Supportive interpreters of Neo Rauch’s work have argued that, by re-staging and emptying out the heroic iconography of Socialist Realism in his paintings, Rauch commemorates the death of the ill-fated state-socialist Utopia of the German Democratic Republic, the system under which he grew up. Given the lack of any serious attempt to address the legacy of the GDR in the mainstream of current German art and culture, I agree that, if Rauch’s paintings were really to convey this profound sense of recent history to their national and international audiences, his work would be just what is needed right now. I also agree that confronting the empty iconography of a discarded belief system could be an adequate way to grasp the historical experience of state collapse. Still, when I look at Rauch’s paintings I cannot see that they make any such contribution to a culture of critical commemoration. On the contrary, in the light of the exhibition of his latest body of opulent paintings, entitled ‘Renegaten’ (Renegades), his work seems to aim less at the deconstruction of an obsolete ideology than, in fact, at the restoration of a questionable sense of German identity.
What distinguishes Rauch’s recent paintings from previous work is that he has considerably expanded his repertoire of motifs. He continues to cite heroic depictions of work and workers from a broad spectrum of Socialist Realist and proto-fascist Neoclassical imagery. Yet he now also travels further back in German history, to the 18th century. Lösung (Solution, all works 2005), for instance, shows a small country house around which figures in period costume from different centuries perform grotesque acts. There is a soldier dressed in a late 18th-century uniform leisurely executing a man in football gear from the 1950s. Since Germany won the football World Cup in Bern in 1954 the sight of such clothes inevitably evokes the first moment of national triumph after the postwar eclipse of the country. Another footballer moodily perambulates behind the back of a Wagnerian creature, a half-naked fat man with a beard busy whipping some alien thing in his hand. Behind half-drawn curtains you see a guy with an impressively precise hair parting molesting a woman inside the house. From the paunchy Teutonic demigod to the soldier, footballer and well-groomed rapist, all the figures seem like allegories of the triumph and tragedy of a people. Admittedly, the scene is absurd; still, the sombre expressions of its cast and the pathos of existential gravitas it indulges in are what anyone would think of as typically German.
The late 18th-century uniform returns in Neujahr (New Year), this time in authentic Prussian blue, on the bulky body of a pensive-looking man dragging a sledge along a snow-covered path that leads up to a farmhouse, in front of which a working-class hero from the 1930s shovels coals into a potato-shaped oven. This bucolic atmosphere is even more suggestively portrayed in Heimkehr (Homecoming). The backdrop of the painting is provided by a lusciously laid-out estate, epitomizing the historical environment of Prussian landowner society. Façades crumble in picturesque ways, and the trees glow in autumnal colours. In the foreground a salesman opens his suitcase to charm a farmhand, while in the background a boy scrubs a bison and the landlord takes aim with his rifle. While its title evokes the mythic scene of soldiers returning from a war, the homecoming the painting stages is in fact a nostalgic return to the golden days of old Prussia.
These paintings are casually mixed cocktails of historical ingredients all of which have a distinctive taste of German-ness. The new flavour Rauch now adds to his recent works is that of Prussia, the imaginary heartland of German self-understanding. The trouble with Prussia is that today it belongs to Poland, a fact persistently denied by some of the most reactionary forces in the German political spectrum. To toy with nostalgic images of Prussia without further contextual clarification is simply irresponsible. There is no reason to assume that Rauch has any retrograde political intentions. It is rather the absence of any political agenda that makes his works questionable. As the free flow of Rauch’s historical imag-ination does not seem to be inhibited by any second thoughts concerning the choice of motives by which he invokes that taste of German-ness, he fails to grasp the historical realities of the country and instead produces images that are as superficial as they are mythical. Neither the semi-surreal absurdity of the depicted scenes nor the occasional well-placed glitches in the composition endanger this mythic splendour. Rauch is too much of a virtuoso to seriously question the power of his paintings and dare mess up their perfection. That desire to analyse and deconstruct is just not there. This is why his paintings remain what they are: mythical celebrations of a confused sense of Germanic identity lacking any kind of critical sensibility.