Yet the experience had left Rauch suspicious. Shortly after the sale of “Der Anbräuner”, Rauch withdrew from an exhibition in Leipzig which was to be one of his biggest exhibitions in his native country in a decade. Rauch sometimes speaks of his art as a peristaltic filtration system that sucks up everything around it, and lately there had been so much political filth in circulation that caution seemed advisable. “One of my New Year’s resolutions is not to comment on political issues! he wrote to me in January, and it took several months to persuade him to speak again. “I will cooperate with this profile on one condition,” he said at one point. “You send James Thurber to do my portrait. “
At night, Rauch sometimes stays awake feeling like he’s being chased by characters from whatever he’s working on. He paints entirely by imagination and says his paintings have their origin in daydreams. These images become a scaffolding on which he builds, in turn instinctively and cerebrally, letting the image develop on the canvas. When I visited him at his home in July, he looked haggard, having had a particularly disturbed sleep, but on this occasion there was an added factor: a techno party nearby. “The only thing worse than techno for sleeping is bad techno,” he said.
The house where Rauch and Loy have lived for the past twenty years is large but modest, located on the southern outskirts of Leipzig. Nearby, a Communist-era lignite mine has been turned into lakes and timber, and the house, set back from the road, is hidden in overgrown foliage, making it feel more isolated from the world than it actually is. Locked in bushes in the front garden stood a large statue that Rauch had made of one of his centaurs, dressed as an office worker and wearily carrying two jerry cans of gasoline, recurring objects in his work. We sat with coffee on a worn wooden table under the cherry trees in the garden. Rauch and Loy don’t paint on weekends and spend their time gardening, growing mostly potatoes and other vegetables. “You could say we’re ‘preppers’,” he said, smiling at finding an English term a little ridiculous. Rauch feels deeply rooted in the Land of Saxony. “It may sound esoteric,” he said to me, “but I happen to believe in telluric forces and you have some connection to where you were born.”
Saxony has been at the forefront of German painting for centuries. Caspar David Friedrich, the painter of the signals of German romanticism, made his career there. The small court that ruled Saxony has culturally defended itself against the rest of the country, and its two largest cities, Leipzig and Dresden, have museums and academies to show for them. Much of the core of German Expressionism emerged from this training, including Max Beckmann, born in Leipzig, and Otto Dix and George Grosz, both graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Dresden.
But the towns were also seen as provincial backwaters by many Germans, especially in the West. During the Cold War, part of Saxony was known as Tal der Ahnungslosen (“Valley of the helpless”), because it was one of the few areas that West German radio waves did not reach, and the Saxon accent is still widely mocked in the rest of the country. The success of the new German right in Saxony clouded these regional rivalries, and the repercussions were felt in the cultural world. A few years ago, another target of Ullrich, the writer Uwe Tellkamp – whose 2008 novel, “The Tower” (a RDA virtuoso version of “Buddenbrooks”), had made him an international publishing phenomenon – is became persona non grata in German literary circles. after criticizing Angela Merkel’s refugee policy as dishonest.
Tellkamp is on good terms with Rauch and subsequently published a short story based on him and the Leipzig art scene. When I spoke to Ullrich, he referred to the two men as products of particularly East German pride. “You must understand that Rauch has an attitude that it was only in the East that they learned what real art was, and what it means to be a great artist, ”he said. “Uwe Tellkamp sees himself as the next Thomas Mann and Rauch sees himself as the new Max Beckmann. They isolated their worldview with a sense of their own majesty. They look with a kind of pity on artists who dabble in concepts or cocoon themselves in theory. They don’t want to explain anything.
Rauch’s workshop is in a former cotton mill in a former working-class neighborhood in the west of the city, and he likes to cycle there from home. The taxi driver who drove me to the studio told me how much Rauch’s paintings sell for and bitterly joked that he was solely responsible for the rise in rents in the city. (“Some people apparently preferred it when the whole neighborhood smelled like piss,” Rauch said when I mentioned this.)
I took a freight elevator to the top floor and walked through a pair of unmarked metal doors. When I walked in, Broken Social Scene was exploding from a stereo. I asked him if I was bothering him. “Everything bothers me,” he said. He seemed to think so, but not in a crass way – more like it was an affliction he was suffering from – and in his resigned tone there was a hint of self-mockery. A little pug named Smylla was pacing the room. “We chose it partly for its size, since it fits on the basket of my bike,” he said. In one of Smylla’s many beds in the studio, I noticed a toy replica of her.
The room was cavernous and felt like part studio, part gym, with a punching bag hanging from the ceiling. “I imagine that’s the face of my detractors,” Rauch said, with a smile that seemed to admit the predictability of the line. Behind him, four canvases stood in various states of near completion. In another, a winged man was lying on a table having surgery: it was difficult to tell if the wings were ripped or sewn up. “Angels are important,” Rauch said cryptically.
He looked a little less polished than when I had seen him in the gallery; his face was tanned from a recent vacation in South Tyrol and budding beard scrubs. We sat at a work table next to a small kitchen, where he and Loy, whose studio is next door, take a lunch break each day. Loy is one of the few people Rauch accepts criticism from, but they have a rule that each will only offer advice if asked by the other.
“Coffee, water, vodka? Rauch asked. We opted for vodka. “Good,” Rauch said. “It’s going to loosen my tongue.”
At the top of a studio wall is a photograph of Rauch’s mother. When Rauch was five weeks old, his parents, both art students at the Leipzig Academy, were killed in a train derailment outside the city’s main station. “My mother was nineteen, my father twenty-one,” Rauch said. “The state was created to have children when you were young. My grandmother was thirty-nine. He grew up with his grandparents, calling them Mother and Father, in the middle town of Aschersleben. The family have kept photographs of Rauch’s parents and some of their art around the house. “They were built into my upbringing and we talked about them a lot,” Rauch said.
“When you have a tragedy like mine in the background, people tend to treat you fondly,” he told me. “I wanted to be like the other children, but the tragedy was hovering. He remembers older people whispering about the terrible thing that had happened to him, even though he himself hadn’t felt the full force of the event.
Around the age of sixteen, Rauch found a book on Los Angeles architect Richard Neutra at a stall in Aschersleben, and returned home and sketched out plans for his own homes. Listening to British rock on the radio, he dreamed of the West. “It was that big blue promise on the horizon,” he told me. “And I would go there someday.”
Life in the East involved hardships, but for a future artist there were also resources. One of the ironies of East German Communism is that it enshrined many rituals and bourgeois institutions of German culture – piano lessons, choral practice, drawing schools, classical prose – which suffered in West Germany during the upheavals of the sixties.