mar. 11, 2007, at the Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University