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A sight for sore eyes

The New Leipzig School of painters is being massively hyped around the world. But it does have its finger on the pulse, writes Christian Schüle.

There must be good reasons when gallerists start talking about miracles and proclaiming Leipzig as the world's art capital. There must be more to it that the hustle and bustle of the art market when American collectors learjet over to Leipzig to plough through studios and galleries. Something major must have happened if suddenly thousands of dollars are changing hands for the offerings of third year students. What's going on in Leipzig at the moment is prosaic, gobsmacking, and obvious at the same time. And it happened like this.

"Lake at Sunset". By Christoph Ruckhäberle. Courtesy Zach Feuer gallery.

A decade ago, a group of carefree young German art students took it upon themselves to do what has always been done in Leipzig: paint. People, tables, chairs, trees, meadows. And in the age of new media this must have seemed so surprising that the students rapidly rose to master-class students and on to highly respected painting stars. Many of them, with Neo Rauch at the helm, exhibit in Paris, London, New York, soon in Korea. Collectors pay up to 200,000 dollars a pop. And the young painters have already been branded: The New Leipzig School.

"Frau vor Holzwand" / "Frau Hintergrund". By Christoph Ruckhäberle. Courtesy Zach Feuer gallery.

So what's the secret of this success? Why all the frothing enthusiasm? What exactly is so fascinating about the work of someone like Matthias Weischer, born 1973 in Westphalia, who paints clammy, functionless, viewless rooms, metaphysically emptied in matt retro colours, faded sandy yellow, shabby brown, lacklustre mauve, the sort of colours you find in the stairwells of Leipzig's old community centres? Or the work of Christoph Ruckhäberle from Bavaria, born 1972? Why do these collectors feel so drawn to his silent creatures, his enfeebled, morbid youths, veiled in melancholy, like bystanders at a general depression in the prime of their lives? The paintings of Weischer and Ruckhäberle offer as little escape as dynamism. We're talking fin-de-siecle ennui in the flesh.

"Guitar Band". By Christoph Ruckhäberle. Courtesy Zack Feuer gallery.

Not all Leipziger painters are like this. Take the people in the work of Johannes Tiepelmann, born 1979 in Saxony. They live in the epoch of bio-tech and digital economy. His imagery spirals about in chaotic gaudiness, a supermarket trolley, a pot-bellied computer, a green dinosaur, a green-headed comic character, a gallows complete with microphone – as if a film were being shot on his canvases, as if Tiepelmann were painting a simulacrum of a virtuality come true. You ask yourself, as you do with Weischer or Ruckhäberle, why such self-referential images, mostly painted from photographs with no political friction or movement, with no passion or restlessness, are having such a glittering success.

The New Leipzig School is genealogically interwoven with the old one and shaped by a tradition of perfected craftmanship. The Leipzig School of Art was founded as a painting academy, across epochs and fashions the professors taught classical portraiture, landscape painting, interiors, life drawing, etching. The big three of East German art, Bernhard Heisig (see interview), Wolfgang Mattheuer and Werner Tübke followed this tradition. And two of the former students of this triumvirate, Arno Rink and Sieghard Gille are considered today to be the kingmakers of the New Leipzig School and its figurative painting. Tim Eitel, Tilo Baumgärtel, David Schnell and Christoph Ruckhäberle are students of Rink; Matthias Weischer was influenced by Gille.

For a few weeks everything in Leipzig with status or name, whether it deserves it or not, is housed in the Baumwollspinnerei, the old cotton mill five kilometres south of the city centre, in the former working class quarter of Plagwitz. The mill was built in 1884, was a state run business until 1990 and went to ruin when the Wall came down. The building offers 70,000 square metres of usable space, 24 halls, a chimney and 60 studios - 30 of which are rented - for a paradisical 1.50 to 3 euros per square meter. The mill, with its well-cultivated catacomb charm, factory building bleakness and fancy lofts, could be described as the home of the New Leipzig School if you want to think of it in home terms. In any case, Plagwitz is sending a signal out to the world that says, Here is Germany's East! Here there have never been any restrictions on the realm of the imagination; here is a concentration of what has always distinguished Leipzig as a label from other fashions - compositional rigour and perfect craftsmanship – canvas priming, division of space, the placement of figure.

The city was cut off from developments in international art for forty years, focussed inwardly on itself. It was imprisoned in East Germany, walled in with an with uncurbed creative energy which, since the fall of the Wall, has at last been able to release and realise itself in the art world.

