Neo-Expressionism Movement and Chronology

Synopsis

Many artists have practiced and revived aspects of the original Expressionism movement since its decline in the 1920s, but the most famous return to Expressionism was inaugurated by Georg Baselitz, who led a revival that dominated German art in the 1970s. By the 1980s, this resurgence had become part of an international return to the sensuousness of painting - and away from the cool, distant sparseness of Minimalism and Conceptualism. Very different artists, from Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente to Jean-Michel Basquiat, turned in expressive directions to create work that affirmed the redemptive power of art in general and painting in particular, drawing upon a variety of themes including the mythological, the cultural, the historical, the nationalist, and the erotic.

NEO-EXPRESSIONISM KEY IDEAS

The Neo-Expressionist artists treated their subjects in an almost raw and brutish manner, newly resurrecting in their frequently large-scale works, the highly textural and expressive brushwork and intense colors that had been so recently rejected by major preceding art movements.
Because the work of the Neo-Expressionist artists was so closely linked to buying, selling, and the commercial system of art with its galleries, critics, and media hype (typical of the Reagan era in the United States), some in the field began to question its authenticity as art that was as purely motivated as was, say, that of the Abstract Expressionists. Thus its popularity was also the seed of its demise.
Because Neo-Expressionism accepted and rejuvenated historical and mythological imagery -- as opposed to the modernists' tendency to reject storytelling (witnessed especially in regard to Clement Greenberg's theories of art) - some scholars believe that Neo-Expressionism played an important role in the transition from modernism to post-modernism.
comment to editor

Beginnings

Origins in Germany

Neo-Expressionism arrived in Germany with great controversy when Georg Baselitz opened an exhibition in West Berlin in 1963. The contents of the show were quickly confiscated by the State Attorney on the grounds of indecency; one picture contained a figure masturbating, while another had a male figure with an erection. His later exhibitions wouldn't attract such extreme reactions, but the iconography of giant, primitive "heroes," and the use of expressionistic figuration in his early pictures, soon drew notice in an art world that seemed to be moving away from such imagery, and even painting in general, judged by the popularity of Pop art, Fluxus, and Minimalism.

By the late 1970s, Baselitz was at the head of a loose-knit group of German artists known as Neue Wilden (the 'New Fauves'). Associated with the label were artists such as Anselm Kiefer, Markus Lupertz, Eugen Schonebeck, and A.R. Penck. Taking as their inspiration the early Expressionist works of George Grosz, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and Edvard Munch, the action paintings of Willem de Kooning, and the late quasi-abstract figurative paintings of Pablo Picasso, they together found a new vitality in figurative painting.

MORE

Precursors in USA

This period also saw the beginnings of a widespread return to painting, particularly in Europe, but also in the United States. For many, it was considered liberating to create art in this traditional manner, combining abstract and figurative forms, and drawing on a range of earlier styles. An important precursor in the United States was Philip Guston, originally an Abstract Expressionist, who returned to figurative work in the late 1960s in a bold, and raw expressive style. Guston was particularly influential; in the late 1960s, he had become disenchanted with abstract painting and developed a style shaped in part by cartoons, and in part by social realism. Throughout the 1970s he constructed strange painterly combinations of enigmatic and figurative forms. Historians have also pointed to the paintings of Leon Golub (e.g. his Vietnam series from 1973) as precursors to the Neo-Expressionists. Golub addressed the socio-political upheavals in America in a similarly emotional and brutish style.

But the movement eventually became very broad, and the artists who came to be associated with it ranged widely in their interests. Some older artists such as Francis Bacon were claimed as predecessors, while others associated with American trends of the 1970s, such as "New Image Painting," were also linked to Neo-Expressionism.

