Aesthetic debates invite political investment. Before Stalinism, Adorno claims, modernism in the arts was more than compatible with revolutionary politics. In the Cold War, abstract expressionism became a weapon in US foreign policy, to the chagrin of the henceforth marginalized WPA muralists, social and magical realists, storytelling painters of all kinds. In Germany, Günter Grass, himself no mean draftsman, complained bitterly about this tyranny of the abstract in his autobiography. An intense German polemic over figuration, however, had to await reunification, when the most interesting East German production – the so-called New (or Second, or Third) Leipzig School – became caught up in this already fraught symbolic quarrel. So it is that the most prolific of these figurative painters, Neo Rauch, a veritable Balzac of the storytelling image, has run aground of attacks reading him alternatively as ‘East German’ (that is, communist) or national-fascist, inviting his own unnecessary (political) self-defense of what Thomas Mann called an ‘unpolitical man’.
Panorama Museum. Bad Frankenhausen, Germany. Shutterstock
Political or not, the element Rauch works in is certainly what we call History. This is rare enough in an ahistorical late capitalism in which only the extremes of Left and Right retain a keen sense of historicity. The pieces of the past that drift down into Rauch’s canvases, however, are too fragmented to bear much in the way of a political charge. He tells us that they come to him at night, imperiously soliciting expression; and what they preeminently express is the fragmentation of German history, which, at the center of Europe, experienced war on many fronts, from the Roman Empire to the Thirty Years War, and on into the long and bloody twentieth century. Their representations demand a reunification they can only find on the canvas and through the energetic interpretations of their beholders.
Rauch’s canvases may be oneiric, but we must be careful, however strong the temptation, not to assimilate them to surrealism, which was marked, I would like to say, by a quintessentially French, and even Parisian, unconscious, however worldwide its later diffusion, and despite illustrious German adherents such as Max Ernst (Rauch’s daytime self, an eloquent commentator and theorist of his own works, parries with the more Germanic figure of Max Beckmann).
Sign in to Granta.com.