Interview with Neo Rauch ahead of his German retrospective: “You won’t find an ‘Untitled’ among my works”

The painter on the burdens of being a professor, the need for figures and his prophetic abilities


In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Neo Rauch’s enigmatic paintings—an intensely coloured mix of realism, surrealism, pop art and comic-book imagery—brought him huge international success. In Germany his work still fuels debate on the pros and cons of figurative painting.

This month the Museum Frieder Burda in Baden-Baden is opening a Rauch retrospective (27 May to 18 September, see p77). Curated by art historian Werner Spies, the show will cover the artist’s development over the past 20 years. Of particular interest will be the presentation of Rauch’s first sculpture, titled Nachhut, 2011.

For the museum’s founder, collector Frieder Burda, Rauch is one of the most important contemporary artists and a unique figure in the so-called New Leipzig School of artists who rose to prominence after German reunification.

The catalogue will include contributions by critic Eduard Beaucamp, Frieder Burda and the poet Durs Grünbein.

The Art Newspaper: Last year you celebrated your 50th birthday with two exhibitions, in Leipzig and Munich. Were you pleased?

Neo Rauch: The exhibitions were planned long before and were not connected with this major milestone in my life. The slightly distasteful thing is that it looked like I was having a big fuss made of myself.

The exhibition at the Museum Frieder Burda will show paintings from 1993 to the present and, for the first time, a sculpture.

Yes, I’ve now managed to squeeze in some time for sculpture. I find the process easier than painting. There is a real object in space and I can see immediately where the problems are.

Could you describe the moment when the idea for a picture turns into something definite?

It is a give-and-take between an idea, what one might call “text”, and what is recorded using the medium as “subtext”. I have to ask myself what I expect from painting: should it be subservient to my ideas or a queen that I have to serve? The text, which I regard as a private matter, must be able to stand being dragged diagonally across the canvas. If it loses something along the way, so much the better, since it then gains something that it may have urgently needed: sensuality and a truth that is rooted in non-verbal space.

Do you only give your works a title after they are finished?

Not if a word calls out for a picture. The child must be given a name. You won’t find an Untitled among my works—it is simply disrespectful to the picture, the viewer and, ultimately, to the gallery owner.

Are titles “honey traps” for viewers?

I have to ensure people linger in front of my pictures. Viewers must be rewarded—if people devote time to the picture then they must receive something in return.

Your works have been called riddle pictures. But riddles have a solution, and there are no solutions in your pictures.

Solutions don’t come into it. My pictures supposedly have a vital quality, like an animal, a living thing. There is no need to understand, only to feel that this creature is, to the greatest possible degree, at peace with itself. It is not always possible to realise, but that’s how I imagine a functioning picture. As soon as I have the feeling that the thing has blood circulating through it, a nervous system, a skeleton, then questions as to the message become completely marginal.

Several of the figures in your work come from German history, which has led some people say that you paint in a socialist realist style.

That is other people’s problem, not mine, especially over here. I have never attempted to “de-Germanise” my work. Besides, people mostly have only a rough idea of what socialist realism is. I’m not trying to dodge the issue, but I think that they reach this conclusion because they know that I come from East Germany. They might reach the same conclusion by looking at the work of Raymond Pettibon and Michaël Borremans.

This misunderstanding is surely a result of the age-old opposition between abstraction and representation, which you have satirised, for example, in Unerträglicher Naturalismus [Intolerable Naturalism], 1998, and Abstraktion, 2005. Why are people in Germany so ready to associate this conflict with you?

I am repeatedly told that I have a problem with abstraction. This is nonsense, I only have a problem with bad pictures.

Do you see yourself as a kind of landscape painter, even though landscape often appears as an altogether artificial construct?

I still need someone to pose as a farmer. No tree can measure up to the attraction I feel towards the figure.

That sounds like a declaration of love for your fellow humans, despite the doom-laden scenarios you depict…

By 1945 the exploitation of images and emotions before and during the second world war led to a rejection of figurative representation in favour of a clear decision for abstraction. Today this division no longer necessarily demands our attention. I always like to compare my work to a game of chess—fundamentally it is all about placing figures and features, something that has consequences. The one determines the other. Everything takes place on the surface: colouration, composition, figuration must in themselves be plausible. A certain legibility must be guaranteed, otherwise it’s nonsense.