Concepts and Styles

Since the advent of Abstract Expressionism, painting had become increasingly less focused on subject matter, and more concerned with form. Pop art had re-introduced a concern with subject matter of a particular kind, but Neo-Expressionism inaugurated a new return to romantic subjects. Some drew on myth and history, while others on primitivism and natural imagery. The first use of the term Neo-Expressionism is undocumented, but by 1982 it was being widely used to describe new German and Italian art, also happening to be a testament to the end of United States domination of the postwar art world.

Neo-Expressionism in Germany

Baselitz was from East Germany, but moved to West Berlin in 1956. Though he had been a rebellious student in East Germany, his Neo-Expressionism looked to East rather than West German stylistic influence. The historian and art critic Edward Lucie-Smith has commented on this and written succinctly on the history of the movement; Expressionism became the official style of East Germany after WWII because of the hostility shown by the Nazis to the original German Expressionists. A.R. Penck was also from East Germany. Both Baselitiz and Penck, though pioneers of the new expressive art, were in some ways not always typical of it. Both were interested in the "how" of painting rather than the "why," in method rather than content. Penck created a language of graphic signs that looked back to Picasso and forward to such Graffiti artists as Keith Haring. In 1967, Baselitz started painting his figures upside down, more to point out how the painting was done rather than what it meant (at least in any detailed way). Other members of the Neo-Expressionist group used their work to examine Germany and the problems of its recent history. For these artists, the return to Expressionism was part of a more general shift in society towards addressing the country's troubled modern history. In connecting with a style that pre-dated World War II, Georg Baselitz and Markus Lupertz seemed to be trying to overcome, at least to some extent, the legacy of the Nazis. However, the principle example of transcending the Nazi years would be the work of Anselm Kiefer. Some German Neo-Expressionist art was also openly political as in the work of Jorg Immendorf who turned his attention to the problems of a divided Germany.

Neo-Expressionism in Italy

The Italian version of Neo-Expressionism is often referred to as the Trans-Avantgarde, a term invented in 1979 by the Italian critic Achille Bonito Olivia. The idea, according to Bonito, was to escape the sparseness of the Arte Povera movement in Italy. There is a strong element of parody, therefore, in Italian Neo-Expressionist painting, which can be seen in the "mock-heroic" work of Sandro Chia, for example. Francesco Clemente, though Italian, left Italy to divide his time between India and New York, and absorbing specific stylistic influences from those settings. The most traditionally Expressionistic of the group (and closest to the Germans in style) is Enzo Cucchi. The work of Mimmo Paladino is described as more individual and more Italian, with his work alluding to ancient Italian sources.

Neo-Expressionism in the USA

As of the early 1980s, American artists entered the Neo-Expressionist arena. The artists usually associated with American Neo-Expressionism are the group of New York-based artists that includes Eric Fischl, who emphasized human psychology, and Julian Schnabel, who summoned historical imagery to create highly personal works. Sometimes associated with Neo-Expressionism was the arrival of graffiti art in the galleries. This was particularly significant in New York, where Jean-Michel Basquiat became known for his aggressive brush strokes, broad splatters of paint and emotionally-charged subject matter. In many respects, Basquiat - alongside Julian Schnabel - became the poster child for the Neo-Expressionist movement of the 1980s: a self-styled primitive who was eagerly welcomed by the decadent and upscale art world.

The 1980s was a time of great affluence and unabashed consumerism, when the New York art market grew exponentially and the selling prices for contemporary art reached seemingly absurd heights. Rather than reject this environment of commodification, or isolate themselves from the art world, as had many Abstract Expressionists, Basquiat and Schnabel embraced the glitter and the noise fully.

comment to editor

Later Developments

Thus, Neo-Expressionism dominated the art market in Europe and the United States until the mid-1980s. However, there is some debate about the ways in which the later developments of Neo-Expressionism played themselves out. Some think that through the artwork of Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente, and others, Neo-Expressionism had become synonymous with the more conservative trends in the art of the 1980s rather than with the avant-garde. Even though many of the movement's artists incorporated political and cultural content, few were interested in the leftist politics associated with a contemporary trend, critical Postmodernism. They did not feel obliged to glorify the world or "tamper with reality," as Clemente once put it, but simply to work with form and depict the world as it existed, in all its harshness and ugliness. This led to vibrant discussions on the value and purpose of painting, in which Neo-Expressionism was often held up as an example of all that was wrong with the medium.

