Progression of Art
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 17th-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
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, 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 utilized straw, which becomes ash when burned. 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
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
The subject of this painting has been identified by art historian Gert Schiff as derived from James Frazer's The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. The story conerns 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) contribute to Schnabel’s 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
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