Summary of Neo-Expressionism
Many artists have practiced and revived aspects of the original Expressionism movement its peak at the beginning of the 20th century, but the most famous return to Expressionism was inaugurated by Georg Baselitz, who led a revival that dominated German art in the 1970s. By the 1980s, this resurgence had become part of an international return to the sensuousness of painting - and away from the stylistically cool, distant sparseness of Minimalism and Conceptualism. Very different artists, especially in the United States, from Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente to Jean-Michel Basquiat, turned in expressive directions to create work that affirmed the redemptive power of art in general and painting in particular, drawing upon a variety of themes including the mythological, the cultural, the historical, the nationalist, and the erotic.
- The Neo-Expressionist artists depicted their subjects in an almost raw and brutish manner, newly resurrecting in their frequently large-scale works, the highly textural and expressive brushwork and intense colors that had been rejected by the immediately preceding art movements.
- Because the work of the Neo-Expressionist artists was so closely linked to buying, selling, and the commercial system of art with its galleries, critics, and media hype (typical of the Reagan era in the United States), some in the field began to question its authenticity as art that was as purely motivated as was, say, that of the Abstract Expressionists. Thus its popularity was also the seed of its demise.
- Because Neo-Expressionism accepted and rejuvenated historical and mythological imagery -- as opposed to the modernists' tendency to reject storytelling (witnessed especially in Clement Greenberg's theories of art) - some scholars believe that Neo-Expressionism played an important role in the transition from modernism to postmodernism.
Overview of Neo-Expressionism
"I want to make paintings that look as if they were made by a child," Jean-Michel Basquiat said. His raw, subjective work made him a leading figure of Neo-Expressionism.
Important Art and Artists of Neo-Expressionism
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.
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?
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.