Nevertheless, this criticism did little to dampen the style's success, and its decline was a result of the movement's over-production and the collapse of the market at the end of the 1980s. Artists, critics, and the art market -- all intent on making money and/or reputations -- conspired to hasten its end. Scholars have not yet sorted out the exact placement of Neo-Expressionism in the art historical narrative. Some see the movement as a kind of late manifestation of modernism, while others see it as the end of modernism. Theorists Arthur Danto and Frederic Jameson place it within the context of postmodernism with its self-aware, surface-oriented banality and use of pastiche. And there are others who emphasize Neo-Expressionism's role in the transition from modernism to postmodernism, pointing to the two major artists whose work persisted through the collapse of the 1980s art bubble: Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter. True to the postmodernist stance of pluralism and eclecticism, both of these artists were able to simultaneously sustain multiple styles, including the traditional application of paint, even if tongue-in-cheek and thus more conceptually based. Enthusiasm for Neo-Expressionism was being subsumed by emerging discussions of, for example, the need for the inclusion of more female artists as well as new directions in appropriation.



Original content written by Justin Wolf
comment to editor

LEAVE A COMMENT OR SUGGESTION BELOW

We will address your comment shortly.
Error occured while saving commment. Please, try later.
Expressionism
Expressionism
Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many German Expressionists used vivid colors and abstracted forms to create spiritually or psychologically intense works, while others focused on depictions of war, alienation, and the modern city.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Expressionism
Georg Baselitz
Georg Baselitz
Georg Baselitz is a twentieth century German painter and sculptor, and was an originator of the Neo-Expressionist group "Neue Wilden," which focused on subject-based painting and the importance of color. Much of Baselitz's work is noted for its provocative subject matter, often sexual or overtly dark in nature.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Georg Baselitz
Minimalism
Minimalism
Minimalism emerged as a movement in New York in the 1960s, its leading figures creating objects which blurred the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and were characterized by unitary, geometric forms and industrial materials. Emphasizing cool anonymity over the passionate expression of the previous generation of painters, the Minimalists attempted to avoid metaphorical associations, symbolism, and suggestions of spiritual transcendence.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Minimalism
Conceptual Art
Conceptual Art
Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Conceptual Art
Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel
Julian Schnabel is an American painter, interior decorator and filmmaker. In addition to being a major figure in the Neo-Expressionist movement, he is most well-known as the director of such films as Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Julian Schnabel
Francesco Clemente
Francesco Clemente
Francesco Clemente is an Italian painter commonly associated with the Neo-Expressionist movement, otherwise known as Italian Transavantguardia. Much of his work fuses sexuality with an emotional rawness and brutality. Clemente's paintings also contain visual elements of Surrealism.

