Beautifully articulated color combinations, carefully balanced compositions, credulous perspective, figural accuracy; all are to be found in the art of the Leipzig School, trained at the Leipzig Art Academy. They are a group of artist from Germany, now showing at the Salt Lake City Art Center. The exhibition titled “Life After Death” bears the stamp of the essence of the group who was formed in 1990, one year after Leipzig was freed from behind the iron curtain.
While the art of the group is trained in the Classical, it may be seen as an overt reference to contemporaneous life in post-cold war Leipzig. After WWI German Expressionists reacted to their situation with lavish abstractions, ostensibly conveying the chaos that had and was occurring. In a similar way, upon careful observation the art of the Leipzig School may be an ironic statement, fiercely ironic, on the situation in old Eastern Germany and East Germany today. Classically trained, all artists share a common aesthetic that is anything but Classical in traditional subjects. The word “license” does not even begin to convey their aesthetic. In fact, they do not actually take license, but by careful adherence to the “rules” of the Classical they may show the viewer how this tradition can be corrupted, as has been in a society still dependant on it; from Greece, to the Declaration of Independence, till now. They reveal to us a myth. One in which we live, which is not absolute.
The first aspect of the exhibit are the drawings of Matthias Weischer, most of whose works are untitled. They are a good introduction to the representation of the School, placed on the Street Level Galleryin the Art Center. In plasticity they bear a certain paucity of form, simple line and frequent interruptions of full color. The “rules” are there. The elements are sound. They, as all the Leipzig school, generally speaking, appear irrational yet are rational in the Classical sense upon inspection.
They may seem disorderly- they are. Many iconographic references are alluded to- pyramids, crosses chairs and geometric patterns. These are within a melody of simplistic form and color. The images: icons, settings, colors have a psychological impact (as definitely do all the Leipzig School’s work) in relation to the subjective. These do not resonate as surreal, but leave a certain state of unease, a, subjective perception upon the viewer of disquiet. Like a Piranese we are lost in a labyrinth, a nightmare even, of uncertainty and anxiety.
The work of Tim Eitel is more polished, and painted in oil. Yet the subjective state upon the viewer is all the more anxious. In each grouping of two or three, such as “Verweis,” 2003, they seem lost in their own reality, but we follow, with no apparent conclusion but the subject’s sense of obscurity. Of special mention in the same room as Eitel’s is a very potent work by Tilo Baumgärtel. The “Die Pause,” 2004 is highly provocative. We once more find ourselves in the rational yet get lost in the irrational.
The Greeks used the rational philosophy of life to create order in the universe, or at least as they were concerned with truth. Anything contrary to this, the conceptions of the mind contradicting nature was irrational and therefore went against reason. Philosophers subsequently have made a study of Reason, namely Emanuel Kant, whose “Critique of Pure Reason” elucidates how the rational mind may be used for reason as opposed to venturing into the irrational. In Baumgärtel’s painting, the architecture and form is correct, rational, but all figuration works against reason; everything is right and everything is wrong. This may be a thesis for the Leipzig school.
Matthias Weischer, creator of the drawings on the Street Level Gallery brings us closer to the height of the Leipzig school in his large-scale paintings. His “Chair” and “Zweiteilig” both painted in 2003 are apparently companion pieces. Both are a room with a hall leading obscurely away from the picture plane, with no human life other than two pin-ups, which may represent the human in this barren universe or the empty universe in the human.
The other two paintings by Weischer are almost completely illogical, irrational as Kant might have noticed; they obey all the laws of the rational yet destroy any trace of reason to be found and thus irrational. These two compositions, “Tuch,” 2005 and “St Ludgerus,” 2004 are dense with iconographical images, but why are there legs sticking out from underneath the sofa, why are there plants growing from the chandelier, why do socks stand erect with no wearer, why is a figure painted purely in white amidst darker colors? There is no sense in this, it is purely unreasonable but that may be the purpose. To paint in the Classical tradition yet defy the rational.
The leader of the Leipzig School is Neo Rauch, a now famous artist whose prestige has been greatly elevated by the Rubell family who made this traveling exhibition possible and whose showing at the Mass MoCA in Massachusetts attracted great appeal for the Leipzig School and to Rauch. He is the elder member of the group and has received most attention. Rauch takes these experiments farther than does any other member of the Leipzig. His compositions, colors, etc., are as complex as a Botticelli, yet his work is as different to Botticelli as the twentieth century is to the fifteenth.
In the work of Rauch logic is lost; reason is lost in the rational! Nothing can truly be entirely explained, or even attempted to be explained. It is the unexplainable, the absence of reason used within proper states of artistic Classical form that the viewer my find beauty in these works. Perspective, color, harmony, composition, figuration- all work in the classical manner, such as in “Das Neue,” 2005. At a glance this picture could have been a history painting in the Albertian sense of the word, in the fullest sense! But maybe it still is. All elements are there excepting one and that is cohesion. “Demos,” 2004- it could have been an Ingres. Unfortunately we live in the twenty first century and Rauch will receive no Prix- de-rome. Again, this is no surrealist fantasy, this is reality given over to the absurd.
Ruckhäberle presents a quality much found in the Leipzig School. The figures generally do not look at one another and there is little or no connection. This is slightly disturbing as so many sitters are in such close proximity and are children. Each seems lost in its own sphere. Human connection was something Renaissance painters till Raphael sought for and now it is being broken. All are lost in their absurdities. With Rauch’s work as well as Ruckhäberle’s, one cannot explain their imagery other than they cast doubt, not on structure or artistic form, but on truth, relationships, human interaction, and the loss of reason- subjective uncertainty.
The large-scale oils by Tim Eitel, paints beautifully his absurdities. He paints very attractive minimal landscapes with figures apparently lost without their sense of reason, doing irrational things, activities that are mind-numbing or acutely banal. David Schnell has the final blow in the show. He displays his masterful use of perspective, yet it is we, vicariously walking through a tunnel, such as “Bretter,” 2005, or a series of crates, witness around us everything being blown to bits. The very world around us lost to destruction. The beautifully articulated forms blow apart, everything is blasted before us, a perfect denouement to the show.
Is this “blast” another dose of German nihilism or does the Leipzig school have a positive ideology, a “warning” for the future as do so many great artists of today? Have the Leipzig School lost hope for the future or is there a constructive statement of the East German society being made? Is the Leipzig school making commentary, in their world and our world where we are losing grasp or a sense of reason, the rational; who we are, our very society, which we are desperately trying to hold together? With the help of the Leipzig school and awareness such as this, possibly we can maintain this fragile society and those in East Germany will heed the Leipzig School’s warning, and others like the School will do their part to galvanize what we have not lost and put and end to the absurdities and a loss of reason which we seem to see every day.