WHAT IS ART?
The Gleaner (1978) Georg Baselitz
Neo-Expressionism (Late 1970s onwards)
Definition & Characteristics
The term "Neo-Expressionism" refers to one of the last international contemporary art movements, which emerged among late 20th century painters during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Neo-Expressionists revitalized painting with strong colours, as well as motifs drawn from Mannerism, Cubism, Fauvism, German Expressionism, Surrealism, and Pop-Art. Seen by historians as a reaction against Minimalism and Conceptual art which dominated postmodernist art during the 1970s, the movement embraced a wide variety of national styles of painting which shared certain common characteristics. These common features included an extreme expressiveness of colour, figurative subject matter, as well as significant surface activity and texturalism. Also, the movement signalled a return to the more conventional format of easel painting. Exhibited in the best galleries of contemporary art, Neo-expressionism was known by a variety of names on both sides of the Atlantic. In Germany, it was known as Neue Wilden ('New Fauves'); in Italy, it was called Trans-avantgarde (Transavantguardia) (beyond the avant-garde); while in France it was known as Figuration Libre (Free Figuration). In America, where the style was also referred to as energism, it also embraced Bad Painting and New Image Painting. Despite the common characteristics referred to, above, the very multiplicity of styles embraced by the term neo-expressionism, means that there is no clear consensus on what exactly constitutes neo-expressionist art, or who exactly is a neo-expressionist painter. See also: History of Expressionist Painting (c.1880-1930).
OF VISUAL ART
Evolution and History
Neo-expressionism was put on the map by several major exhibitions of twentieth century paintings which took place in the early 1980s. These included "A New Spirit in Painting" (1981) at the Royal Academy in London; the more shocking "Zeitgeist" (1982) at Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin; and Documenta 7 (1982) the contemporary art show at Kassel in Germany. In fact, the movement had been in existence for almost two decades in Germany, where artists - notably Georg Baselitz, and later Anselm Kiefer - sought to reconnect with pre-World War II expressionist traditions. Meanwhile, in America, in 1970, Philip Guston (1913-80) switched from abstract expressionism towards a more figurative style of social realism - a precursor of US neo-expressionism - influencing many post-war artists in the process. Later, in New York, the movement triggered a new type of easel-style graffiti art, by artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat. In Italy, led by Sandro Chia and Enzo Cucchi, Neo-expressionism did not appear until the early 1980s; likewise in France, where the Figuration Libre group was founded by Robert Combas as late as 1981. For other important postmodernists of the late 20th century, see also: Top Contemporary Artists.
The Neo-Expressionist Style
Neo-Expressionist painting is a form of contemporary art which is rooted in early 20th century German Expressionism. Its general style is often marked by vivid colours and contrasts, in the tradition of fauvism; rapid, violent brushwork; distorted subject matter; and a generally spontaneous technique, sometimes incorporating 'found' objects. As the movement developed, artists turned for inspiration to romantic and historical subject matter, the natural world, and primitivism.
Neo-Expressionism in Germany
In Germany, where the style was known as Neue Wilden or New Fauves, the style was intense - not least in its choice of subject - and referenced the 'German Identity', post-Nazism, urban violence, and numerous allusions to primal instincts. Brutal spontaneous brushstrokes, plus vivid Fauvist-style colours, often straight from the tube, were used to create violent, sometimes unfinished forms. Leading German postmodernist artists associated with neo-expressionism, include: Georg Baselitz (b.1938), Gerhard Richter (b.1932), Jorg Immendorff (b.1945), Anselm Kiefer (b.1945), Bernd Zimmer (b.1948), Rainer Fetting (b.1949), Bernd Koberling (b.1938), Markus Lupertz (b.1941), and A.R.Penck [Ralf Winkler] (b.1939).
Neo-Expressionism in America
Bad Painting and New Image Painting were two US schools of painting which are traditionally classified under the heading neo-expressionism.
Bad Painting rejected "good taste" as well as the spurious intellectualism of Conceptual art, and its works reflected the disturbing and violent nature of contemporary American society. Inspiration came from urban scenes, pagan and animal paintings, and also academic-style subjects like religious portraiture and landscapes. Works often incorporated miscellaneous 'found' materials, such as fragments of crockery. Brushwork is typically rapid, seemingly primitive and unfinished, and marked by heavy impasto. Leading artists included Philip Guston (1913-80), Robert Kushner (b.1949), David Salle (b.1952), and Julian Schnabel (b.1951).
New Image Painting, a style of neo-expressionism put on the map by an exhibition of the same name held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1978, was marked by the use of recognizable imagery - though often semi-abstract - and a strident cartoon-like style. Leading artists included Jennifer Bartlett (b.1941), Jonathan Borofsky (b.1941), Pat Steir (b.1940), Neil Jenney (b.1945), Robert Moskowitz (b.1935), Susan Rothenberg (b.1945), Donald Sultan (b.1951), and Joe Zucker (b.1941).
Other American artists loosely associated with the neo-expressionism movement include Cy Twombly, Louise Bourgeois and Leon Golub.
Neo-Expressionism in Italy
In Italy, where it was called Trans-avantgarde, neo-expressionism embraced a wide range of poetical, mythological and grotesque figurative imagery, including realistic and imaginery portraits. Inspiration came from the early 20th century Futurism movement, the Metaphysical Painting of Giogio de Chirico, as well as Symbolism, Surrealism, and classical Italian Renaissance iconography. Bold colours were employed in the Fauvist tradition. Leading Italian neo-expressionists included Sandro Chia (b.1946), Francesco Clemente (b.1952), Enzo Cucchi (b.1950), Nicola De Maria (b.1954) and Mimmo Paladino (b.1948).
Neo-Expressionism in France
French neo-expressionists (Figuration
Libre group), mostly city-dwellers, based their art on popular urban
culture. Subjects were sourced from advertising, the mass media, and rock
music. Comic-strip iconography featured apocalyptic monsters and scenery,
often with sensual undertones. Primitive, naive forms were also popular,
outlined in black and filled in with garish, gaudy colours. French neo-expressionism
also had its roots in the more figurative variants of Art
Informel, such as the style practised by Dutch painter Karel
Appel (1921-2006) of the Cobra group.
Leading French neo-expressionists included Robert Combas (b.1957), Remi
Blanchard (1958-93), Francois Boisrond (b.1959) and Herve di Rosa (b.1963).
Works by neo-expressionist painters hang in many of the world's best art museums. Here is a small selected sample of such works.
For information about expressionism, see: Homepage.