Neo-Expressionism - History and Concepts
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.