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What Is Neo-Expressionism?

Neo-Expressionism is a vibrant art movement that emerged in the late 1970s, characterized by intense colors, dynamic brushwork, and emotive subject matter. It's a reaction against conceptual art, reviving painterly techniques with a modern twist. This movement invites us to explore raw emotions on canvas. Curious about its impact on contemporary art? Let's delve deeper into its expressive power.
Debra Barnhart
Debra Barnhart

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.

Some neo-expressionist artists find their inspiration in street graffiti.
Some neo-expressionist artists find their inspiration in street graffiti.

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.

The neo-expressionist art movement embraced paint as a creative medium.
The neo-expressionist art movement embraced paint as a creative medium.

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.

Artists like Kiefer and Richter were influenced by their exposure to Nazism.
Artists like Kiefer and Richter were influenced by their exposure to Nazism.

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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Neo-Expressionism?

Neo-Expressionism is an art movement that emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a reaction against the conceptual and minimalist art that dominated the previous decades. It is characterized by intense subjectivity and rough, emotive, and sometimes chaotic application of paint, often with an emphasis on figurative work. Artists like Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer are notable figures in this movement, which sought to return to the expressive potential of painting.

Who are some key artists associated with Neo-Expressionism?

Key artists associated with Neo-Expressionism include Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, and Julian Schnabel from Germany and Italy, as well as Jean-Michel Basquiat and Eric Fischl from the United States. These artists are known for their vigorous and emotive approach to painting, often incorporating elements of their cultural heritage and personal history into their work.

How did Neo-Expressionism differ from previous art movements?

Neo-Expressionism marked a departure from the intellectual rigor and formal austerity of movements like Minimalism and Conceptual Art. Instead, it embraced a raw, expressive approach that was more in line with the earlier traditions of Expressionism and Surrealism. Neo-Expressionists often focused on human figures, narratives, and personal symbolism, using vivid colors and dynamic brushstrokes to convey emotion and meaning.

What themes are commonly explored in Neo-Expressionist art?

Neo-Expressionist art frequently explores themes of identity, history, mythology, and contemporary society's challenges. The movement is known for its narrative quality, with artists often delving into personal experiences, cultural commentary, and existential inquiries. The human condition, in all its complexity, is a central concern, with many works addressing issues of spirituality, politics, and psychological depth.

How has Neo-Expressionism influenced contemporary art?

Neo-Expressionism has had a lasting impact on contemporary art by reaffirming the importance of painting and personal expression in an increasingly conceptual art world. It opened the door for a resurgence of interest in figurative painting and set the stage for later movements that also emphasize emotional depth and narrative. Contemporary artists continue to draw inspiration from the Neo-Expressionist focus on authenticity, emotion, and the human experience in their work.

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    • Some neo-expressionist artists find their inspiration in street graffiti.
      By: sas
      Some neo-expressionist artists find their inspiration in street graffiti.
    • The neo-expressionist art movement embraced paint as a creative medium.
      By: mrallen
      The neo-expressionist art movement embraced paint as a creative medium.
    • Artists like Kiefer and Richter were influenced by their exposure to Nazism.
      By: Sergey Kamshylin
      Artists like Kiefer and Richter were influenced by their exposure to Nazism.