Definition, Characteristics, History.

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For a guide to the different,
categories/meanings of visual
arts, see: Definition of Art.


Famous Artwok

The Gleaner (1978) Georg Baselitz
Guggenheim Museum, NYC.
A monumental work, painted during
a decade of prosperity in Germany,
which addressed the complex issues
facing post-war German art & society.
The gleaner - deliberated inverted, to
symbolize the upheaval of war and its
aftermath - is searching for left-over
grain in a barren landscape. He is
both the locus of redemption and a
cause for despair. The painting
illustrates the neo-expressionist
preoccupation with the isolation
of man.

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).

For more details, see:
General guide to the style.
Expressionist Painters
Leading early members.

For a list of the Top 10 painters/
sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of 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.

Philosophically, neo-expressionist painters typically sought to illustrate the isolation of man, and the alienation engendered by modern society. These issues were often best understood by the Old World of Europe, rather than the New World of America. This tension was further underlined by an element of competition between these two geographical blocs who each saw themselves as the centre of contemporary art.

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).

In Britain, important neo-expressionists included Paula Rego (b.1935) and Christopher Le Brun.

Neo-Expressionist Paintings

Works by neo-expressionist painters hang in many of the world's best art museums. Here is a small selected sample of such works.

Georg Baselitz
- Elke VI (1976) Musee d'Art Moderne, St-Etienne
- The Gleaner (1978) Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York
- The Abgar Head (1984) Louisiana Museum, Humblebaek, Denmark
Rainer Fetting
- Large Shower (1980) Private Collection
- Red Head (1984) Galerie Daniel Templon, Paris
Anselm Kiefer
- Innenraum (1981) Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam
- Nigredo (1984) Philadelphia Museum of Art
- Standart-Bild (1971) Kunstmuseum, Basel
Jorg Immendorff
- World of Work (1984) Kunsthalle, Hamburg
Julian Schnabel
- Cabalistic Painting (1983) Detroit Institute of Arts
- Portrait of Eric (Free France) (1987) Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris
- Jacqueline (1987) Rupertinum Museum of Modern Art, Salzburg
David Salle
- My Head (1984) Saatchi Collection, London
- Walking the Dog (1992) Tate Collection, London
David Combas
- The Battle (1987) Private Collection, Paris
- Pearl Harbour (1988) Galerie Beaubourg, Paris
Francesco Clemente
- Fortune (1982) Sperone Westwater Gallery, New York
Sandro Chia
- The Painter and His Bear Cubs (1984) Private Collection
Enzo Cucchi
- Ferocious Painting (1980) Detroit Institute of Arts

• For information about expressionism, see: Homepage.

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