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Neo-Expressionism Artworks

Neo-Expressionism Collage

Started: Late 1970s

Ended: Early 1990s

Artworks and Artists of Neo-Expressionism

The below artworks are the most important in Neo-Expressionism - that both overview the major ideas of the movement, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist in Neo-Expressionism. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

Adieu (1982)

By: Georg Baselitz

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.

Café Deutschland I (1977-78)

By: Jörg Immendorff

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?

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Athanor (1983-84)

By: Anselm Kiefer

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.

Scissors and Butterflies (1999)

By: Francesco Clemente

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.

King of the Wood (1984)

By: Julian Schnabel

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.

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Bad Boy (1981)

By: Eric Fischl

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.

Related Movements and Major Works

Street, Berlin (1913)

Street, Berlin (1913)

Movement: Expressionism (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Kirchner is renowned for his many Berlin street scenes, and this particular work is perhaps his most well known from that category, if not his entire catalog. His jagged, angular brushstrokes, acidic colors, and elongated forms all charge the street atmosphere on the canvas and achieve something very rebellious for its time and exemplify the stylistic break with tradition that the members of Die Brücke sought. As a founding member of the group, Kirchner set out to establish a new order of painting, one that visibly renounced Impressionistic tendencies and the need to accurately portray figurative forms. In Street, Berlin, Kirchner created a stunningly askew rendition of an alienated, urban street procession. Without regard for realistic depiction of form, he bent and contorted his narrow figures like they were blades of grass in a meadow. Another uniquely modern feature of Street, Berlin was Kirchner's choice to position two prostitutes (identifiable by their signature plumed hats) as the painting's (somewhat off-center) focal point.

Excavation (1950)

Movement: Abstract Expressionism (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Willem de Kooning (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

Excavation is one of Willem de Kooning's most renowned works, and a true depiction of his Abstract Expressionist style. In it, we see a multitude of outlined forms that are abstractions of familiar shapes right on the periphery of recognition: fishes, birds, jaws, eyes and teeth. De Kooning has said of his work, "I paint this way because I can keep putting more and more things in - drama, anger, pain, love, a figure, a horse, my ideas about space." After this frenzied pile up of imagery, de Kooning would then, with signature chaos and deliberation, remove, scrape and add paint until he unearthed what he wanted. The resulting piece presented a true excavation of the artist's mind and movements in the moment.

De Kooning remains one of the most seminal gestural "action painters" who worked often with broad brushstrokes and in light, pastel palettes. He sought authenticity of experience, not only in the making of his paintings but also in the representation of the experience on canvas.

Bunnies (1966)

Movement: Pop Art (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Sigmar Polke (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

After Polke co-founded Capitalist Realism in 1963 in Düsseldorf, Germany, with Gerhard Richter and Konrad Leug, he began to create paintings of popular culture, evoking both genuine nostalgia for the images and mild cynicism about the state of the German economy. He began simulating the dot patterns of commercial four-color printing (Raster dots) around the same time as Lichtenstein started replicating Ben-Day dots on his canvases. In Bunnies, Polke uses an image from the Playboy Club depicting four of their "bunnies" in costume. By recreating the Raster dot printing technique in this painting, Polke disrupts the mass-marketing of sexual appeal, because the closer the viewer gets to the work, the less they see. Bunnies and the rest of Polke's Raster dot paintings, do not invite a deep, personal identification with the image but rather the images become allegories for the self as it lost amidst the flood of commecial imagery. The dissonance between the inviting sexuality of the appropriated image of the Playboy bunnies and the distancing effect of the Raster dots echoes the interplay of feelings and emotions felt by the artist, both yearning for the mass-culture advertised life and repelled by it at the same time. Polke's vision of popular culture is far more critical than any of the New York artists, and is rooted in the skeptical attitude held by the Capitalist Realists. Rather than the "cool" detachment of New York, Polke cleverly critiques popular culture and how it affects the individual using the same mass-market image-making techniques.

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