»The figurative, the accent on drawing, an ideal world view defined by a rich history, and everything handled with a new freedom: these are my Leipzig roots.« (Neo Rauch)

“Leipzig is up and coming,” art critic Peter Guth announced self-confidently, along with seven young artists in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition sieben mal malerei (painting times seven), which opened in April 2003 at the Neuer Leipziger Kunstverein and the Museum der Bildenden Künste in Leipzig. And as far as painting from Leipzig is concerned, they were right. The show featured figurative paintings whose subjects and execution were all strongly distinct. On display were spaces and landscapes, some with more or less abstract sections; the works played with architectural elements or occasionally created dreamlike, surreal, Romantically inspired visual spheres, which were frequently deserted, although some were populated by a few, often withdrawn figures. The makers of these paintings—Tilo Baumgärtel (*1972 in Leipzig), Peter Busch (*1971 in Sondershausen, Thuringia), Tim Eitel (*1971 in Leonberg, Baden-Württemberg), Martin Kobe (*1973 in Dresden), Christoph Ruckhäberle (*1972 in Pfaffenhofen, Bavaria), David Schnell (*1971 in Bergisch-Gladbach, North Rhine-Westphalia), and Matthias Weischer (*1973 in Elte, North Rhine-Westphalia)—had just finished their studies in painting before him at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig, and were already making news in solo and group shows. They were supported by gallerists Gerd Harry Lybke (Galerie Eigen+Art, Leipzig, Berlin) and Matthias Kleindienst (Galerie Kleindienst, Leipzig), and together with four other artists, they founded the extremely successful producers’ galley, LIGA in Berlin in 2002, under the direction of Christian Ehrentraut, a former employee at Eigen+Art.

“New Leipzig School” was the catchphrase used to describe them and others who graduated from the Leipzig academy shortly after the turn of the century, as they went from being an insider tip to being hyped on the art market. At any rate, most of the works from sieben mal malerei were acquired by the American collectors, Don and Mera Rubell; a year and a half later, in December 2004, parallel to Art Basel Miami Beach, the couple presented the pieces they had acquired in a show titled Northern Light. Leipzig in Miami, at their own private exhibition space. After making further acquisitions, the Rubells organized a show called Life after Death. New Leipzig Paintings from the Rubell Family Collection, which traveled to numerous American museums. Everyone was talking about “Leipzig” and renowned international collectors hunting for the coveted paintings drove prices into the six-figure range.

Yet what actually lies behind the New Leipzig School? The term is controversial, and the artists subsumed in it regard it as art market “branding,” something that they only identify with to a limited extent. From a historical point of view, the phrase alludes to the term “Leipzig School,” coined by art journalists in the 1970s. It was used to describe painters teaching at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig, who, from the 1960s onward, managed to expand, step-by-step, the formally and contextually narrow corset of socialist realism propagated in the German Democratic Republic. Their painting remained figurative, but by connecting to classic modernism and other earlier epochs in art history, these artists unfolded a stylistically, thematically broad spectrum of expression, which was appreciated in the Federal Republic of Germany at the time as original, “GDR-specific” art. The main representatives of the Leipzig School, Bernhard Heisig (1925–2011), Wolfgang Mattheuer (1927–2004), and Werner Tübke (1929–2004), were all professors at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst. In 1977, all were invited to exhibit at the documenta 6, and their works were acquired by collector Peter Ludwig, of Cologne. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the teaching of figurative painting and solid craftsmanship continued to characterize the educational program at the academy. Among the second generation of students of Heisig, Mattheuer, and Tübke were Arno Rink (*1940 in Schlotheim) and Sighard Gille (*1941 in Eilenburg), who later became professors there, and whose teachings contributed considerably to the phenomenon known as the New Leipzig School.

Neo Rauch (*1960 in Leipzig) is regarded as their actual precursor and most famous protagonist; he studied under Arno Rink and Bernhard Heisig in the 1980s, and from 1993 to 1998, was an assistant at the academy. While exploring the traditions of the academy, he developed a new kind of figurative painting that incorporated elements of Pop Art, comics, and advertising graphics. At first it was distinguished by a graphic, linear style, but gradually developed in the direction of a colorful plasticity. Characteristic of Rauch’s works are dreamlike scenes based on personal memories and emotions. However, the objects and figures that recur in his works on different visual planes in apparently narrative contexts appear as seemingly insoluble riddles to the viewer, and evade any sort of definitive interpretation. The artist came to public attention with these paintings in 1993, and, supported by his industrious gallerist, Gerd Harry Lybke, soon became one of the most famous and successful artists of the present day.

With the rise of Rauch, there was an international celebration of the comeback of a kind of figurative German painting that seemed to unite Eastern and Western art traditions after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Referring to a show at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York in 2002, Roberta Smith, the New York Times art critic, described Rauch as “a painter who came in from the cold,” having developed “a distinctive Pop-Surrealist-Social Realist style” (New York Times, April 26, 2002). Suddenly, “Kraut Art,” especially the “East-Realo-Look” (Der Spiegel, 15/2004) was in vogue, and young talent, primarily from Leipzig, as has already been mentioned, was much in demand. The art market hype about young German painters in general and the New Leipzig School in particular held steady until 2009. Prices collapsed after the financial crisis, even though the works of art by the well-known painters were still in demand.

The generation that includes Tilo Baumgärtel, Tim Eitel, and others is probably one of the last to emerge from the traditional Leipzig School, since the climate at the academy has changed. In 2009 Rauch gave up the professorship he had taken on in 2005, when he succeeded Arno Rink, but to his great annoyance, the professorship was not given to his favored candidate, Belgian painter Michaël Borremans (*1963 in Geraardsbergen), but to Heribert C. Ottersbach (*1960 in Cologne), who is from the Rhineland. Even though he is a figurative painter, he has a completely different teaching style. Subsequently, Arno Rink stated, “The New Leipzig School is dead,” and Rauch declared, “The profile of the Leipzig School is now disposable.” (Die Welt, August 14, 2009).

May 8, 2012 Anja Breloh

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