Art History 101 - The New Leipzig School

Mid-1990s - Present

In the middle of the first decade of the 21st Century, the terms "New Leipzig School," "Neue Leipziger Schule" and "YGAs" ("Young German Artists") - all of which refer to the same group of painters - have made ever-larger inroads into visual arts writing. Seemingly out of nowhere and overnight, these artists have become enormously popular and their works highly collectible. But who are they and where did they come from?

Beginnings

Though the New Leipzig School appears to have burst onto the arts scene fully formed, it is the result of many years' worth of training and sprang from two actual schools. The first, labeled the Alte Leipziger Schule ("Old Leipzig School") is a group of artists who were raised, trained and worked professionally during the years of the German Democratic Republic. Because of the political climate and governmental controls, their styles were similar and their training rigidly so. They were popular artists behind that which is known as the "Iron Curtain," though artist and viewer alike interacted under keen Socialist censorship.

As the years passed, many of these same artists became instructors in the second school, Leipzig's Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst (Academy of Visual Arts), a venerable institution in which most of them had taken their training. While the Academy did not operate in a complete artistic vacuum, it was largely immune to new Western trends such as Minimalism, Abstract Expressionism and Conceptual Art.

Instead, it continued to focus on teaching art as it had been taught for centuries, with heavy emphasis on basic draftsmanship, figure drawing, the use of grids, color theory, composition and perspective.

It was at the Academy, under the tutelage of the Alte Leipziger Schule that the East German members of the New Leipzig School long ago learned and honed their craft.

It was to this haven of traditional training that the West German members flocked as quickly as they could after November of 1989. The rest of us simply didn't learn about these painters until well after the ex-Berlin Wall's dust settled.

Collectible Canvases

So Leipzig once again became a German artists' mecca. It had an excellent art school and the city's cost of living expenses were ridiculously low (always a huge bonus for any art student). Students matriculated and, content with the Leipzig scene, stayed around and worked professionally. The only remaining success hurdle came in the form of getting word of their work out to the rest of the world.

This began to change in the mid-1990s, when painter Neo Rauch won a local art prize and started attracting attention. Rauch was soon exhibiting regularly in Leipzig, his work caused talk in broader circles and, eventually, this led to his being offered a solo exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery in New York in 2000 - which, in turn, caused even more talk. His work was new and exciting, everyone said. Were there more painters like him at home?

Gerd Harry Lybke, Director of Galerie EIGEN+ART which he founded in 1983, certainly had an answer for the curious.

Yes, there were more painters in Leipzig. In fact, he represented most of them. An artist's dream, Lybke tirelessly promoted "his" group, refurbished a former industrial facility into a showroom and ateliers, managed finances (no business classes were taught at the Academy) and claims credit for coining the phrase "New Leipzig School" as a marketing strategy.

It was Lybke who shepherded top American collectors Donald and Mera Rubell around Berlin and Leipzig during their 2003 trip, ensuring that they personally met many members of this newly-named New Leipzig School. The Rubells did not leave empty-handed; the sheer quantity of canvases they purchased caused an enormous buzz in the art world. Other collectors quickly began coming to Leipzig in search of (temporarily scarce) works, prices climbed, museum curators got very interested and the rest, as we are fond of saying, is history.

The art market in Leipzig is now something of a marriage of convenience; modern marketing and (literally) old school emphasis on artistic technique have merged to form a comfortable, mutually beneficial union. Though it now also boasts the accouterments befitting an International arts destination, Leipzig remains an artistic haven and training ground. And the cost of living, by the way, is still comparatively low.

Who are the artists in the New Leipzig School?

They are all German and male, and most were born in the 1970s. The "Grand Old Man" (in his 40s, mind you) of the bunch is Neo Rauch. At last count they numbered ten or less, but this figure will surely be augmented.

What are the key characteristics of New Leipzig School art?

  • Works are narrative, meaning there is a story involved. Stories vary from easily grasped to mysterious and vaguely troubling.
  • Works are figurative, meaning they depict recognizable objects as opposed to abstractions. Humans are instantly ID-ed by the viewer as humans, not least because these artists took a lot of Life Drawing classes as art students.
  • Palettes tend to be on the muted side though, because of excellent technique, colors are never muddy. Warmer hues seem to gravitate towards the institutional-looking American kitchen appliance colors of the early 1970s (harvest gold, avocado green and burnt orange). This is, of course, subject to change in time and even now bright spots of blue make an occasional appearance.
  • Technique, technique, technique. This point cannot be stressed heavily enough. Regardless of the subject matter in individual works, the artists' compositional, draftsmanship and painting skills reflect long, long - thousands! - of hours of concentration on and mastery of the basics of technique.
  • The New Leipzigers are less an official movement than they are an affiliation bound loosely together by location, common gallery representation, comparable training and the shared satisfaction of currently being hotter than hot in the art market. However, similar statements could have been made about many past affiliations that are now classified in Art History as official movements. Only time will tell if the same thing happens here, but the smart person wouldn't bet against it.