American art collectors are currently in a "feeding frenzy" for any painting coming out of the so-called New Leipzig School. Members of this school all attended the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst where they learned to paint in the figurative tradition. The New York Times had an adulatory article on the New Leipzig School which will no doubt help push the prices into the stratosphere. The relative isolation of Leipzig - especially during the DDR years - insulated the original painters from Western fads and today contributes to the mystique of the School.
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."
I have always been a fan of the Weimar Sachlichkeit of Max Beckmann, but I don't see much of his influence on the New Leipzig School. The rock star of the school - Neo Rauch - seems to be far more influenced by Honnecker-like Socialist Realism, which he cleverly combines with American surrealist-kitsch. His paintings therefore have a surface enigmatic quality which substitutes for profundity.
The novelty of his compositions and the desolation of the east German settings must seem quite exotic to the American collectors. Perhaps they also see an echo of the American Edward Hopper, although Rauch never comes close to evoking the sense of loneliness and alienation that Hopper mastered. If Rauch is representative of the New Leipzig School, then it must be labeled a retrograde movement: technical proficiency, muted colors, abandonment of social engagement - an art of resignation.
But I wonder whether the label New Leipzig School is just a brand invented by the art dealers in Berlin and New York City - a very clever marketing ploy. Because there really is not that much that the painters in the School have in common.
Christoph Tanner wrote about this last year in Freitag:
Wenn man heute wieder von "der" "Leipziger Schule" spricht, dann kann das natürlich leicht zu Missverständnissen führen. Denn es muss gefragt werden: Welche Leipziger Schule ist gemeint? Die von Bernhard Heisig oder die von Arno Rink, die von Hartwig Ebersbach und seinen Versuchen offener intermedialer Arbeit oder die von Volker Stelzmann, der nach seinem Abgang in den Westen an der Berliner Hochschule der Künste (heute UdK) seine malerischen Impulse gehobener mönchischer Düsternis weiterhin international verbreitet. Oder meinen wir das neo-renaissancistische Ideal von Werner Tübke, dem es gefiel, einerseits seine persönlichen Kontakte ins Headquarter der Diktatur des Proletariats zu pflegen und andererseits durch sein Herumturnen auf der Zeitachse die Provinzfunktionäre in die Verwirrung zu treiben?
Die Idee der Leipziger Schule war bereits zu DDR-Zeiten ein Hirngespinst und sie ist es heute, wo die LIGA-Abkömmlinge den besten Beweis dafür liefern, keine stilistische oder konzeptionelle Gruppenidentität zu haben. Der kleinste gemeinsame Nenner war: sie malen - mehr oder weniger gegenständlich.
The younger artists identified with the School have shown a great deal of promise. Tim Eitel (b. 1971) places contemporary figures in abstract landscapes, with a very powerful effect. Often the paintings are self-referential - depicting contemplating paintings in a museum:
My personal favorite is David Schnell (b. 1971 in Cologne) who finds beauty in ruined landscapes, and seems to be particularly influenced by photography.
"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. "
Once the hype subsides and the New York galleries move on to the next fad, it will be interesting to see what remains of the New Leipzig School. My guess is that individual painters such as Schnell and Eitel will endure - while the "School" recedes as a historical footnote.