In the old Saxon city of Leipzig, art rivals soccer in
excitement. Aficionados swoop down in their private jets for gallery
openings. Collectors, critics, curators, and tourists on buses make
regular stops at what is fast becoming a mecca in the art world. At
the heart of the fuss: the Leipzig Art Academy in the former East
Academic art used to mean staid and stuffy. Now it means hot and
hip, at least when it comes to works by graduates from the Academy.
A traveling exhibition, "Life after Death: New Leipzig Paintings
from the Rubell Family Collection" - on display at the Katzen Arts
Center of American University in Washington, D.C., until Oct. 29 -
showcases work by seven artists. What's being called "the Leipzig
School of Painting" is "the first bona fide art phenomenon of the
21st century," says Laura Heon, the exhibition's co-curator.
Going against the grain of art world trends for photography and
video art, the Leipzigers tell compelling stories in paint - but
with a twist. Their moody landscapes, urban scenes, and interiors
with an unsettling, film-noir sensibility - executed with consummate
craftsmanship - distort realism into a twilight zone of millennial
The attention sparked by this show and a 2005 exhibition at the
Cleveland Museum of Art ignited "absolutely insane" demand for these
works, says Ms. Heon.
Both the Cleveland and Washington shows focus on six German
painters in their early 30s: Tilo Baumgaertel, Tim Eitel, Martin
Kobe, Christoph Ruckhaeberle, David Schnell, and Matthias Weischer,
as well as epic works by their mentor, Neo Rauch. What unites these
painters is their rigorous training in the age-old craft of painting
at the venerable Leipzig Academy and the fact that, after
graduating, they chose to work in Leipzig, hardly the center of the
A mecca for art pilgrims
Leipzig's status is changing. Collectors Don and Mera Rubell of
Miami, and Michael Ovitz of Los Angeles (whose Ovitz Family
Collection loaned works for Cleveland's show) bought works by these
painters around 2003, followed more recently by Charles Saatchi of
Since these high-profile collectors are considered bellwethers of
buzz in contemporary art, their interest jump-started a "ridiculous
buying frenzy," according to Mark Coetzee, director of the Rubell
Family Collection and co-curator of the traveling show. Leipzig
became a destination for art lovers. Tourists and buyers visit a
former cotton-spinning factory, the Spinnerai, an abandoned ruin in
1992 but now home to 80 professional artists' studios and a dozen
galleries, according to Torsten Reiter, director of the Maerzgalerie
The scene wasn't always hopping. When the young painters chose to
study in Leipzig about a dozen years ago, they bucked a stream of
traffic surging the other way. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in
1989, about a third of Leipzig's population decamped. Factories
closed, unemployment soared, and workers' subsidized apartment units
were shuttered. It resembled a ghost town, but amid the desolation
was opportunity. Artists could afford huge studios where they could
work without distraction and survive on next to nothing.
The Leipzig painters also swam against the current of fashion.
Under the Communist regime, the state required painters to produce
uplifting, socialist-realist art glorifying the "workers' paradise."
Leipzig ignored Western trends such as new media work, conceptual
art, and installations. At the Academy, students took seven years of
studio-based courses, while many Western art schools turned away
from teaching traditional skills.
"Leipzig has long been a holy place of figurative art, a fortress
against abstract art," says Berlin critic Tom Mustroph. …