Modern Art Information Francesco Clemente
Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat
Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American painter who rose to fame in the 1980s, and was the first African-American artist to gain international acclaim. His emotionally-charged paintings gave rise to graffiti art and the Neo-Expressionist movement, and are still considered among the most avant-garde artworks of the late twentieth century.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Jean-Michel Basquiat
Abstract Expressionism
Abstract Expressionism
A tendency among New York painters of the late 1940s and '50s, all of whom were committed to an expressive art of profound emotion and universal themes. The movement embraced the gestural abstraction of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, and the color field painting of Mark Rothko and others. It blended elements of Surrealism and abstract art in an effort to create a new style fitted to the postwar mood of anxiety and trauma.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Abstract Expressionism
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg
Clement Greenberg was one the leading American art critics during the twentieth century. Best known as the ideological counterpart to Harold Rosenberg, Greenberg was a formalist who coined the terms "American-type painting" and 'Post-painterly abstraction.' He was a staunch champion of pure abstraction, including the work of Jackson Pollock, Clyfford Still and Hans Hofmann.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Clement Greenberg
Pop Art
Pop Art
British artists of the 1950s were the first to make popular culture the dominant subject of their art, and this idea became an international phenomenon in the 1960s. But the Pop art movement is most associated with New York, and artists such as Andy Warhol, who broke with the private concerns of the Abstract Expressionists, and turned to themes which touched on public life and mass society.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pop Art
Fluxus
Fluxus
Fluxus was an international network of "intermedia" artists of the 1960s who worked in fields ranging from music to performance to the visual arts. Taking their name from the Latin "to flow," Fluxus artists adopted an often anarchic and satirical approach to conventional forms of art, and their ideas paved the way for Conceptual art.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Fluxus
Anselm Kiefer
Anselm Kiefer
Anselm Kiefer is a German painter and sculptor, and was a pioneer of the late-twentieth-century movement Neo-Expressionism. Kiefer's mixed-media art typically incorporates straw, clay, lead and shellac, in addition to traditional paint and canvas. The themes of his work often focus on the atrocities of the Holocaust, as well as the occult, cosmos, and mythology.

Modern Art Information Anselm Kiefer
Markus Lupertz
Markus Lupertz
Markus Lupertz was a German painter and sculptor. For over twenty years, he was director of the Kunstakamenie Dusseldorf, an art academy in Germany. He won the 1970 Prize from Villa Romana and the 1971 "German Association of Critics Prize." As a writer, he has been editing his own journal since 2003, called Frau und Hund.

Modern Art Information Markus Lupertz
Eugen Schonebeck
Eugen Schonebeck
Eugen Schonebeck is a German painter who, with Georg Baselitz, presented at the first Pandemonic manefesto in 1961. His paintings often deal with the causes and consequences of the Nazi regime. His career as a visual artist unexpectedly ended in 1967.

Modern Art Information Eugen Schonebeck
A.R. Penck
A.R. Penck
A.R. Penck, born as Ralf Winkler, is a German painter, printmaker, sculptor, and musician, commonly associated with the Neo-Expressionist and Neo-Figurative movements of the late twentieth century. Drawing from a diverse range of pictorial languages, including totemic forms and tribal emblems, Penck is widely regarded for his use of simplified, graphic renderings that challenge academic painting.

Modern Art Information A.R. Penck
George Grosz
George Grosz
George Grosz was a German Dada and Neue Sachlichkeit artist. He was enamored of America and highly critical of Weimar society. Grosz immigrated to the United States just as Hitler came to power and opened a private art school in Des Moines.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information George Grosz
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was one of the driving forces in the Die Brücke group that flourished in Dresden and Berlin before WWI, and one of the most talented and influential of the Expressionists.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
Edvard Munch
Edvard Munch
Norweigan painter and printmaker Edvard Munch was a pioneer of the German Expressionist movement. His works such as The Scream explored deeply psychological concepts in a Symbolist style.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Edvard Munch
Willem De Kooning
Willem De Kooning
Willem de Kooning, a Dutch immigrant to New York, was one of the foremost Abstract Expressionist painters. His abstract compositions drew on Surrealist and figurative traditions, and typified the expressionistic 'gestural' style of the New York School.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Willem De Kooning
Pablo Picasso
Pablo Picasso
Picasso dominated European painting in the first half of the last century, and remains perhaps the century's most important, prolifically inventive, and versatile artist. Alongside Georges Braque, he pioneered Cubism. He also made significant contributions to Surrealist painting and media such as collage, welded sculpture, and ceramics.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Pablo Picasso
Philip Guston
Philip Guston
Initially associated with the New York School of abstract art, Guston famously abandoned pure abstraction in the 1950s and turned to figurative art and quasi-abstract cartoon imagery. His later work, for which he is best known, was a major influence on the development of Neo-Expressionism in the U.S.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Philip Guston
Leon Golub
Leon Golub
Leon Golub was a twentieth-century American painter and the husband of artist Nancy Spero. While Golub's paintings were mostly figural, his subjects often evoked a sculptural quality reminiscent of Ancient Greek and Roman techniques. The artist's later work assumed the characteristics of Neo-Expressionism, which gained favor in the 1980s.

