The Raw, Taboo-Busting Power of Neo-Expressionism

Georg Baselitz photographed by Lothar Wolleh, Mülheim, 1971 (Wikimedia Commons) Georg Baselitz, photographed by Lothar Wolleh, Mülheim, 1971 (Wikimedia Commons).

Bursting with raw, unfiltered emotion, Neo-Expressionism’s revival of the Expressionist style in the early 20th century, combined with an intense subjectivity, reached a height of popularity in the 1980s. The phenomenon, with roots in post-war Germany, spread across the world in a reaction against the Conceptual and Minimal art of the 1970s, and paved a taboo-busting path for the Postmodernism was to follow.

“I begin with an idea, but as I work the picture takes over. Then there is the struggle between the idea I preconceived … and the picture that fights for its own life”

Georg Baselitz

The Neo-Expressionist movement’s aggressive manner of execution alongside a raw primitivism, sensuality, and emotion enraptured the art market in the 1980s, as works by artists in France, Germany, and United States commanded millions at auction. Artists painted on any and every accessible surface to express social protest, expression, and rage through bright colors and multicomponent textures as part of an art movement that captured the frantic change in society and financial boom of the era.

Its roots weren’t formed in the ’80s market boom, though, and instead can be traced to the ashes of World War II. Georg Baselitz revived the German Expressionism that was once denounced by the Nazis as degenerate art. He laid the Neo-Expressionist groundwork, allowing a generation of Germans to expressively wrestle with issues of art and national identity in the post-war years.

Baselitz’s early artistic years were moulded by a brief spell in the officially sanctioned Social Realism of Communist East Berlin, but his encounters with Abstract art in West Berlin led him to returning the human figure to a central position in painting and propelling a once-derided genre into the mainstream. Audiences weren’t ready for Baselitz’s shocking 1963 exhibition in West Berlin, but it proved to be a pivotal moment for the movement despite the show being dismantled due to perceived indecency of paintings depicting masturbation and nudity. Attitudes change though, and a decade later Baselitz would be feted as the most prominent Neo-Expressionist in Germany.

By the 1980s, this resurgence in raw and sensual painting had become an international phenomenon. The distant sparseness of Minimalism and Conceptualism was painted over in raw impasto strokes, as artists globally unleashed their creativity in expressive directions. Drawing upon mythology, culture, history, nationalism, and eroticism, the Neo-Expressionists harnessed the redemptive power of art in a punk movement that typically divided opinion. 

In the United States, artists like Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat would become the poster boys of a cool new artistic wave in the 1980s, as their self-styled primitive personas were eagerly welcomed by the decadent and upscale art world, including Andy Warhol, who was a keen admirer of Basquiat. A very keen admirer. Reflecting passionately emotions and causes, the particularities of new expressionism across the word shared a common thread, but each had their own distinct style.

A Worldwide Movement

Georg Baselitz – Partisan.

Georg Baselitz – Partisan. Sold for £904,000 via Christie’s (June 2005).

The roots of emotion and deeper meaning were most powerful in Germany where Neo-Expressionists were known as Neue Wilden (New Fauves, which hints towards bold and colorful tones). In the years following World War II, as Germany emerged in search of a national identity, the move towards Expressionism reflected a shift in society as people sought to address the country’s troubled modern history. Georg Baselitz and Markus Lupertz sought to overcome the legacy of the Nazis through their work, while the powerfully emotional paintings of Anselm Kiefer transcended the Nazi years to create powerful and thoughtful tools for reflection. Politics and social commentary were hard to avoid in the politically charged post-war years in Germany. No one was more openly political than Jorg Immendorff, whose work addressed the problems of a divided Germany.

In Italy, Neo-Expressionist painting was known as Transavanguardia (meaning beyond the Avant-Garde) and sought to escape the sparseness of the Arte Povera movement that preceded it. Parody separated Transavanguardia from its Neo-Expressionist contemporaries, which can be seen in the ‘mock-heroic’ work of Sandro Chia. Its most famous son was Francesco Clemente, whose spells in India and New York helped him to absorb international stylistic influences. 

War, conflict, and collective identity weren’t central concepts to Neo-Expressionism in the United States. Instead, a group of New York artists including Eric Fischl, Julian Schnabel, and Basquiat created highly personal and expressive works that largely focused on personal experience. Coinciding with a period of great affluence, the group would become the most well-known artists to ride the Neo-Expressionist wave of consumerism, as their art reached eye-watering figures at auction. 

