Everybody thinks that Neo Rauch is doing something special in his paintings but few know why. They can’t put their finger on it. They are, sometimes, even troubled by what they’re seeing.
This is normal when it comes to Romantics. Romanticism bothers people. They don’t believe that the immediacy they are seeing is for real. And they are right to be suspicious. Romanticism is about coming back to the world and seeing it afresh, as it were, with a new sincerity. But that ‘coming back’ is an important part of the Romantic mindset. The immediacy achieved by Romanticism (an immediacy characterized by a kind of wide eyed astonishment before the entirety of the world’s experiences) is not first level immediacy. It is second level immediacy and periods of Romanticism only come about after ‘mediate’ periods. The first great era of Romanticism in the early nineteenth century, for instance, came directly after the Age of Reason. The Age of Reason, to paint with a broad stroke, was about standing at arm’s length from the world and trying to get a handle on it. It was about getting some distance and some objectivity. It was an Age generally suspicious of the ‘dive-right-in-with-your-face-right-up-against-it-all’ attitude characteristic of Romanticism.
These days, we’re in the midst of a Neo Romanticism that comes after an Age of critical modernism. And just as in the nineteenth century, there are those who get it and there are those who don’t. There are those still holding on to the instincts and criteria of the past Age, and there are those who simply don’t have a Romantic bone in their body and never will. But the world is large and Romanticism is generous enough to contain them all. That’s one of its strengths: no exclusions. And that’s why Romanticism can have so many different moods and manifestations. Romanticism is interested in exploring every aspect of experience, from the direct apprehension of the objects around us to the world of dreams and fantasy, the limit areas of the rational mind. Romanticism is a kind of infinity, the infinity of a precocious child, a knowing child.
Neo Rauch is a perfect Romantic for the new age because his Romanticism comes from disturbed reflections on the previous era. This gives it a slightly dazed manner and pushes it to a melancholy region of the Romantic universe. Mitteleuropa is a fundamentally strange and compelling place. Beaten on for half a century of war and unspeakable human atrocity it settled into a Soviet era coma that only just ended a decade and a half ago. History is thus a story of gaps and traumas for Mitteleuropa, things you want to forget but can’t and other things it’s very hard to remember. Simply looking at the reality of Mitteleuropa is already to play in a world of dreams and illusions. It is a landscape littered with memories and fragments of lost time. It is broken open and oozing with things-that-might-have-been and options just barely recognized.
And that’s a pretty good description of what is happening on Neo Rauch’s canvasses. Peter Schjeldahl (The New Yorker art critic) touches on something of this in his review of Rauch’s show at the Met. He says, “I think I’ve never seen an excellent painting that is so masochistically cheerless, to the point of revelling in a contemplation of impotence. I would like to despise the artist for this, but his visual poetry is too persuasive. Present-day reality is a lot more like one of his pictures than I wish it were.”
My only real disagreement with the point is in Schjeldahl’s claim that Neo Rauch is impotent. The paintings, of course, don’t ‘say’ things about contemporary life in ways that critics like Schjeldahl want them to. But that, again, is the nature of Romanticism. It drives people to distraction, especially those who aren’t attuned to it. They know they are seeing something remarkable, a visual poetry that is “too persuasive.” But they don’t have the apparatus to take it up. Usually such individuals, having been raised, without even necessarily realizing it, within the discourse of Critical Modernism, decide that there is something pernicious going on with Romanticism, that they are being duped into enjoying something fundamentally empty. Schjeldahl, for instance, decides that “Rauch’s work provides a cultural moment that seeks legitimacy in art with talismans of rhapsodic complacency.” It’s a nice line, but it isn’t Neo Rauch.
Speaking of the Early Romantics, Jacques Barzun once wrote that, “They [Romantics] were forced, as we know, to take stock of the universe anew, like primitives, because the old forms, the old inter-subjective formulas, had failed them. There was consequently nothing for them to do but report individually on what they saw.” The Neo Romantics are up to essentially the same business. Calling this complacent is strange. It is to ask the Neo Romantics somehow to be doing work that none of the rest of us know how to do either. And it is to ignore what the Neo Romantics are actually achieving, which is working their way back through the elements of experience in the attempt to get in touch with where we are now.
This work is simultaneously difficult and enjoyable. It’s difficult because there is disturbing material to sort through, especially in Mitteleuropa. Neo Rauch’s canvasses are packed full of fragments of Social Realism and vaguely menacing images of war and social collapse. Memory is something you might rather escape, but cannot. But the sense of intrigue in the paintings, the mystery of situation and character is exciting. People are up to things in these paintings, often they are dressed well, and occasionally they carry dangerous objects. Something is afoot, not the game exactly, but something. Perhaps an event is about to occur. In the tension of all this imminence, there is a feeling that Neo Rauch is stitching a world back together solely through the instrument of his painterly skill. And even with the application of all that skill, he cannot get the human beings within the canvass to inhabit the same social space. They are there with each other, and not there with each other at the same time. Again, spend a little time in Mitteleuropa and you’ll see what he means. Space, in Neo Rauch, doesn’t even always live up to its expectations. A wall or a building will suddenly give up on itself and drift off into a smudge or an angle that isn’t strictly possible in the three dimensional world. Since we’re still having so much trouble with time, he seems to be saying, we really shouldn’t be allowed to have space either.
There is a passage from W.B. Sebald’s Austerlitz that probably serves as a better wall text to Neo Rauch’s paintings than anything else.
“Even in a metropolis ruled by time like London, said Austerlitz, it is still possible to be outside time, a state of affairs which until recently was almost as common in backward and forgotten areas of our own country as it used to be in the undiscovered continents overseas. The dead are outside time, the dying and all the sick at home or in hospitals, and they are not the only ones, a certain degree of personal misfortune is enough to cut off from the past and the future. In fact, said Austerlitz, I have never owned a clock of any kind, a bedside alarm or a packet watch, let alone a wristwatch. A clock has always struck me as something ridiculous, a thoroughly mendacious object, perhaps because I have always resisted the power of time out of some internal compulsion which I myself have never understood, cutting myself off from so-called current events in the hope, as I now think, said Austerlitz, that time will not pass away, has not passed away, that I can turn back after it, and when I arrive I shall find everything as it once was, or more precisely I shall find that all moments of time have coexisted simultaneously, in which case none of what history tells us would be true, past events have not yet occurred but are waiting to do so at the moment when we think of them, although that, of course, opens up the bleak prospect of everlasting misery and never-ending anguish.”
This is the psychological landscape in which Neo Rauch is doing his painterly work of remembering and re-imagining. I, for one, would get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art before October 14th.