Modern Art Information Leon Golub
Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon was an Irish-born, English painter and one of the twentieth century's most celebrated and controversial existentialist artists. Bacon favored dark subject matter, often painting slightly abstracted, biomorphic figures, with bodies contorted or in the throes of madness. Painterly themes of Bacon's include the crucifixion, isolation and the mind's fragility. Bacon was also one of the few English artists of any prominence in modern and contemporary circles during the better part of the twentieth century.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Francis Bacon
Graffiti Art
Graffiti Art
Graffiti Art arose out of graffiti tags in urban centers like New York in the 1960s and 70s. Part of a larger street art movement, graffiti art tends to incorporate text and visual scrawls, and is often political or subversive in content.

Modern Art Information Graffiti Art
Keith Haring
Keith Haring
Keith Haring was a crucial part of the 1980s New York City art, performance and street scenes, creating graffiti-inspired works and drawings, often in public places such as the subway.

Modern Art Information Keith Haring
Jorg Immendorff
Jorg Immendorff
Jorg Immendorff was a contemporary German painter, sculptor, stage designer and art professor. He studied at the Art Academy in Dusseldorf under Joseph Beuys. His paintings are sometimes reminiscent of surrealism and often use irony and heavy symbolism to convey political ideas.

Modern Art Information Jorg Immendorff
Arte Povera
Arte Povera
Arte Povera - "poor art" or "impoverished art" - was the most influential European avant-garde of the 1960s. It numbered around a dozen Italian artists who often used commonplace materials that evoked a pre-industrial age - earth, rocks, clothing, paper and rope. The artists rejected abstract painting, and the references to modernity and technology in American Minimalism, and instead made sculpture which pointed to the past, and to experiences of locality.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Arte Povera
Sandro Chia
Sandro Chia
Sandro Chia is an Italian painter and sculptor, and he was instrumental in the Neo-Expressionist-like artistic movement known as Transavantguardia. Chia's oil paintings, mosaics and sculpture all tend to combine key features of Synthetic Cubism, Neo-Primitivism and Fauvism.

Modern Art Information Sandro Chia
Enzo Cucchi
Enzo Cucchi
Enzo Cucchi is an Italian painter, draughtsman, and sculptor, who was a key proponent of the late-twentieth-century Transavanguardia movement, the Italian counterpart to Neo-Expressionism. Characterized by bold colors and monumental scale, Penck’s work features largely symbolic and primal imagery, rendered in surreal, abstracted compositions.

Modern Art Information Enzo Cucchi
Eric Fischl
Eric Fischl
Eric Fischl is an American painter, sculptor, and printmaker, who was a seminal figure of the late twentieth-century Neo-Expressionist movement. From his colorful portraits to his iconic suburban interiors and beach scenes, Fischl's work deals largely with themes of the body, sexuality, and modern American society.

Modern Art Information Eric Fischl
Sigmar Polke
Sigmar Polke
Sigmar Polke was a German painter and photographer. In 1963 Polke founded the painting movement "Kapitalistischer Realismus" (Capitalistic Realism) with Gerhard Richter and Konrad FIscher. It is an anti-style of art, appropriating the pictorial short-hand of advertising.

