Imaginative Collaborations: Rauch & Loy at the Bayreuth Festival – by David Molesky
Neo Rauch: ‘The Blue’, 2006, Oil on canvas, 300 x 400 cm, Private Collection
Artists Neo Rauch and Rosa Loy, who have been married since 1985, have collaborated together over the past five years to design costumes and sets for a production of Richard Wagner’s opera Lohengrin, which premiered at this year’s Bayreuth Festival. Both successful artists in their own right, they have painted alongside each other at their studios in a former cotton mill warehouse in Leipzig, Germany. They described their recent collaborations as “easier than driving in the car together.”
Both Rauch and Loy are leading figures of the “New School of Painting in Leipzig,” and they share the common objective to re-enchant the world. Roy exclusively uses casein paint to create whimsical narratives that focus on feminine figures interacting with surreal spaces. Rauch’s work appears to be a technicolor Umpa-lumpa land populated by Gary Larson proportioned figures who dress in 18th century Dutch fashion in a landscape dotted with industrial remains. Both painters emerged into prominence following the unification of Germany and are largely influenced by this event. Their paintings contain a hint of Communist Social Realism that has been infiltrated with candy-like colors found in the advertisements of Western Capitalism.
In 2012, Wagner’s great grand-daughter Catarina Wagner invited Rauch to design the production of Lohengrin to be performed at the Wagner Shrine: the annual Bayreuth Festival. Catarina had the hunch that Rauch and Loy’s aesthetic would translate well into the fairytale where a knight in shining armor is ferried across a lake by giant swans to save the day in a small kingdom. Thinking that six years seemed far off, Rauch agreed to take on the project.
Rauch and Loy made the decision to not take in visual information from past opera productions. They wanted to allow the music alone to guide them in the creation of their visuals. Rauch describes his process of listening to the music with his eyes closed: “There is a danger you might fall asleep for a moment. But then these inner pictures arise the moment when perception fades away. It’s a sort of assisted dreaming.”
Rauch proclaims that most of the imagery for his paintings come from dreams. He has long trusted intuition over rational thinking as the source inspiration for his imagination. In reflection of the work he created for his exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2007, Rauch states, “I realized that I was much more interested in those ‘visions from the Witches Circle’ in my studio than I was in coming up with things in a purely thematic way. Calling them ‘visions’ reflects my personality—they precede inspiration and spring from the moment when internal images appear at the prompting of intellectual decisions. I have no choice but to accept everything that I discover in this way.”
From the initial inspirations in which he approaches the canvas coming from dreams and visions, Rauch then enters a kind of trance flow state during his working process. He states, “I view the process of painting as an extraordinarily natural form of discovering the world, almost natural as breathing. Outwardly it is almost entirely without intention. It is predominantly limited to the process of a concentrated flow. I am deliberately neglecting to contemplate all of the catalytic influences that would have the power to undermine the innocence of this approach because I would like to express a degree of clarity in these lines by way of example. I view myself as a kind of peristaltic filtration system in the river of time …”
For this project Rauch and Loy aimed their visionary abilities into the musical score and basic plot of Lohengrin. After basically listening to the opera on repeat, Rauch settled undeniably that the overall color of the opera is Delft Blue, that bright ballpoint pen blue that decorates the otherwise white porcelain of Holland. As in painting compositions, the overall color scheme carries a powerful initial impact and shapes its mood and overall feeling. Rauch said that once it was clear that Lohengrin was blue the rest of the details fell into place.
Interestingly enough, Rauch discovered some months after deciding upon blue that Nietzsche had also penned an observation that the color of the opera Lohengrin is blue. It is not surprising that they would arrive at the same conclusion. Rauch is very much an artist who is rooted in the historic landscape of the German state of Saxony, which Wagner and Nietzsche also hail from. It is as if Rauch’s dreamed compositions bloom from the rich artistic and intellectual soils of the region. He has stated that he sees his work carrying on the work of the Romantic artists, in particular the great Romantic poet Novalis
At the end of the opera in the third act, Gottfried, who is the protagonist Elsa’s lost brother, re-appears. Traditionally it is revealed that he had been transformed by the witch Ortrud into one of the swans that pulls Lohengrin’s boat. But in Rauch and Loy’s version Gottfried, who has essentially been living in the forest comes back to society as a Green Man, a mythological figure of old Europe. The particular look of this Green Man, clad in a suit of astroturf, was based on a small painting that Rauch made after seeing the figure in a dream.
Rauch interfaces his personal history with the history of the region in a way that is beyond methods of rational thinking, sorted out by his subconscious in dreams that assign visual representations that speak through metaphor. Herein lies the method of Rauch’s imagination as well as the imaginative process of others. The imagination that we can share with others is basically that which we can take away from the inner world of visions, a realm which all humans have access to.