LEIPZIG, Germany, May 4 (UPI) -- Neo Rauch isn't ready for this.
The acclaimed painter from Leipzig, who grew up behind the Iron Curtain and shot to fame with a 2007 solo exhibition in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, turned 50 last month.
"I take it as an insult because it doesn't correspond with the perception of myself; mentally, I'm in my 60s or 70s. Physically in the early 20s," he told a group of reporters in Leipzig last month.
Munich and his Eastern German hometown Leipzig honor him with the major retrospective "Companion," probably the most exciting exhibition in Germany this year.
The retrospective is a birthday cake sliced in half: Until mid-August, 60 works are on display at the Leipzig Museum der Bildenden Kuenste and 60 in the Munich Pinakothek.
The retrospective features works from the past two decades, many of which have never been on public display. Rauch produced several paintings specifically for the exhibition -- in the Pinakothek, one can actually smell the fresh paint. Other works were loaned to the museums by private collectors from all over the world, mainly the United States.
"Some pictures I haven't seen for 10 years. But they are and will always be my children," said the soft-spoken Rauch as he led a tour of the Leipzig exhibition. "And whether I like it or not, I'm definitely taking stock now."
Rauch shouldn't worry -- he is the undisputed star of the German arts scene. Born in 1960 behind in Communist East Germany, Rauch is the poster boy of the New Leipzig School, a genre that links the artists' Communist education and influences from the West.
The school, which includes younger artists Matthias Weischer, Tilo Baumgartel and Martin Kobe, has become a collectors' phenomenon. Rauch's "Stellwerk", a panoramic canvas interpreting the fall of the Berlin Wall, sold for $1.37 million at a Christie's auction last fall.
"Neo Rauch is an incredible advertisement for Leipzig," said the city's mayor, Burkhard Jung.
The mayor needs Rauch to boost Leipzig's profile. The city still bears the scars of 50 years of Communist rule, which managed to "destroy more buildings than World War II," said Jung.
In the 19th century, Leipzig was a major trade hub between Western and Eastern Europe, expanding rapidly toward 1 million inhabitants.
Its industry was prospering -- Leipzig in the early 20th century was home to the largest cotton mill company on the continent, the Leipziger Baumwollspinnerei, housing more than 240,000 spindles. Daily production surpassed 11 million pounds of yarn.
Yet the city's fate took a turn for the worse with the start of World War II. Leipzig was heavily bombed until U.S. troops freed Leipzig on April 20, 1945. To protests from the citizens, the Americans turned over the city to the Soviets three months later.
"Imagine how this city could have developed if the Americans had stayed," Jung said.
Instead, Leipzig perished behind the Iron Curtain, its industry gradually falling apart. After reunification, the German government pumped billions into eastern Germany, but the structural problems largely remain.
Leipzig's unemployment rate towers at 15 percent -- one of the highest in Europe's largest economy.
To beat the trend, Leipzig now banks on promoting itself as a hub for cultural tourism. The city is home to a choir that was once headed by Johann Sebastian Bach, several galleries and, most importantly, Neo Rauch and his New Leipzig school.
As if to protest the demise of their city, Rauch and his colleagues after reunification settled in the run-down Baumwollspinnerei. The cotton mill is now occupied by studios, cafes and galleries and popular with cultural hipsters from all over the world.
Living in a house a few miles outside the city, Rauch bikes to his studio in the mill every weekday, often working on several images at once.
He doesn't model those images; there are no preparatory drawings or small paintings paving the way to his grand canvases. They are surreal products that spill from his mind, drawn from flashbacks, dreams as well as nightmares.
The painting "Uhrenvergleich" (Watch Synchronization or Time Check) in Leipzig depicts smoke billowing from a skyscraper in an apocalyptic landscape. Rauch says he finished it shortly before 9/11 "but of course no one believes me."
Before Rauch became admired in Germany, he was successful abroad. In 2007, after U.S. critics had lauded him as the "painter who came in from the cold," Rauch got a solo exhibition at the Met -- a rare honor for any living contemporary artist.
The worldwide success is music to the mayor's ears. "Neo Rauch draws people to Leipzig," Jung said.
Part of the fascination stems from Rauch's commanding personality.
When Rauch -- a tall, slender and handsome man -- talks to you, he fixes your gaze, focuses on his words as they come out crafted to perfection, lines ready to be printed or, for that matter, painted onto large canvases.
Rauch's own biography began with a blow.
His parents died in a train accident in 1960 when he was a few weeks old. Rauch (the last name is German for "smoke") was raised by his grandparents in the small town of Aschersleben near the Harz Mountains. Like his father, Rauch went on to study at the Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts.
Starting in the 1990s, he developed the distinct style that would catapult him to world fame. His paintings lodge somewhere between neo-realism and surrealism, speaking a pop-art language with a distinct East German slur.
They feature firemen, grave men in top hats or burly women who look out of place in unhappy nature, next to East German-style apartment blocks and near-abandoned factories. His images often leave viewers baffled; trying to decode them, Rauch says, is an impractical undertaking.
"It's an artistic accident if one can understand your paintings -- it mustn't happen," he said.
In Leipzig, one room features large canvases depicting renaissance men next to snakes emerging from the sea, a poodle with fangs of a hellhound and a ram-headed creature reading from a black book.
"There's a magnetic force in the mysteriousness of Neo's work, because there's much more communication in a mystery than in a clear message," said Hans-Werner Schmidt, the curator of Companion and the head of the Leipzig museum. "People are docking to this riddle according to their biography and find in it their personal answer."