Modern Art Information Sigmar Polke
Gerhard Richter
Gerhard Richter
Gerhard Richter is a preeminent German painter having matured in the historical aftermath of World War II, whose work commented and analyzed found, or mass-circulated, consumer imagery.
TheArtStory - Modern Art GuideModern Art Information Gerhard Richter
Appropriation Art
Appropriation Art
Appropriation art adopts, borrows, recycles or samples aspects from visual culture. The term appropriation refers to the use of borrowed elements in the creation of a new work. Appropriation artists borrow ideas, images, objects, and elements from pop culture to create their art.

Modern Art Information Appropriation Art
Adieu
Adieu

Title: Adieu (1982)

Artist: Georg Baselitz

Artwork Description & Analysis: Baselitz, who grew up in post-World War II East Germany, was the earliest and most senior member of the group of Neo-Expressionists. His works were distinctive in that he frequently painted his figures upside down as if to create a modern-day counterpart to the seventeenth-century paintings of a world "topsy-turvy." Though the artist denied ascribing any particular meanings to his works, he nonetheless contributed meaningful figures that served as visual analogues to the upheavals of recent German history. The figures here seem to have no point of origin and are suspended awkwardly between the top of the picture and the empty space beneath their heads, existing in a sort of horrifying limbo. The title of the picture also suggests a separation, confirmed by one figure moving away from the other. Their bodies are sites of violence as indicated by the ferocious and expressive brushwork, and their organic and vulnerable bodies contrast with the abstract geometry of the background -- a background that reflects the figures' emotional states in its intensity of color and paint handling, but which seems also to function in a way that suggests the indifference of a universal pattern.


Oil on canvas - Tate Gallery, London

Café Deutschland I
Café Deutschland I

Title: Café Deutschland I (1977-78)

Artist: Jörg Immendorff

Artwork Description & Analysis: Jörg Immendorf was the Neo-Expressionist artist who most directly sought to reconcile his art with social activism, wrestling with the political divide that was Germany at the time. Though he was often frustrated, his paintings all seem to ask: what can art and the artist do? Café Deutschland is a series of 16 paintings by the German painter, of which this is the first. This work demonstrates the influence of earlier German Expressionism (such as the work of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner) in the distorted perspective and "primitive" characterizations of the dancers and fornicators in the left and right backgrounds. The space is that of a nightmarish underground nightclub, where all the people and objects refer to the divided Germany of the 1970s and 1980s. At the left, the eagle of the German Democratic Republic grasps a swastika in its talons. The two diagonal columns in the foreground seem to be made of wood and ice or stone; the wood represents part of the primeval forest of the German homeland, but here is subverted toward political ends, and the ice or stone is perhaps symbolic of the cold war. In the center of the painting is the artist himself. Behind him is the reflective surface of another column in which we can make out the silhouette of the Brandenberg Gate dividing East and West Berlin. The artist holds his paintbrush in his left hand, while his right hand smashes through the "Berlin Wall," attempting to connect to the other side. Can his gesture as an artist combat the East German political figure gazing threateningly from the top right?


Oil on canvas - Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany

Athanor
Athanor

Title: Athanor (1983-84)

Artist: Anselm Kiefer

Artwork Description & Analysis: Athanor, the title of this painting, is also the name for the digesting furnace (a kind of oven) that alchemists used to try to transform base metals into gold. The building in the painting is based on Albert Speer's design for Hitler's Chancellery building. Through the suggestion of the two buildings, and using an apocalyptic palette, Kiefer brings together the themes of alchemy and the Holocaust. The alchemists and the Nazis, each in their way, employed fire to effect their transformations. The mottled and darkened surface of Kiefer's work looks as if it has been subjected to fire itself, and indeed it has -- the artist as alchemist seeks to transform, through the act (the "fire") of painting Germany's terrible past. Kiefer also used materials other than paint - such as straw, lead, and sand - and was particularly interested in their innate expressive characteristics, as in what happened to those materials when they burned. In the case of this work, Kiefer has used straw, which when burned, becomes ashes. But the sheer scale (5 by 12 feet) and physicality of this work imparts to the viewer at least small hope that the creative can emerge from the destructive. Like other Neo-Expressionist painters, Kiefer summons mythic themes executed with compelling methods and emotions in order to explore what is possible through art.