Leipzig is undergoing a second Gründerzeit (Germany's nineteenth century golden age). The city is in a flurry of renovation, restoration, and new building, it is generating its own middle classes partly drawn from the West, private views are popular, exhibitions well attended, students are flooding in, as are ever growing numbers of young artists from the entire republic all seeking a place on the production line of fame at the increasingly famous art school. The more young artists arrive, the more Leipzig becomes engrossed in the idea of becoming a refuge for the Avant garde, and the gallerists in particular are licking their lips.

In this city Gerd-Harry Lybke has near mythological status, a Baroque character for baroque times, the Uli Hoeneß (the man behind the economic success of FC Bayern) of the art business. In 1981, at the age of 22, Lybke started earning his living as a life model at the Leipzig art school. Here he met the local art student Neo Rauch. From 1983 on, he started organising solo shows of artists in his flat, in 1985 he founded the gallery Eigen + Art. Over the years he collected Neo Rauch's paintings of surreal parallel worlds, works by Olaf and Karsten Nicolai and Martin Eder. And when the Wall came down, voila! Lybke was all set. Off he stormed, hailing his Leipzig proteges as the artists of the future. He took a few bits of work to the Armory Show in New York in 1992 and, at a time when nobody wanted to hear anything about colour, oil or canvas, when painting had been declared dead and everybody was raving about conceptual art, installation and video, he got the Americans all excited about figurative painting from Saxony. It was not long before the Leipzig brand had established itself on the market, and at that time, Neo Rauch was the only German artist identifiable for the Americans as German. Rauch, at the time assistant to Arno Rink, became a guiding light for the young students and Lybke rose to become the art mediator of the moment.

He still is. Yesterday he flew in from London, today he's in Berlin and tomorrow he's off to New York, then Miami. He sells 10 paintings in 30 minutes so why should he give a hoot about German critics? In his former life he was an actor in a small poetic theatre; today he's on the great stage of the art market. To what extent the hedonist in pinstripes and brogues sees art as a reflection of the developments in society remains to be seen.

According to the rarely cheerful critics of the New Leipzig School, a dubious myth is fuelling itself in Leipzig. For them the painted visual worlds with their pasty-faced hung-headed people are boring, devoid of power, ideas or relevance, prematurely senile paintings or the equivalent of the equally harmless chic lit.

There's no denying that the images represent no intellectual threat whatsoever. It's barely disputable that the craftsmanship is solid but not overwhelming, beyond contention that the paintings of Wolfgang Mattheuer and Bernhard Heisig are wilder and absolutely unquestionable that the young painters lack youthful audacity and the anger of their critics. Their pictures lack ambiguity or allegorical sophistication. The majority of them are settled, even-tempered, and the density of details certainly not problematic.

But how about putting on hold for a moment the accusations that young Leipzig painters represent market-compatible superficiality? How about seeing the paintings as diagnostic effigies of the times? And what about discovering a meaning in their apparent meaninglessness?

"The Streets". By Johannes Tiepelmann. Courtesy Spinnerei galerie.

Perhaps something new has taken place, perhaps the mixture of puzzling and pop culture is an ideology-free image of the present, perhaps it expresses resignation and a lack of perspective, and perhaps it's not the paintings that are drab but the life of the viewer.

The young painters have been catapulted up out of the depths of virtual space, as reactionary and formal traditionalists, so to speak, of global mediocrity, as a result of art having reduced itself to nothing but twitching screens and, in the hands of Catherine David, reached a senseless climax of philosophical incapacitation in the overly academic documenta X in 1997. What they do obviously touches a nerve of the present, and because aesthetic effects are always a fashion phenomenon with temporal limitations, it's certainly questionable whether or not the Leipzig artworks are really the classics they are being sold as.

The success of the paintings of Ruckhäberle and Tiepelmann lies in their diagnosis of the exhausted state in which society finds itself. The young Leipzig artists intone the woes of a global fun-society which has lost its soul, its feelings and its sense of purpose. You can read in the paintings the emptiness and disappointment at the end of the huge party. The viewer seeks closed rooms – as alone, helpless and insecure as the woman in the schoolgirl outfit whose eyes are glued to the floor, or the neo-Bohemian in tails with cigarette, as replaceable, as lost in a world too wide, a society too open. It's a time of helplessness, where utopias, certainties and answers no longer exist.

The young painters went through adolescence in the idyllic prosperity of the 80s, only to witness the collapse of the perfect little world 15 years later. A longing for safety, for romantic ideas is inherent to this generation of the helpless; at the zenith of individualisation they long for social ties and communio, for communication and companionship. These young painters work with these longings on the assumption that everyone else feels them too. Their paintings tell of standstill, of a life endured, of living with the unreasonable demands of absent certainties, of the collapse of a stabilising order, of waiting for something vague. A quiet, faint-hearted critique of the status quo. They are too exhausted and deflated for any revolutionary primal screaming.