Will the recent events in Japan and Libya influence your work?

These things have been present in my works for some time. I began this work [in his studio] before Fukushima, and who would deny that it resonates with a certain disquieting radiation? My exhibition in Warsaw (until 15 May) opened on the day the earthquake struck; my 50th exhibition was clouded by the Icelandic volcano; and the picture Uhrenvergleich [Synchronising Watches], 2001, which shows smoke billowing from a skyscraper, was painted in the same year but before the attack on the World Trade Center. It’s hard to resist crowing about my prophetic abilities.

How long have you been with Gerd Harry Lybke and Eigen+Art?

Since 1982. My first exhibition at the gallery was in 1993. That was my first significant solo show and I was 33. Today students go mad if they haven’t had their first solo show by the age of 23.

How did you experience the political upheavals of 1989/90? Did you feel as if you had been thrown in with the sharks of the western art scene?

It was more the case that I didn’t actually do anything at all, since no one was particularly interested in painting. At that point painting was once again being written off as dead. I don’t know whether it’s always the same idiots who decide this, but every ten years there is a cockerel that climbs onto the dung heap. At the time I said to myself, fine, now I can lead the life of a loner, a painter dwelling on the forest edge, I can become a “best-kept secret”. The irony is that something quite different emerged out of it.

Despite your success you have remained in Leipzig and once said: “In joyous Italy nothing ever occurs to me…”

I know, of course, that Italy is far from being joyous. What I mean is that in Italy I can shake off the stable smell [his studio is called “The Stable”], but I couldn’t work there. It is very German that once someone has achieved a measure of financial success he is immediately asked the question: why are you actually still here, now that you can go anywhere? It’s as if you’re expected to clear off as soon as you have money in your bank account.

You held a professorship at the art college in Leipzig [the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst] but gave it up. Why?

I had to ask myself what the world expected of me. Was I an art professor, wearing out my life between studio, college, meetings and students’ rooms (always feeling as if I had been tackled to the ground)? Or should I be doing what was possible in my studio? Taking my damaged nerves into account, I came to a definite decision.

Did your decision have anything to do with the organisation of the college?

Indirectly, because the student numbers were simply too high. Now I run a free masterclass with five or six students. When I started at the college only as many students were enrolled as could fit into the building, but then a decision was made to broaden access. I cannot understand why such a large number of young people were encouraged to apply.

In the autumn you will be exhibiting at the Essl Collection, near Vienna, Austria with your wife, Rosa Loy, who is also a painter…

Yes, it’s high time. Until now she has only really been known within the art world. That can partly be attributed to the way in which we have steered clear of female painters in this country. In America they are better placed to see the differences between the two of us and to celebrate them.


Born: 1960, Leipzig, where he still lives and works

Education: Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst Leipzig; professorship 2005-09

Represented by: Eigen+Art (Berlin/Leipzig), David Zwirner (New York)

Selected solo shows: 1993 Eigen+Art, Leipzig 1997 Museum der Bildenden Künste, Leipzig 2000 David Zwirner, New York 2003 Saint Louis Art Museum 2005 CAC Malaga 2006 Musée d’Art Contemporain, Montreal, Canada 2007 Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2010 Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich, and MMK Leipzig/Palais Beauharnais, Paris 2011 National Gallery Zacheta, Warsaw/Museum Frieder Burda, Baden Baden

Autumn 2011: Essl Collection, near Vienna, Austria, with his wife, the painter Rosa Loy

Selected group shows: 1999 “The Golden Age”, ICA London/“After the Wall”, Moderna Museet, Stockholm 2001 Venice Biennale 2002 Museum of Modern Art, New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 2004 “Aus Deutscher Sicht”, Pushkin Museum, Moscow 2005 “On Paper III”, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh 2006 “After Cézanne”, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; “Tokyo Blossoms”, Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo 2007 “Passion for Art”, Essl Collection, Austria 2008 “Living Landscape”, National Art Museum, Beijing 2009 “Realismus in Leipzig”, Drents Museum, Assen, Netherlands 2010 “Das Versprochene Land”, Albertinum Dresden/German Contemporary Painting, São Paulo