Substance over Style

Defined by a philosophy instead of a specific aesthetic style guide, Neo-Expressionism was controversial and not always cast in a favourable critical light. It was considered a form of outsider art – and proudly so by the champions of the form. And while the associated artists did not share a strict approach, they did share an ethos, including a rough approach to figuration (depicting objects or subjects in a recognizable or realistic way), which they made no concerted effort to complete perfectly, at least not in a traditional sense. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat – Untitled (Boxer).

Jean-Michel Basquiat – Untitled (Boxer). Sold for $13,522,500 via Christie’s (Nov 2008).

At the centre of the style was a return to painting as the central form of artistry. Large-scale pieces dominated by raw brush strokes and covered in thick layers of paint in intense colors typified a shared approach. The form and the way in which an artwork was produced took their turn in the spotlight in a typically counter-culture manner, and helped to highlight the movement’s difference. Primitivism, nature, mythology and history all featured and often in a provocative manner.

It wasn’t without its influence, although how these were interpreted represented the individuality of the movement as a whole. The emotion of the art, the use of instinctual mark-making, subjective color, and distorted forms had origins in early 20th century Expressionism, Fauvism, Die Brücke, and Der Blaue Reiter, as well as Abstract Expressionism. 

Georg Baselitz

Without Georg Baselitz there would be no Neo-Expressionism. A prolific German painter and sculptor, the controversial, innovative and fearless Baselitz founded the Neue Wilden Expressionist group on the way to becoming an influential figure and icon of German Neo-Expressionism. 

Georg Baselitz – The Music Hour.

Georg Baselitz – The Music Hour. Sold for £176,000 via Sotheby’s (June 2005).

Helping German Neo-Expressionism to break away from the abstraction and formalism of the domineering Conceptual Art movement, his figurative paintings weighed heavy with thick paint of striking hues that often featured upside-down characters. Baselitz refused to ascribe particular meaning to his works, but his characters did that for him as visual reference points to the recent upheavals in German history.

Man of Faith includes one of Baselitz’s upside-down characters, who hangs in seeming anguish. Ethereal blues and purples glow from his face and limbs, while his frenzied eyes mesmerize against a background of dark, frenzied brushstrokes. Similarly, Adieu (1982) depicts two upside-down figures that are seemingly suspended in space. He actually painted the figures upside down and reflected an unease about celebrating humanity in the wake of the Holocaust and WWII. The characters first appeared in his Heroes and Partisans paintings that show soldiers as awkward giants in tattered rags and not the invincible warriors featured in propaganda of the time. Berlitz’s innovations in the face of criticism ensured that his innovations gave the next generation the platform for their work. 

Anselm Kiefer

Bold and groundbreaking, Anselm Kiefer’s vast canvases often dealt with German history and how it related to the Holocaust at a time when acknowledging it was still considered taboo in the post war years. How vast were the canvases? His haunting painting, Athanor was five by 12 feet, for reference. 

Whether he was working as a painter, sculptor, or photographer Kiefer’s influence as an artist remained as vital as his desire to explore modern taboos and spiritual connections. And in the same vein of other Neo-Expressionist painters, Kiefer utilized themes of mysticism mixed with emotion to compelling effect to push the boundary of what’s possible through art.

Anselm Kiefer – Athanor.

Anselm Kiefer – Athanor. Sold for £959,650 via Christie’s (February 2011).

This expressiveness can be seen with beguiling power in Athanor, the imposing painting of Albert Speer’s design for Hitler’s Chancellery building. The dappled and textured foreground sits in contrast to the ash of the burning building, which references Germany’s terrible past through the transformative process of a fire. Lead and sand were of particular interested to Kiefer for their innate expressive characteristics, while he also used burned straw to create the ash. The painting has also proved of particular interest to collectors and has appeared at auction three times since 2001.

Francesco Clemente

As the leading light of the Italian Trans-Avantgarde movement, Francesco Clemente pulled no punches in his exploration of the connection between sexuality, violence, and raw emotion in his paintings that expressed an inner conflict of existential expressiveness; a theme typical of Neo-Expressionism.

Absorbing cultural influences from spells living in India and New York, Clemente’s highly sensual style that bordered on erotica was formed by his many globe-trotting experience, alongside Surrealist and Abstract forms. His figures reflected contemporary urban life through an emotional tone and a raw, primitive manner that shares a sense inner turmoil and alienation.