Oil, acrylic, emulsion, shellac, and straw on photo mounted on canvas - Toledo Museum of Art

Scissors and Butterflies
Scissors and Butterflies

Title: Scissors and Butterflies (1999)

Artist: Francesco Clemente

Artwork Description & Analysis: Clemente, pictured here in his usual variety of self-portraits, was one of the few Italian painters who was a part of the international array of Neo-Expressionist artists. Employing a highly sensual style that he assimilated during his many stays in India, quasi-abstract forms combine with human and animal figures. Clemente mixed elements of erotica (influenced by his exposure to Indian culture) with red-hot anger (influenced by his exposure to the grittiness and violence he witnessed while in New York). As was typical of his work, a metamorphosis takes place. In Scissors and Butterflies, these metamorphoses occur between humans and animals, the feminine and the masculine, and the violent and the sexual/spiritual. This inner conflict of existential expressiveness is often found in Neo-Expressionism, but Clemente makes this the central focus of his art as he engages all pictorial elements in the service of self as a way of experiencing the world.


Oil on linen - Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York

King of the Wood
King of the Wood

Title: King of the Wood (1984)

Artist: Julian Schnabel

Artwork Description & Analysis: The subject of this painting has been identified by art historian Gert Schiff as coming from James Frazer's The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. The story, based on a pre-Roman priest-king who is murdered by his successor as part of a fertility rite - in other words, the king is sacrificed for the good of the kingdom - was seen as a more collective myth. According to the story, if someone removed a branch from the sacred tree, that person could challenge the king. In this work, the spruce roots refer to this tree in the sacred grove; the king prepares to defend himself with his sword against his murdering successor, but he dies at harvest time and is reincarnated in the spring. The format of the work is that of a triptych and thus aligns itself with the history of western religious painting. The compelling centrality of the mighty figure as well as the scale of the work (over 20 feet long) join in the act of mythmaking. The underpinning of the plates that Schnabel has made use of in his other works (directly influenced by Antonio Gaudi's expressive use of fragments in his architecture) suggests the potsherds and early bits of civilization excavated by archaeologists, and therefore provide here an appropriate backdrop for what is being depicted. Yet Schnabel's broken bits of crockery added something further to Neo-Expressionism; they also allude to the cheap and mass-produced objects of appropriation-conscious postmodernism. This was accomplished at the same time that the Neo-Expressionist personal touch of the artist is visible in the bravura application of paint into which the figure is, in turn, absorbed; the king seems to be simultaneously ready to die and ready to come back to life.


Oil, plates, Bondo on wood, with spruce roots - Collection of the Artist

Bad Boy
Bad Boy

Title: Bad Boy (1981)

Artist: Eric Fischl

Artwork Description & Analysis: Two figures occupy the same room, but exist in separate psychological spaces. The light and shadow pattern of the blind creates a cage for the raw animalism of the female figure. Conventional symbols include the fruit for abundance/fertility and the open purse for a vagina; the adolescent boy steals something from the woman's purse and, simultaneously, a glance - gazing upon the self-absorbed and sexually posed woman (possibly his mother). In turn, the spectator looks at the boy, at the woman, and, of course, at the picture. True to Neo-Expressionism, the artist employs a painterly technique with urgent brushwork combined with the subject matter in order to communicate a feeling of discomfort in the viewer. In a moment of realization, the viewer is caught up short with a feeling of complicity in viewing a crime and being a voyeur, at the same time engaging in the aesthetic act of viewing a painting. Fischl's brand of Neo-Expressionism distinguishes itself by inserting human psychology and suggesting that the Reagan-era's "family values" had somehow gone awry.


Oil on canvas - Private Collection, Zurich

Bibliography
The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing this page. These also suggests some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.