When we look at the art scene of the 20th century, we see that some of the greatest avant-garde movements came to life as a result of a complete revolt towards some other movement. Conceptual art was born as a reaction to Formalism, Minimalism aimed to be the exact opposite of Abstract Expressionism, and then there was Neo-expressionism, which strived to go back to objectivity in painting and sculpture, the portrayal of recognizable objects rather than just concepts, ideas and visions. Emerging in the late 1970s, it was often called Neue Wilden - the New Wild Ones, for its origins in West Germany, and it represented the return to Expressionism, sometimes in lightly abstract ways. From its conception years through late 1980s, it spread across the world, leaving the strongest marks on Italy and the United States. With strong sense of artistic power, neo-expressionist artists painted and drew upon a variety of topics, such as mythology, history, culture and even erotica.
What characterizes the artworks of Neo-expressionism is an immediate return to painting as the primary, almost organic part of artistry - this reflects perfectly in often large-scale pieces, covered in thick layers of paint and raw brushstrokes of intense colors. It was more about the form, the way an artwork is done, rather than what’s represented through it. The artists practically declared war on narration and embraced iconography, primitivism, nature, mythology and history, sometimes in a provocative manner too. Such approach was well-received in the early and mid-1980s, and many classify it as a trend, rather than a proper movement.
The first signs of Neo-expressionism were pin-pointed to the year 1963, when Georg Baselitz opened a shocking exhibition in West Berlin. His show was dismantled shortly after it was set up, due to “indecency” - some of the paintings depicted masturbations, while others showed male figures with an erection. In the following decade, Baselitz became the most prominent figure of Neo-expressionist figurative painting in Germany, in company of artists like Anselm Kiefer, A.R. Penck, Eugen Schonebeck and Markus Lupertz. The group created works inspired by Munch, de Kooning and even late Picasso, dealing with their country’s troubled post-war history and Nazi legacy. Further south on the European continent, Italy introduced its own version of the trend, called Trans-Avantgarde, introduced by critic Achille Bonito Oliva as a response to another Italian influential avant-guard, Arte Povera. With a strong sense of parody, their style was fairly similar to the German one, something that could be seen in the works of Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi. Across the ocean, however, the United States warmly welcomed the return of the expression in the early 1980s. With a base in New York City, American creatives like Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl and even Jean-Michel Basquiat challenged the content that was shown within galleries, bringing in personal, sensitive works of art.
The movement had an immense influence on the art market in Europe and the US during its relatively short period of existence. Its popularity within the commercial world of galleries reached great heights during the mid-1980s, as Neo-expressionist paintings became the hottest buying and selling item out there. Many criticized the artists because of this, accusing them of creating art for the sole purpose of profit, and many still consider it to be the main reason of its eventual decline. By the end of the decade, its over-production caused the collapse of its market. Today, it is defined as a sort of a bridge between the late-Modern and the early-Postmodern art, and its artists still hold a significant spot at auctions - although that’s due to their own popularity. Its legacy is an important one, and here we will review the masterpieces of its late period.
Controversial, innovative and fearless, Georg Baselitz represents, conveniently, the icon of German Neo-expressionism, but also of the movement on a global scale. His large-scale paintings, almost weight-down by excessive use of paint, striking in their vivid or in-depth color and upside-down iconic characters are every bit a part of the movement as we can imagine. One such example is his Sieben mal Paula, or “seven times Paula”, in which Georg Baselitz asks us: who is the real Paula? They’re all different, and yet the same, and that’s only one of the things we’re puzzled by in this exquisite artwork.
Featured image: Georg Baselitz - Sieben mal Paula, 1987/88. Oil on canvas, 195 x 172 cm. Courtesy Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden
A representative of the Italian answer to Neo-expressionism - Transavanguardia - Enzo Cucchi, like many other artists of the movement, came to prominence during the early 1980s. His often dark paintings resemble those found within caves, and as such they also often contain symbols like primitive tools, flames and livestock. Evoking a higher level of drama, compared to Neo-expressionist artworks in other countries, Enzo Cucchi’s works are usually large-scale, and one such example is the 1988 Sparire (“Disappearing”), one of two pieces in a series characterized by horizontal, panoramic format the depths of blacks and browns.
Featured image: Enzo Cucchi - Sparire I, 1988. Etching, aquatint on copper plate and silkscreen print, in 5 colours, on Fabriano paper, 78 x 300 cm. Courtesy Deweer Gallery Otegem
Anselm Kiefer is one of the German Neo-expressionist artists who witnessed the struggles of post-war Germany and had often depicted it in his art. For his 1989 piece entitled Berenice, he tackled this and another topic typical for his movement - mythology and legends. The sculpture made of lead, glass, photographs and hair references a story dating to 3rd century BC, where Berenice, the Princess of Cyrene (now Lybia) sacrificed a lock of her hair to ensure the safe return of her husband. The sculpture also represents the wing of an airplane, and Anselm Kiefer’s use of lead points out the bitterness left by World War II.