This can be seen in his The Fourteen Stations, No. XI series of canvases that he began after arriving in New York in 1981. The typically expressive brushwork of the painting shows a group of naked figures huddled together in a conjoined twist of emotion. Rejecting traditional standards of composition to portray the human body in an elemental way, Clemente’s depiction of layers of flesh reference the layered work of Willem de Kooning, who was a significant influence on the artist after seeing a retrospective in Stockholm. 

Julian Schnabel

Julian Schnabel - Ornamental Despair.

Julian Schnabel – Ornamental Despair. Sold for $506,500 via Sotheby’s (November 2011).

Exploring concepts like human psychology and history to create highly personal work, Julian Schnabel became a prominent part of American Expressionism, who together with Basquiat and David Salle sought to restore painting to its pre-abstraction status. 

Outlandish, outspoken, and bursting with ego, Schnabel’s life and career has been driven by a seeming unquenchable expressive thirst. His works are heavy with the weight of emotion and human sentiment, as well as unconventional materials and supports like black velvet, weathered tarpaulins, and cardboard. Neo-Expressionist touches of the bravura application exaggerate his confidence, while his use of found objects helped to set a path for the mass-produced appropriation-consciousness of Postmodernism. “My paintings take up room, they make a stand. People will always react to that,” explained Schnabel. “Some people get inspired, others get offended. But, that’s good. I like that.” 

Schnabel introduced himself to a whole new mainstream audience as a director of Basquiat (1996), Before Night Falls (2000), the Academy Award nominated The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), and most recently, the Vincent Van Gogh biopic, At Eternity’s Gate (2018). He might even be unwittingly familiar as the painter of the artwork for Red Hot Chili Peppers’ album, By the Way in 2002.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

The epitome of Neo-Expressionist commercial cool, Jean-Michel Basquiat was at the tip of the expressive wave in the 1980s. Basquiat’s work had a primordial, cave painting quality that combined a cubist style painting of heads with the energy of contemporary street art and a multi-component, vivid Neo-Expressionist approach.

Jean-Michel Basquiat - Dos Cabezas.

Jean-Michel Basquiat – Dos Cabezas. Sold for $7,082,500 via Christie’s (Nov 2010).

If anyone was a reflection of the boom of Neo-Expressionism and the surge in the art market of the 1980s then it’s Basquiat. His rapid rise to fame and death from heroin overdose at the age of 27 pre-empted the movement’s demise, but his commercial success can’t paint over the power and significance of his signature visual collages. Fusing expressive and often abstract elements of punk, graffiti, and counter-cultures of the early 1980s, Basquiat provided a link to 1950s Abstract Expressionism through his art that remains revered today and at the pinnacle of Neo-Expressionist cool.

Expressive heritage

Burning with bright intensity at the height of its popularity, Neo-Expressionism was derided as a trend by some critics, but as time has passed it has allowed the movement to find its place within the history of art as a bridge between late-Modern and early-Postmodernism, although this remains open for debate among some critics.

Its searing rise to prominence as a domineering presence on the European and American art markets in the late 1970s and 1980s was a phoenix-like rise from the sparse ashes of Minimalism that preceded it, before crossing over into mainstream cool and making icons of Jean-Michel Basquiat and sending auction prices soaring to record levels.  

Its success would ultimately be the movement’s downfall. Over-production and saturation of a collapsing market at the end of the 1980s ensured a dramatic fall from grace that was unlike the demise any other 20th century art movement. Questions of whether some artists were cashing in on the Neo-Expressionist boom in the art market hastened its demise. And the complete exclusion of any female artists from the movement severely dates it today, as work by any women was excluded from every exhibition. 

Despite this critical uncertainty of Neo-Expressionism’s place and value in art history, a leading collection of painters have remained popular with the public and at auction, even though many of their contemporaries remain in the shadows and the last major Neo-Expressionism exhibition took place back in 1999 at the Guggenheim Museum.

However Neo-Expressionism is viewed; whether it’s as a late manifestation of Modernism, the end of Modernism, or an emotionally-laden entity all of its own, Neo-Expressionism brought the painting roaring back to the height of popularity, via German Expressionism. And while the stain of over-commerciality will likely fade in memory over time, its vivid, taboo-busting compositions will remain as vital and rebellious as ever. 


Sources: The Art Story | Tate | Art in Context | ArtSpace | Widewalls | Arthive | Artnet | Christie’s