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Neo-Expressionism Collage

Neo-Expressionism - History and Concepts

Started: Late 1970s
Ended: Early 1990s
Neo-Expressionism Timeline

Beginnings of Neo-Expressionism

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 painting portrayed a figure masturbating, while another depicted 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.

Precursors in USA

This period ushered in a revival of painting in the United States, as well. 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. Historians have also pointed to the paintings of Leon Golub (e.g. his Vietnam series from 1973) as a precursor to the Neo-Expressionists. Golub addressed the socio-political upheavals in America in a similarly emotional and brutish style.

As the movement expanded globally, a wide range of artists were associated with the stylistic shift. 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.

Neo-Expressionism: Concepts, Styles, and Trends

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 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; however, 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 moved to West Berlin from East Germany in 1956. Though he had been a rebellious student in East Germany, Baselitz culled his subject matter from his East German roots. The historian and art critic Edward Lucie-Smith notes that Expressionism became the official style of East Germany after WWII because of the hostility shown by the Nazis to the original German Expressionists. Both Baselitiz and A.R. Penck, who also hailed from East Germany, were simultaneously pioneers and rogues within the movement. Both explored 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 and Street 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 (and achievement) 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, which can be seen in the "mock-heroic" work of Sandro Chia, for example. Francesco Clemente, is originally Italian, but left the country 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. Finally, the work of Mimmo Paladino is described as more individual and more Italian, with works alluding to ancient Italian sources.

Neo-Expressionism in the USA

By 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.

Later Developments - After Neo-Expressionism

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. Both were able to simultaneously sustain multiple styles, including the traditional application of paint, even if in tongue-in-cheek and thus more conceptually based manner. In any case, enthusiasm for Neo-Expressionism was being steadily subsumed by emerging discussions of, for example, the need for the inclusion of more female artists as well as new directions in appropriation.

Key Artists

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
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Do Not Miss

  • Expressionism is a broad term for a host of movements in early twentieth-century Germany and beyond, from Die Brücke (1905) and Der Blaue Reiter (1911) to the early Neue Sachlichkeit painters in the 1920s and '30s. Many 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.
  • 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.
  • The School of London was a post-war group of painters who rejected the avant-garde trends of the time and helped reinvigorate figurative art.

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Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Neo-Expressionism Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Justin Wolf
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 21 Oct 2014. Updated and modified regularly
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