Matthias Weischer "Egyptian House". Courtesy The Saatchi Gallery.

With all the bleakness of Kaurismäki, Matthias Weischer spells out the claustrophobic narrowness of our living spaces, a world in which only pinball machines remain, and he tells of the expulsion of mankind from consumer paradise - you can almost hear the elegiac strains of Tom Waits sunk over his piano in the background. Ruckhäberle, the son of a dramaturge and a teacher, the embodiment of the dying race of the artist from the educated classes in the chill-out epoch, depicts people who've become redundant. He paints dandyish youths or men in shorts, his women are Fontanesque Effi Briests, or pop-sock wearing and shamelessly exposed. The archaic as emergency housing in technological late modernity, pure nudity as the naked truth about the personnel of a disillusioned nomadic lifestyle without volition or reality. These figures have nothing to say, nothing to say to each other. Their mouths, if they have them are a streak of paint. The lips closed without fail. The figures are motionless. They don't breathe. They don't sweat. They are aware of nothing because they don't think anything is real.

Like society itself, the Leipzig painters are predominantly disinterested in socio-critical connections and agit-prop statements. You might even go so far as to say (although it's not really that far) that this Young German Painting is a form of Kraut Art. That it's an aesthetic which springs from the cliche of Germanness and translates the wafting mysticism and Nibelungy mistiness of Germanic culture - something that's not identifiable as East or West - into the present day.

You can find it forlorn or neat. But the real question is whether the images point to the meaning or the nonsense of the present?

Saxony's panel paintings reflect the betrayed dreams of the individuals of today's western world. The environment has gone awry, the promise of happiness broken. Just as Ruckhäberle's young women standing in front of the mirror on the wall are doubled in their melancholy as they stare into nothingness. Just as Weischer's clammy rooms full of lostness imply a loss. Just as Tiepelmann's running and falling hounded people arrive only at broken bridges. Narratives release emotions. So part of the New Leipzig School is about art of the heart rather than the cerebral cortex.

It would seem that these contemporaries of the fun society paint its dark side and all its ruptures so appealingly that they talk to the metaphysically homeless from the soul. If you put it all together, you can venture the theory that the brand name Leipzig is an umbrella for young men and women who sense and process the radically altered habits of seeing and perceiving. They themselves are children of the post modern consumer society and digital capitalism. Digital has replaced analogue perception which was trained in the perception of real objects. From a young age, digitally socialised youth get their experience from media mediation overkill, television, computer, Internet, chip and quote. Perhaps the Leipzig artists and collectors from New York and Miami are kindred spirits after all. Because the latter have been living through and absorbing this paradigm shift for much longer than the Europeans. Even the generation of million dollar heavyweight collectors grew up with the visual props of advertising, film, television and Internet iconography. The Leipzig hype was generated outside and now the Germans are waking up to it.

"Dienstwagen" / "Elephant". By Johannes Tiepelmann. Courtesy Spinnerei galerie.

, as a painter of a new generation of network kids and already a counterpart to Ruckhäberle or Weischer, spells out the global cultural change most radically, an inquisitive collage maker who connects the heterogeneous with the paintbrush. In his detail-crazy, heavily loaded images, he blends science fiction with classical modernism. He is one of those painters who have come out of the graffiti scene, who had comics to teach them about the world, who tick along to hip hop and trained their aesthetic senses in the electronic music scene. For Tiepelmann, and the rest of them, Ostalgie (nostalgia for East Germany) plays no role. Broken families and the longing for love are not limited to Saxony. Now, if not before, all criticism of gloom and doom seems redundant.

A person like Tiepelmann shouts his doubts back into the world. Not as a revolutionary. Not as an agitator. Not as an ideologist. It is a cry in the silence. With or without all the hype, that's basically what defines the Leipzig narrative painters: they rehearse a silent revolt against the noise of meaningless everyday life. They offer a poetic sanctuary to seamlessly networked ubiquitousness. It is an aesthetic rather than political system critique. It's mostly pleasant to the eye. But it's not a miracle.


The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on July 21, 2005.

Christian Schüle is a journalist for Die Zeit.

Many thanks to the Zach Feuer Gallery in New York, the Spinnerei Galerie in Leipzig and the Saatchi Gallery in London for providing us with photographs of the artists' work.

Translation: lp

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