The New Leipzig School (Neue Leipziger Schule):
When the painters who are now the young lions of the international art scene enrolled at the venerable Art Academy in Leipzig in the early 1990's, they wanted to study art as it was taught for centuries - drawing from nude models, mastering the rules of perspective and analyzing formal composition. The ascendance of abstract painting in the years after World War II had eroded that tradition in the West, elevating originality and authentic feeling over technique and lifelike depictions, and reducing the word "academic" to a slur. But the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall were effective windscreens, blocking artistic change from ruffling the German Democratic Republic. Figurative art that was deprecated as hopelessly passé in Paris and Düsseldorf never lost its grip in Leipzig. The city prided itself on being the birthplace of Max Beckmann and (if you looked back a few centuries and across Saxony to Wittenberg) on a painterly lineage begat by Lucas Cranach. "The disadvantages of the wall are well known," says Arno Rink, a 65-year-old recently retired professor of painting who served as director of the academy in Leipzig both before and after the wall came down. "If you want to talk of an advantage, you can say it allowed us to continue in the tradition of Cranach and Beckmann. It protected the art against the influence of Joseph Beuys."
Fifteen years ago, the East German Communist regime had only recently collapsed. For students arriving in Leipzig from the West, coal smoke in the winter sky and gaping windows in derelict buildings exuded a dank romantic allure. The atmosphere for those who had grown up in the East was even more intoxicating. Their world was in free fall, mutating rapidly and unpredictably. Even at the academy, which proudly claims a heritage more than two centuries old, change sizzled in the air. A department of new media was established so that students could make videos, design conceptual art and construct installations in the manner of the long-shunned Beuys. Meanwhile, in the unchanged
department of painting, the rear guard clung to its palettes. "We learned how to construct a house in double perspective, or a staircase that spirals up," says Tilo Baumgärtel, an artist who was born in Leipzig. The painting students, many of them Westerners who had baffled their friends by journeying to the impoverished East for a traditional education, now had to withstand the ridicule of their peers. "Painting was the most boring department in the school, and everyone was making jokes about the painters, because they were so old-fashioned in the East German style," recalls Ricarda Roggan, a Dresden-born photographer.
The first hint of a shift appeared in 1997, when Neo Rauch won the art prize of the local newspaper, the Leipziger Volkszeitung. Rauch, now 45, came of age in the G.D.R., but he was young enough to absorb the imagery of comic books, television and computer graphics that shaped the stylistic tastes of his generation. He was a bridge between the older political painters of the G.D.R. and the young artists of a unified Germany. He wrote his master's thesis at the Leipzig academy on West German abstract painters of the 1950's, discussing works - "abstract painting, which is primarily color," he says - that he was unable to see except in "shabby black-and-white reproductions." Having risen, through industry and talent, to become an assistant to Professor Rink, Rauch painted large canvases in a style that hovered somewhere between Socialist Realism and Pop Art, of workers in 1950's-vintage uniforms performing enigmatic tasks of physical labor. The Leipziger Volkszeitung prize and the accompanying show of his work at the Museum der Bildenden Künste, which is the main Leipzig art museum, presaged an escalating demand for Rauch's paintings and a one-man show at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York in 2000. The painter with the strange moniker - his given name was an invention of his parents, and his family name means "smoke" - was gaining an international reputation that resounded in the academy. "Even in the halls of the school, it is a little smoky," the students joked. The success of Rauch seemed like a one-off, however. "During our studies we had the feeling that Neo was a very solitary phenomenon that couldn't be repeated," says Tim Eitel, a painter who moved East from Stuttgart in 1994. (The New Leipzig School)How wrong they were. Aided by the canny promotion work of Rauch's locally born dealer, Gerd Harry Lybke, this city of 500,000 in the distant east of Germany has acquired some of the art-world cachet of New York in the 50's or London in the 90's. Under the rubric of the "New Leipzig School," Eitel, Baumgärtel and several of their classmates - among them, Matthias Weischer, David Schnell, Christoph Ruckhäberle and Martin Kobe - have coalesced into a group phenomenon that, in the words of Joachim Pissarro, curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, is "suddenly the hottest thing on earth." Although the work of these painters, most of them in their early 30's, varies in content, style and quality, they share a technical skill, a devotion to figurative art and a predilection for dry-eyed, melancholy subject matter. From the academy in Leipzig, they derive their proficiency. Beyond that, the mood of Leipzig has provided them with their material. Like other cities in the former G.D.R., Leipzig is plagued with high unemployment and depopulation. Factories and housing projects stand closed or half-empty, many of them slated for demolition, while ornate Wilhelmine buildings from the early 20th century undergo restoration. "For me it is very important that on the one hand, you have these things coming down, but 100 meters away, they are building a new autobahn," says David Schnell, who hails from Cologne. The Leipzig central train station is a marvel of reconstruction, with glistening platforms and bustling shops. Board a tram to the southern suburb of Markkleeberg, where Rauch lives, and in half an hour's time you are confronted with a strip-mined, pock-marked landscape that evokes, in the words of Hans-Werner Schmidt, director of the Museum der Bildenden Künste, "the scenery of Mars." In the center of Leipzig, a major thoroughfare named for Karl Liebknecht - the Leipzig-born Marxist revolutionist who was executed in 1919 - throbs with sleek, packed restaurants serving caipirinhas and arugula salads. The taxi driver who brings you there is likely to have worked as an engineer or architect in the G.D.R.
Forum: Artists and Exhibitions (The New Leipzig School)
Leipzig is experiencing a morning-after moment. The euphoria that greeted German reunification has subsided into sulky disillusionment. A sour scent of curdled dreams seeps through the empty furnished rooms in Weischer's paintings and hangs over the half-dressed, enervated young people in Ruckhäberle's. The rotten barns of Schnell's landscapes, the soulless architecture of Kobe's fanciful futurism, the film-noir chill of Baumgärtel's charcoal cityscapes, the loneliness of Eitel's young people gazing at flattened vistas - all of these paintings emanate a disenchantment that is endemic to Germany, especially the former G.D.R., but speaks powerfully to viewers elsewhere, including the United States. "These are artists who are going back to a literal, descriptive figuration and giving it an air of anomie," says Robert Storr, a professor of modern art at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts. "It is happening everywhere. Mostly it is happening in photography, so it is interesting to see it in painting."
Technically accomplished painting with narrative content and a contemporary slant is very easy to sell. One reliable bellwether is the London collector Charles Saatchi, who has turned from such British installation artists as Damien Hirst and Jake and Dinos Chapman, whom he championed in the 90's, to a wide selection of contemporary painters, including (along with the Leipzigers Weischer, Ruckhäberle and Baumgärtel) the figurative artists Marlene Dumas (a South African who lives in Amsterdam), Luc Tuymans (Antwerp) and Kai Althoff (Cologne). Even in today's superheated art market for painting, the Leipzig artists stand out. Collectors jockey to be wait-listed for their new works, while in the secondary market, their prices rise vertiginously. In 2004, a new painting by Weischer would set you back about $20,000. At a Christie's auction late last year, a Weischer fetched $370,000, while an Eitel brought $212,000. The Web site for a traveling exhibition now at Mass MoCA, "Life After Death: New Leipzig Paintings From the Rubell Family Collection," heralds the Leipzig artists as "the 21st century's first bona fide artistic phenomenon."
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