What is Neo-Expressionism?
Neo-Expressionism describes an international revival of Expressionist tendencies emerging among painters of the 1970s and 1980s. Reacting against the detached intellectualism and ideological purity of Minimalism and Conceptualism, Neo-Expressionists returned to figural representation, producing violently emotive, textural works that synthesised painterly expression with Postmodernist appropriation. A diversity of influences, including early 20th-century Expressionism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, informed various incarnations of the style emerging around the world: the Neue Wilden (“New Fauves”) in Germany, Transvanguardia (“Trans-Avantgarde”) in Italy, Figuration Libre (“Free Style”) in France, and a host of young artists in the United States including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Julian Schnabel. Propelled by aggressive marketing tactics, Neo-Expressionism dominated European and American art markets through the mid-1980s, and became closely associated with the period’s decadence and excess.
Neo-Expressionism Characteristics & Style
Because the term Neo-Expressionism does not refer to a formal movement, but rather an international resurgence of interest in figural representation and painterly tendencies, it encompasses a diversity of styles. In general, Neo-Expressionist works are characterised by their intense expressive subjectivity, highly textural applications of paint, vividly contrasting colors and return to large-scale narrative imagery. Drawing on history, myth and folklore, Neo-Expressionism reveals strains of Symbolism and Primitivism, with distorted, archetypal figures rendered in various degrees of abstraction. As a reflection of the postmodern world, a sense of tension, alienation and ambiguity is often accompanied by playfulness and parody. While primarily associated with painting, Neo-Expressionists also incorporated found objects like straw, sand, wood and ceramics into their canvases to create semi-sculptural works.
The Impact and Legacy of Neo-Expressionism
While criticised by some as nostalgic, ahistorical, and – most damningly – self-consciously commercial, the style was nevertheless hugely popular and influential. Neo-Expressionists returned to painting recognisable objects imbued with personal, historical and archetypal significance, highlighting the materiality of the painted medium and celebrating its emotive potential. Today, it is recognised as an important bridge between Modernism and Postmodernism, heralding a shift from what critic Michael Brenson called “art that could only refer to itself to art that could refer to everything”.
Timeline & History of Neo-Expressionism
- 1963George Baselitz, a formative figure in German Neo-Expressionism, has his first solo exhibition at Galerie Werner & Katz in West Berlin. Two paintings, featuring provocative expressionistic imagery, are seized by the authorities, igniting a public scandal.
(left) Georg Baselitz photographed by Lothar Wolleh, Mülheim, 1971. Photo: Lothar Wolleh
- 1978Neue Wilde emerges in Germany. Artists draw on the influence of pre-war German Expressionists to address the legacy of Nazism and its impact on post-war Germany.
(left) Invitation to the exhibition Mülheimer Freiheit – Die Seefahrt und der Tod, Kunsthalle Wilhelmshaven, 1981. Mülheimer Freiheit was the name of the Cologne "Neue Wilde" group. Photo: Mülheimer Freiheit, Archive Peter Bömmels.
- 1979Italian critic Achille Bonito Oliva coins the term Transavanguardia to describe the revival of figurative art, symbolism and mythic imagery in the work of artists like Francesco Clemente and Sandro Chia.
(left) Francesco Clemente holding his self-portrait, 1991. Photo: Sally Larsen
- 1980Italian Neo-Expressionist works draw wide attention at the Venice Biennale.
(left) Poster for the 39th Venice Biennale, 1980
- 1981Figuration Libre is founded in France.
(left) Robert Combas, co-founder of Figuration Libre, in his workshop in Paris, February 1991. Photo: Hubert Fanthomme/Paris Match via Getty Images
- 1982Jean-Michel Basquiat opens the first of six solo shows to be held that same year, solidifying his status as one of the most important American artists of the decade. Although it is unclear when the term Neo-Expressionism is coined, by this time it is widely used to describe trends in German, Italian and American art.
(left) Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol at The Factory at 860 Broadway on 12 October 1982. Photo: Christopher Makos 1982
- 1987Stocks crash on Black Monday and the booming art market slows.
Photo: Roger Hsu. Image courtesy of Flickr
Who Are the Neo-Expressionists?
In Germany, artists referenced Expressionist painters such as George Grosz and Edvard Munch to address themes of postwar German identity. George Baselitz, known for his inverted paintings featuring forceful brushwork and provocative imagery, is often considered a forefather of German Neo-Expressionism; Anselm Kiefer tackled the country’s Nazi history using thickly applied pigments and found materials to create starkly haunting works. Other German artists associated with Neo-Expressionism include Jörg Immendorff, Markus Lupertz and AR Penck.
The Italian incarnation of Neo-Expressionism, Trans-Avantgarde, sought to escape the sparseness of the Arte Povera movement of the 1970s. Artists like Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia and Enzo Cucchi drew on diverse art historical, mythological and pop cultural influences to create expressive, narratively charged works.
In America, Julian Schnabel took the art world by storm with his richly textural blend of art historical appropriation and emotive personal expression; Jean-Michel Basquiat, who emerged in the 1970s as a pioneering graffiti artist, rocketed to fame in the 1980s with his ferocious visual synthesis of street art, jazz, hip hop and Afro-Caribbean folk imagery. Both artists, along with others like David Salle and Eric Fischl, became closely associated with the iconoclasm and excess of the Neo-Expressionist movement.
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