Still, the experience had left Rauch wary. Shortly after “Der Anbräuner” sold, Rauch pulled out of a show in Leipzig that was to have been one of his largest exhibitions in his native land in a decade. Rauch sometimes speaks of his art as a peristaltic filtration system that pulls in everything around him, and lately there had been so much political dirt in circulation that caution seemed advisable. “Among my New Year’s resolutions is not to comment on political issues!” he wrote to me in January, and it took many months to persuade him to speak again. “I’ll coöperate with this profile under one condition,” he said at one point. “You send James Thurber to do my portrait.”
At night, Rauch sometimes lies awake with a feeling of being pursued by figures from whatever he’s working on. He paints entirely from imagination and says that his paintings have their origin in waking dreams. These images become a scaffolding on which he builds, by turns instinctively and cerebrally, letting the picture develop on the canvas. When I visited him at home in July, he looked haggard, having had a particularly disturbed sleep, but on this occasion there was an additional factor: a techno party nearby. “The only thing worse than techno for sleep is bad techno,” he said.
The house where Rauch and Loy have lived for the past twenty years is large but unimposing, situated on the southern outskirts of Leipzig. Nearby, a Communist-era lignite mine has been reclaimed as lakes and woodland, 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. Enclosed in bushes in the front garden stood a large statue Rauch had made of one of his centaurs, dressed like an office worker and wearily carrying two jerricans of gasoline, recurrent objects in his work. We sat with coffee at a worn wooden table under cherry trees in the garden. Rauch and Loy don’t paint on weekends and instead spend their time gardening, mostly growing potatoes and other vegetables. “You could say we are ‘preppers,’ ” he said, smiling at having hit on a slightly ridiculous English term. Rauch feels deeply rooted in the state of Saxony. “It may sound esoteric,” he told me, “but I happen to believe in telluric forces, and that you have a connection to the place where you came into the world.”
Saxony has been at the forefront of German painting for centuries. Caspar David Friedrich, the signal painter of German Romanticism, made his career there. The small court that ruled Saxony held its own culturally against the rest of the country, and its two largest cities, Leipzig and Dresden, have the museums and the academies to show for it. Much of the core of German Expressionism emerged from this background, including Max Beckmann, who was born in Leipzig, and Otto Dix and George Grosz, both of whom passed through the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts.
But the cities have also been considered 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 clueless”), because it was one of the few areas that West German radio waves didn’t reach, and the Saxon accent is still roundly mocked in the rest of the country. The success of the new German right in Saxony has given a darker tinge to such regional rivalries, and the repercussions have been felt in the cultural world. A few years ago, another target of Ullrich’s, the writer Uwe Tellkamp—whose 2008 novel, “The Tower” (a virtuosic G.D.R. version of “Buddenbrooks”), had made him an international publishing phenomenon—became persona non grata in German literary circles after he criticized Angela Merkel’s refugee policies as dishonest.
Tellkamp is on friendly terms with Rauch, and has subsequently published a novella based on him and the Leipzig art scene. When I talked to Ullrich, he spoke of both men as products of a peculiarly East German pride. “You have to understand that Rauch has an attitude that only in the East did they learn 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 have insulated their world view with the sense of their own majesty. They look with a kind of pity on artists who dabble in concepts or who cocoon themselves in theory. They don’t want to explain anything.”
Rauch’s studio is in an old cotton mill in a former workers’ district in the west of the city, and he likes to bicycle there from his home. The taxi-driver who drove me to the studio commented on how much Rauch’s paintings sold for and joked sourly that he was single-handedly responsible for rising rents in the city. (“Some people apparently preferred it when the whole district smelled of piss,” Rauch said when I mentioned this.)
I rode a freight elevator up to the top floor and went through a pair of unmarked metal doors. When I entered, Broken Social Scene was blasting from a stereo. I asked if I was disturbing him. “Everything disturbs me,” he said. He seemed to mean it, but not in a rude way—more as if this were an affliction he suffered from—and in his resigned tone there was a hint of self-mockery. A small pug named Smylla was pacing around the room. “We partly chose her for her size, since she fits on the basket of my bicycle,” he said. In one of Smylla’s several beds in the studio, I noticed a toy replica of her.
The room was cavernous and had the feeling of being half studio, half gym, with a punching bag hanging from the ceiling. “I imagine it’s the face of my critics,” Rauch said, with a smile that seemed to concede the predictability of the line. Behind him, four canvasses stood in various states of near-completion. In another, a winged man was supine on a table and being operated on: it was difficult to tell whether the wings were being torn off or stitched on. “Angels are important,” Rauch said cryptically.
He looked a little less groomed than when I’d seen him at the gallery; his face was bronzed from a recent vacation in the South Tyrol and sprouting scrubs of beard. We sat at a worktable next to a small kitchen, where he and Loy, whose studio is next door, break for lunch each day. Loy is one of the few people Rauch takes criticism from, but they have a rule that each will offer an opinion only if solicited by the other.
“Coffee, water, vodka?” Rauch asked. We opted for vodka. “Good,” Rauch said. “That will loosen my tongue.”
High up on one wall of the studio is a photograph of Rauch’s mother. When Rauch was five weeks old, his parents, both art students at the academy in Leipzig, were killed, in a train derailment outside the city’s main station. “My mother was nineteen, my father was twenty-one,” Rauch said. “The state was set up 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 midsize town of Aschersleben. The family kept photographs of Rauch’s parents and some of their art around the house. “They were integrated into my upbringing, and we spoke of them often,” Rauch said.
“When you have a tragedy like mine in the background, people tend to treat you tenderly,” he told me. “I wanted to be like other children, but the tragedy hovered.” He remembers older people whispering about the terrible thing that had happened to him, even though he didn’t himself feel the full force of the event.
At around the age of sixteen, Rauch found a book about the Los Angeles architect Richard Neutra in a stall in Aschersleben, and went home and drew up designs for his own houses. Listening to British rock on the radio, he dreamed of the West. “It was this great blue promise on the horizon,” he told me. “And I would be going there someday.”
Life in the East entailed deprivations, but for a future artist there were also resources. One of the ironies of East German Communism is that it consecrated many of the bourgeois rituals and institutions of German culture—piano lessons, choir practice, drawing schools, classical prose—that suffered in West Germany during the upheavals of the sixties.