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Movement: Neo-Expressionism
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 which dominated German art in the 1970s. By the 1980s, this resurgence had become part of an international return to painting, in which very different artists, from Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente to Jean-Michel Basquiat, turned in expressionistic, primitivist and romantic directions to create work which delved into history and myth, and affirmed the redemptive power of art.

Key Points
  • In Germany 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 WWII, artists such as Georg Baselitz, Eugen Schonebeck and Markus Lupertz seemed to be trying to overcome the legacy of the Nazis.
  • Supporters of Neo-Expressionism, and the larger return to painting in the 1980s, argued that Conceptual Art, Minimalism, and Pop had neglected art's ability to activate the imagination, to invent myth, and to give vent to human emotion. However, some critics charged Neo-Expressionism with pandering to right wing politics and the tastes of the art market.
  • Taking their lead from German Neo-Expressionists, who turned inward to examine national themes, many other painters of the 1980s revived national styles. In Italy, in particular, artists associated with the Trans-avantguardia movement, such as Sandro Chia and Enzo Cucci, returned to the type work done by Italian painters of the 1920s and '30s.
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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, 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, and into 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 AR Penck. Taking as their inspiration the early Expressionist works of Georg 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 for figurative painting.

In 1980, Baselitz sparked another controversy when he exhibited his first sculpture, a huge wooden figure, apparently delivered a Nazi salute, in the German Pavilion of the Venice Biennial. His co-exhibitor in the pavilion was Anselm Kiefer, and Kiefer's exhibit also helped launch him to world-wide success and notoriety in the 1980s. 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.

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. Other artists, with more political interests than most, such as Leon Golub and Philip Guston, were also seen as exemplars. 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 and up until his death in 1980, he constructed strange painterly combinations of enigmatic and figurative forms.

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 popular kind, but Neo-Expressionism inaugurated a new return to romantic subjects. Some drew on myth and history: Anselm Kiefer became well known for his preoccupation with myths of German identity. Others drew on primitivism and natural imagery such as Francesco Clemente's Scissors and Butterflies (1999).

Another anomalous trend 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.

Later Developments
Through the artwork of Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clemente and others, Neo-Expressionism has become synonymous with conservative trends in the art of the 1980s rather than 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 work with form and depict the world as it existed, in all its harshness and ugliness. This led to a vibrant debate about 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 had more to do with the collapse of the market at the end of the 1980s than any shift in values.

Content written by:
  Justin Wolf

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Georg Baselitz
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Jean-Michel Basquiat
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Francesco Clemente
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Philip Guston
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Anselm Kiefer
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David Salle
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Julian Schnabel
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Written about Neo-Expressionist artists
Jean-Michel Basquiat: 1981, The Studio of the Street

Anselm Kiefer: Heaven And Earth

Julian Schnabel

Georg Baselitz: A Retrospective

Francesco Clemente: Works 1971-1979

David Salle

Articles about Neo-Expressionism
Neo-Expressionists or Neo-Surrealists?
May 13, 1983
The New York Times
By Vivien Raynor

The Meaning of Jean-Michel Basquiat's Life
September 4, 1988
The Los Angeles Times
By William Wilson

A German's Path From Neo-Expressionism to Classical Echoes
December 12, 1997
The New York Times
By Grace Glueck