The most dazzling of the Leipzig school of figurative artists talks about his mysterious paintings

Once upon a time in east Germany, two beautiful young art students had a baby boy. A month later they were killed in a train crash. The orphan was raised by his grandparents in a mountain village, and spent his days drawing and painting. As early as he could, he set off to the city to become an artist. Initially "a pariah, humiliated, ridiculed by curators and ignored by collectors", he began to enjoy success as east Germany grew more prosperous and outward-looking, and his career went global when he was hailed in New York as "the painter who came in from the cold". His first exhibition in London opened this week.

That is the life story of Neo Rauch, most dazzling of the Leipzig school of figurative artists who emerged in the decade after the Berlin Wall came down. Even his name, with its implications of a new fire in art—"Rauch" means smoke in German—has mythic overtones, and his large-scale, busy paintings, with arbitrary shifts in scale and skewed perspectives, look like illustrations to fairy tales.

On the walls at David Zwirner gallery there is a giant with fire at his back striding through sulphur skies over castles and chimneys ("Der Brandmeister"), an upside-down unicorn washed up in a market square ("Zustrom"), an ostrich with a human head and another wearing trousers and shoes strutting through a medieval fair ("Forderung") and an assortment of jesters in horned hats, mermaids, angels, windmills and country cottages. Colours are at once fanciful and muted, like those in faded children's picture books. Disquieting scenarios defy realism or even coherent narrative readings but, as in fairy tales, are psychologically convincing and treat life's big themes: destiny, endeavour, power, betrayal, fear.

In person Rauch, 56, tall, handsome with classical features and a sober, thoughtful manner, does not disappoint. In a purple painting called "Der Auftakt", where the still, urgently engaged figure of a painter sits at an easel amid crumpling towers, musicians clashing cymbals and a winged man in top hat, I think I see a self-portrait. Surfaces are lively, beams of light strike the figures, giving a baroque dynamism and clarity, yet something about the stagy monumentality also brings to mind the awkward clunky heroes of socialist realism.

I ask Rauch where his images come from, and he looks immediately anxious.

"Who knows? It's better not to know! It's not easy to replenish the stock of images within."

Rauch works alone "from my inner ground", painting directly on to panels, with no preparatory drawing, and "develops a kind of centre, a glowing point, from which the energy waves stream out and force me to act. There is a point where the picture is itself and has a kind of existence as a creature. Then comes the stage where I am just a craftsman: I have to decide how tall this figure should be, for example."

He points to a burly character in a pronged hat in the fantastical magenta and green "Der Störfall", starring a beanstalk, torch-bearers, a cloaked figure with a camera. Why the costume drama?

"I'm trying to find a way to bring my figures in safely. They are in a certain sense contemporary, but through costumes that are out of time, I try to protect them from overbearing contemporary influence, from people who bring their own interpretations—for example, political meanings. On the other hand you can feel the impact of my preoccupations." He mentions among these the Brothers Grimm and Wagner's Lohengrin.

When Rauch presented narrative paintings at his first show, in Leipzig in 1993, it was "a commercial disaster, no one was interested in painting, it was installation and video that was hot". But painting since childhood had been "my way of appropriating the world, my playing, and I stuck with it." At art school in the German Democratic Republic, figurative painting was the norm, as throughout the former Soviet bloc.

"It was the opposite of the spirit of enforced modernisation in the west, it was the old-fashioned way of education, that was obviously good, because at that time in the west painting was declared to be dead. Max Beckham, born in Leipzig, was always one of our idols in art school. Socialist realism hadn't been a subject since the 1950s, it was very much freer there than was imagined from the outside, with the exception that non-figurative painting had no influence. That made Leipzig unique and great."

The hinterland of dowdy provincial former eastern Germany is palpable in his eerie atmospheres, within a sophisticated international language drawing on Beckham's expressionist mythologies and surrealism’s disjunctions of scale and context. At a time of global over-homogeneity, his popularly may stem from the distinctiveness of the local approach. His work seems to me emphatically German.

"What's German is a certain absence of elegance," he agrees. "Dürer was not elegant either. And there's a certain inward-lookingness, soulfulness. I have come to terms with a kind of fossilised way of looking—like a dinosaur."

Out of time is also timeless, I venture.

"It is about trying to make timeless pieces, but it's only a try, not a guarantee." He shows me the final, most recently completed, weirdest work in the show, "Das Gegenüber" ("The Opposite"). In a pinkish-brown tonality, two heads, one with horned ears, the other with a beard tapering into horns, confront each other across a table. The first is a puppeteer, animating a pair of glove puppets to fight with swords across the face of the second. "That may indicate an inside struggle he has to fight," explains Rauch. "It's about splitting in two. The German word for doubt is 'Zweifel'—it contains the word 'two' ('Zwei'). Nothing is as it seems to be. These are not nonsensical paintings, they can't be interpreted just in any way, they are based on a stringent meaning."

Then this articulate, fraught, original painter apologises for "speaking in a halting way" about compositions which "I've painted, and I think their origins are based on an internal logic, outside cerebral aspects. Painting is to me a second skin, everything I want to express has to come through this skin."

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The Financial Times, artist interview by Jackie Wullschlager

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