Featured image: Anselm Kiefer - Berenice, 1989. Lead, glass, photographs and hair, 120 x 390 x 320 cm. Courtesy Guggenheim Bilbao, Photo by Erika Barahona-Ede
If we were to describe Frank Auerbach’s work in two words, they would be: grotesque lining. Born in Germany but raised in Britain due to Nazism, the artist often painted or drew models, and usually the same ones, as he liked to keep up the familiarity. His painted works can be considered those of abstract art, where his subjects emerge from an undefined background, while his etchings have a clearer vision of a face, built up by a series of lines. His late 1980s drawing series featured many models, captured from different angles and drawn with various intensity of lining and shading. The 1989 Catherine represents one of the series’ highlights, an abstraction based on realism.
Featured image: Frank Auerbach - Catherine, 1989. Etching, 26 x 21.5 cm. Courtesy Marlborough Fine Art
Marlene Dumas’s haunting oil and watercolor art became iconic in figurative arts, but also left a deep mark on the Neo-expressionism, as one of the representatives outside Europe and the US. Her late 1980s and early 1990s series of pieces were dedicated to pregnancy and babies, where her subjects came to life through the shades of blues, greys and deep blacks. Within the movement, Marlene Dumas gave birth to an entire artistic style of her own, encompassing portraits of an unusual impact and within different sceneries, sometimes erotic and sometimes disconcerting. Her paintings often play with perception and proportionality of the human body.
Featured image: Marlene Dumas - Good Advice, 1991. Oil on canvas, 50 x 40 cm. Courtesy Galerie Isabella Czarnowska
Part of Neo-expressionism in America, Eric Fischl got recognized in the 1980s, for his figurative paintings exploring adolescent sexuality and voyeurism. His portraits are usually those of social situations, often seeming as though they were witnessed in secrecy due to their explicit topics. Highly expressive brushstrokes and dominating monochromatic atmosphere is what characterizes his Jump-rope artwork as well, in which we see a female nude in a narrative completely open for interpretation. Many of Eric Fischl’s paintings are based on some 2000 of his photographic works, which he digitally re-works before using them again.
Featured image: Eric Fischl - Jump-rope, 1992. Unique color intaglio TP, 43.8 x 38.1 cm. Courtesy BCB Art
That Neo-expressionism could be abstract shows this 1992 print by Elizabeth Murray, entitled Wiggle Manhattan. The artist, who was inspired by many other movements too throughout her career, such as Action painting, Minimalism and even Cubism, took on the map of Manhattan to draw strong linings in red over it, it what appears to be a dissection of his many streets and avenues. With a touch of Surrealism, Elizabeth Murray inserts ghost-like figures within her work, as well as some dog bones and other symbolic elements. Through use of incisive colors and collage-like compositions, the artist contributes a unique kind of abstraction to the Neo-expressionist movement.
Featured image: Elizabeth Murray - Wiggle Manhattan, 1992. Lithograph in 15 colors, Edition of 47. 149.2 x 73.7 cm. Courtesy Universal Limited Art Editions, New York
One of the artists who defined Neo-expressionism in the conceptually-saturated American art scene, Julian Schnabel was particularly inspired by Spain and Barcelona, especially after his visit in the 1970s. Its rich colors and vivacity inspired the creation of his signature plate paintings, full of textures and iconic imagery. In the late 1980s, Julian Schnabel made paintings dedicated to the written word and made linguistic references. Part of it is the Fakires piece, where letters become pictorial elements immersed in expressive flows of a richer color palette and brushstrokes, underlined by an intense black lining.
Featured image: Julian Schnabel - Fakires (Fakirrak), 1993. Oil, resin and cardboard on cotton drop cloth, 275 x 214 cm. Courtesy Guggenheim Bilbao
Another American Neo-expressionist fascinated with iconic and mythological figures, Leon Golub created Dancing Men in 1993, incorporating his trademark Classical Greek characters. Often compared to Henri Matisse’s The Dance, the print doesn’t however does not have these figures in a circle, but spread on a void of beige in all their colourful splendor. The ghostly appearance of Leon Golub’s men comes outlined by the use of vivid colors and textures within their contours, and their posture seems to be implying a variety of possible scenarios and emotions - fear, seduction, violence, love and of course dancing.
Featured image: Leon Golub - Dancing Men, 1993. Color lithograph, 62.9 x 55.9cm. Edition of 100. Courtesy ICA Philadelphia
Born in Italy, Francesco Clemente spent his lifetime between India and the US, but he still remains one of his home country’s most influential Neo-expressionists. In fact, he is considered one of the most prominent artists of the movement, with his highly expressive return to the human body and condition. Such is his print Untitled Self Portrait from 1993, where we see a strong presence of red, as the color of love, but also fury and, maybe in this case, sadness too. Red presents the extension of the artist’s body, and among the twirl we see his struggling face, in a state of discomfort and hopelessness.
Featured image: Francesco Clemente - Untitled Self Portrait, 1993. Color digital inkjet print on handmade paper, 26.7 x 40.6 cm. Edition of 250. Courtesy Robert Fontaine Gallery Miami