A new exhibition at the Rochester Art Center gives us a chance to look at the work of German artist Tim Eitel, one of the leading exponents of a group of artists known as the “New Leipzig School” of painting. The group got its name from the fact that the members all attended the Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts in the 1990’s. While the members of the New Leipzig School paint works which often differ substantially from one another, and they are not strictly realist images per se, there is a certain sense in looking at their work that that they are building upon the past history of examining realism in Western Art and branching out from that tradition, rather than cutting themselves off from it. Now in their 30’s and 40’s, this group of German artists produces interesting, often highly accomplished examples of actual figurative painting, showing that not everything in the contemporary art world consists in the display of detritus from the bathroom wastepaper bin spread on a floor underneath a video screen of a woman reciting a grocery list in Sanskrit. (Ooops, I’ve just previewed Tracey Emin’s latest work of “art”.)
Eitel is among the more prominent members of the New Leipzig School, and it is not difficult to see why. If the 20th century Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte had studied under the 15th century Florentine painter Fra Angelico, his work might have looked something like Eitel’s. It is paradoxically both flat and three-dimensional, giving a sense of space and depth through the simplification of shapes almost to the point of abstraction, and yet at the same time allowing us to recognize figures placed into various degrees of recognizable settings.
Perhaps because of his experience in a very gray East Germany, Eitel is often most effective when he uses his signature limitation of detail in combination with a gray and neutral color palette. His figures are frequently shown from behind, engaged in activity or in thoughts which we are not privileged to share. And when his figures are turned toward the viewer, their features are often highly simplified, or represented merely with hints of shadow.
Because Eitel is a painter with an aesthetic owing much to the world of design and photography, his work may seem by some to be cold, geometric, and lifeless. Yet I find it an expression of a modern understanding of image which at the same time hearkens back to the study of composition and the effects of palette and light upon a finished work, of art. While Eitel has in many respects made his name among collectors and curators for his often rather dark paintings and prints, his understanding of how intense light can both illuminate and flatten at the same time reminds me not only of the Surrealists, but also of those exponents of the Italian Renaissance who were trying to bring greater realism to their work without quite being able to break out of the two-dimensional point of view that had dominated much of Medieval painting.
Take Eitel’s engaging 2003 oil “Hill”, now in a private American collection. On a hillside sometime around twilight we see a young man with his hands clasped behind his back, who has probably been out for a stroll. For some reason he has paused, and is looking down at the viewer, who appears to be standing a distance below him on the hillside. We do not know what we have done to momentarily capture his attention, but clearly we now have it. Despite the fact that all is quiet and still, it is an image which suggests a forthcoming dynamism, as a result of the undulating crest of the hill, and the sense of paused motion on the part of the young man walking across it.
Eitel’s prints are equally fascinating. Take for example his 2010 work “Monks”, showing a group of three men, one in a hooded religious habit and the other two in cassocks, who are looking at something which we do not see. The balding monk on the right is gesticulating, while the priest in the center is holding what appears to be a sheet of paper behind his back; he and the taller priest on the right appear to be listening to what the balding monk is explaining to them. We are left wondering what they are talking about : perhaps the fellow on the right is explaining the plans for a new building, which are held by the priest in the middle, and they are trying to imagine what the finished project will ultimately look like.
If Eitel’s priests preserve their anonymity by not showing us their faces, Eitel’s policemen do so by not really having faces at all. In his “Professionals” print from 2008, Eitel shows a tall police officer with his hands in his jacket pockets, looking out over his left shoulder at something we cannot see. His partner is a short police officer who stands at the ready with his hands at his sides, facing directly at the viewer, in a stance that calls to mind the gunfighter of the Old West. Are they standing outside on a wet pavement, or are they standing on a polished museum or office building floor? Eitel does not give us answers, but allows us to think for ourselves.
The reason I appreciate Eitel’s work is that the detachment of the painter and the anonymity of the subject are elements which mirror the times in which we live. For rather than strictly trying to revisit and live in the past, Eitel takes a long, hard look at the world he lives in. We are so often pushed about in crowds, whether by transit systems, marketers, or nanny states, that our individuality is often lost in the crush of larger forces. Eitel recognizes that even though we find it difficult to perceive our own individual features clearly any more, they are still there, albeit illumined only dimly.