The phenomenal success of “Young German Art” and the new “Leipzig school” on the international art market seems to have surprised everybody. But should it?
"Behind the Rushes", Neo Rauch, 2004
As early as February 2003 David Galloway was describing “young German artists” in the International Herald Tribune as “new media” feeding “painterly fantasy”, as the “antidote of abstraction”, as lending “the tactile substance of painting” to “the fleeting electronic image” – and ultimately “lyrical reprise on the pixel structure of electronic imagery.”
YGA and YBA
Almost two years later, in December 2004, Jonathan Jones was still thundering in Guardian Unlimited that the YGA were just a “pathetic attempt to force German artists into the dated, flag-waving costume of Young British Art”, as “unsuccessful imitations of Jeff Koons” colliding with “unconvincing quotations of pop”.
None of it could help or hinder the international success of the – new – “Leipzig school”, whose canvases command anything from 3,000 to 36,000 per painting, with a waiting list to boot in case the art dealer or collector or curator is after one of the ‘big’ ones: forget Daniel Richter, he’s selling for $ 200,000 while Neo Rauch’s “Grotto” went for $ 390,000 at that auction in New York last fall. So let’s go for Christoph Ruckhäberle, David Schnell, Martin Kobe, Matthias Weischer, Tilo Baumgärtel or Tim Eitel. If you can’t remember the names, just be on the lookout for German artists in their thirties and ask whether they’re from Leipzig, or studied at the College of Graphic Arts there. Whether they’ve studied painting under Professor Arno Rink – of Leipzig – or with his assistant Neo Rauch: that might be a good question. - And if you find an art dealer named Gerd Harry Lybke from Leipzig representing the YGA – well, just book the next canvas. Doesn’t matter whether it’s at the Art Basel in Miami Beach or at the Armory Show in New York, you can’t go wrong. Especially if you’re thinking American, and thinking art, then you’re thinking German.
Old masters and comics
What makes these YGA sell so well, especially in America, or to Americans? One critic described it as pure nostalgia for paint and varnish after all those barren years of video installations and concept art. But it’s also play combined with technical mastery. Highly stylized paintings, where the style is more important than the subject matter, be it socialist workers and filling stations, or realistic figures against abstract backdrops or blonde boys among sand dunes. Realistic spaces filled with surreal symbols, that’s another way of putting it. Or maybe Old Masters who’ve been reading too many comics.
Two professors and an art dealer
But one’s things clear: these boys know how to paint, the “old”, “real” way. Where did they learn to do that? Well, that’s Leipzig, that’s East Germany and “real, existing socialism” and all that. There were these two professors called Arno Rink and Bernhard Heisig who simply kept on teaching their students how to paint even after painting was dead, you know, as in the 90s, that’s after the fall of the Berlin Wall! Neo Rauch was Heisig’s student and Rink’s assistant – and now he’s taking over from Rink, this year, as a matter of fact. Eitel, Ruckhäberle, Schnell, Weischer and others went from West to East to learn painting – the old way – and stayed on in Berlin, mostly, founded a gallery and so on. That’s how the ball got rolling. Then there were exhibitions in Frankfurt and Wolfsburg. Gerd Harry Lybke got wise to this future goldmine for a art dealer and opened a branch called “Eigen+Art” in Berlin, after Leipzig. Then the art dealers’ association of Germany got the idea of putting up signs for the visitors at this New York show so that they’d be able to find their way to “Young German Art”.
Lybke, that’s the man who said: “They’ve simply slept through history in Leipzig. Didn’t give a damn about video art or photography. Simply kept painting as in the good old days of the GDR.” Socialist realism? Yes, in its pop reincarnation, one is almost tempted to say.
“Nobody told them that painting was dead,” Lybke sighed, more in relief, one suspects.