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What Is Neo-Expressionism?

By Debra Barnhart
Updated May 23, 2024
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Neo-Expressionism was a postmodern art movement that began in Germany in the early 1980s in reaction to the philosophies of modern art. This movement, which spread to other parts of Europe and the US, revitalized painting as a means of artistic expression. Like some other postmodern art movements, neo-expressionism did not shy away from human emotion and drew its inspiration from diverse aspects of culture. Many neo-expressionist artists benefited from the prosperous art market of the 1980s.

Neo-expressionist artists rejected the over-simplicity of modern art. Movements in modern art like minimalism trimmed artistic expression down to the bare bones of composition and design, while removing all traces of human emotion, individuality and culture. Neo-expressionist artists, on the other hand, cared less about artistic ideas of design and far more about individual expression and culture.

Coming about at a time when painting had been declared dead by some art critics and artists, the neo-expressionist art movement embraced paint as a creative medium. The German-born artist George Baselitz is often considered to be a pioneer of neo-expressionism. He frequently painted the human figure, a subject that many modern artists had turned away from. Baselitz also celebrated the unique qualities of paint in his work, often by applying paint roughly with noticeable brush strokes.

Two other German neo-expressionist artists, Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer, also celebrated painting as a medium, but each had a unique style. One body of Richter’s work consisted of photorealistic landscapes painted in oils. The landscapes were brilliantly crafted but appeared to be out of focus, which made a funny comment on the mechanical nature of photography. Anselm Kiefer, who as of 2011 still paints in a neo-expressionist style, often uses landscape as subject matter as well, but he affixes other materials like sand, hair, straw and photographs to his canvases.

Much neo-expressionist artwork has an edge to it, and some of it is emotionally dark. Artists like Kiefer and Richter were influenced by their exposure to Communism and Nazism. Other artists were affected by prejudice or by the perception of an ironic side to the American dream.

For the neo-expressionist artist, the grist for the creative mill came from diverse sources. Anselm Kiefer draws on German history, Nordic and Greek philosophy, western philosophy, classical music and science. The American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, who died in 1988, found his inspiration in the urban street scrawl of graffiti. Another artist, Eric Fischl, often paints the human figure and uses American upper-class angst as a subject matter for his paintings.

Neo-expressionism rose at a time when the art market, particularly in the United States, was booming. Many neo-expressionist artists became highly successful, both from a monetary standpoint and in terms of recognition. Their work was widely collected both by individuals and by art museums.

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