Today my students and I journeyed to one of the must-see sites in Leipzig: the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei. The site bears ample witness to Leipzig’s historical importance as a center for German industry. A Baumwollspinnerei is a “cotton spinning plant.” The Leipzig Baumwollspinnerei dates from 1884. During the late 19th-early 20th century, this cotton mill was the largest in continental Europe. At its peak in 1907, the mill employed as many as 4,000 people and housed 240,000 cotton spindles used to process cotton into thread. The Spinnerei exemplified industrial era social experimentation, with many workers living in factory-owned apartments and shopping at factory-owned stores on site. Across Spinnereistrasse is a Kleingarten community which once served as a location for workers to plant their own vegetable gardens. On the other side of the mill one could cross the street to get to a cemetery–a sort of cradle-to-grave community, as it were.
The mill continued in operation until shortly after German reunification, closing its doors in 1993. Shortly after closing it reopened temporarily as a factory for the creation of tire cord (for making automobile tires). More recently, the Spinnerei exemplifies the ways that industrial cities like Leipzig can repurpose industrial space, revitalizing areas of urban decay in the city that are ripe for vandalism. The Spinnerei now serves as a sort of artists haven in the city. Where female workers once labored over industrial machines spinning out thread, avant-garde artists now rent space for commercial art studios, and the Spinnerei maintains 12 galleries with art for sale. The Spinnerei is home to nearly 120 independent artists practicing their craft. On site one of the major art supply distributors has set up what is undoubtedly the largest art materials store I’ve ever seen. It literally takes up the entire first floor of what was once a massive factory. Most impressive.
The Spinnerei is an important site for the art community in Leipzig, serving as the primary home for some of the most important artists connected to what art marketers call the Neue Leipziger Schule (“New Leipzig School”). Our tour guide noted that the artists themselves are wary of labels like this, preferring to identify themselves as independent artists crafting their own unique art. Nonetheless, the label has played an important role in popularizing local artists. Neo Rauch is widely known, selling paintings for as much as €750,000 to celebrities like Leonardo Dicaprio and Brad Pitt. While none of Rauch’s paintings were on sale when we arrived (and he was busy at work in his studio and thus not accessible to the public), the tour guide did show us a painting by another artist that he encouraged us (repeatedly!) to purchase for only €140,000. If we buy in bulk we might even get our paintings at a discount. Heheheh.
Today was one of those moments that I wish my ACU colleague and friend Dan McGregor was in Leipzig to help me take in everything. Dan is an artist and has both a keen aesthetic sense and a deep knowledge of art history. I would have loved to walk through the galleries with him. He has a way of helping people see things they might otherwise miss (Word to ACU students: anytime you are debating whether to take Professor McGregor for a course, the answer is always Yes). Anyway, I did some research on the New Leipzig School and came across this description of the distinctiveness of the art one will find here. I appreciate the attention to how broader sociopolitical currents have shaped the distinctive features of Leipzig artists:
The New Leipzig School refers to a group of male painters who studied together at the Art Academy in Leipzig (one of the major city centers of the German Democratic Republic) during the early 1990s. (The term was popularized during the early 2000s, when American collectors Don and Mera Rubell began to acquire work by Neo Rauch, Martin Kobe, Matthias Weischer, and their peers.) The category New Leipzig School does not refer to a movement, but to an affiliation of students who came of age as artists in a newly reunited Germany and whose practices were formed by the history of that place as well as the history of painting in that place. Generally, the character of East German art changed very little during the years of the Iron Curtain; the government’s clampdown on its citizens’ exposure to the cultural developments and artistic output of Western Europe—as well the heavy censorship it imposed on artists—wielded significant influence on both art training and art-making, such that the ascendance of Abstract Expressionism in Western Europe and North America seemed to have had no bearing on Eastern Bloc painting, which remained figurative and grounded in realism, resistant even to later movements such as Minimalism and Conceptualism. Thus, art academies including Leipzig’s remained rooted in 19th century teaching conventions, with curriculums that emphasized figure drawing, formal analysis of composition and perspective, draftsmanship, and color theory well into the 1990s.
That the New Leipzig School artists were educated by painters brought up in this traditional climate is borne out in the works they have produced, which are both figurative and evince extreme technical proficiency. Their compositions are often stylized, featuring a color palate and iconography reminiscent of Socialist Realism or nodding to classic modernism through complicated and detailed recreations of 1950s and 60s architecture and interiors. There is also a strong an emphasis on narrative, which is conveyed through surreal tableaux that seem almost theatrical, and are often tinged with melancholy. However, it is important to note that, unlike schools of art such as De Stijl or Fluxus, there is no stated social, political, or aesthetic philosophy or agenda that these works were conceived to advance.
The picture above is Neo Rauch’s Quiz (2002), part of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles’s collection. The museum’s commentary on the painting:
Neo Rauch’s painterly vocabulary draws heavily from Surrealism, Socialist Realism, and Pop; he often employs a muted midcentury palette to render overall-clad workmen or industrial machinery reminiscent of the communist advertisements and propaganda of East Germany, where he was born. In Quiz, a trio sits behind a desk in a modernist room whose window gives a view of the Bavarian-style architecture outside. On the floor in front of them, a man holds his head in his hand, frustrated or despondent in an attempt, it seems, to assemble a strange looking contraption whose parts lay scattered about the room. As critic Eleanor Heartney wrote, “Rauch’s disjunctive narrative suggests a culture whose comforting order has been shaken apart by unseen and unfathomable forces and subjected to a new logic whose outlines remain obscure…an apt response to the post-Cold War world.
The Spinnerei is quite a site. One could spend hours walking from studio to studio, with many artists inviting passersby in to see their new art, and hopefully purchase some for themselves.