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Neo-Expressionism; contemporary art

The lines dividing different art movements and periods are always blurred, and neo-expressionism was one of those movements that fell across some of those dividing lines; those between modern art and contemporary art, in a postmodernist phase. Where minimalism had reacted against abstract expressionism, neo expressionist artists reacted back against minimalism, putting intense subjectivity into their work, and highly expressive and individualistic handling of materials.

Artists returned to representations of recognisable objects, and applied vivid colour roughly and emotionally, picking up where much of the first wave of expressionism had left off. And they explored a wide range of themes in a style that dominated the contemporary art world of the late 70s and 80s. The movement began in Germany, with stated inspirations including Munch, de Kooning, and Picasso, and it thrived as artists rediscovered a love for painting things after many years of movements like minimalism and pop art.

Suddenly open to subject matter once again, artists re-explored classical mythology, historical events, and nature, bringing new perspectives to each as they threw fauvist colours and expressionistic strokes onto the canvas. The movement rapidly grew in popularity across the European and American art scenes, spreading from Germany around the world’s art galleries, heralding the beginning of a shift away from modernism to whatever came next.

Neo-Expressionism in Germany, Italy, and the US

Expressionism had enjoyed a resurgence in Germany after World War 2. The Nazi’s had seen German expressionism as degenerate art and were very hostile to it, so bringing it back was a step away from that dark history. Artists like Baselitz and Penck were the earliest forerunners of the new contemporary movement, with each exploring a focus on the how rather than why of painting. Other artists saw it as an ideal place to examine the issues of Germany’s recent history, seeing the entire shift back towards expressionism as a societal shift towards wanting to address those issues.

In Italy it meant something very different, and much more focused on the art world issue of frustrations with modernism. Italy had been gripped by the Arte Povera movement which shared facets of minimalism in it’s use of simple materials. Neo-expressionism freed artists from a range of strict limitations imposed by late modernism, and in Italian neo-expressionist artworks there were a diversity of ideas; elements of parody, inspirations from German, US, and even Indian artists, and art exploring ancient Italian history.

The US turbo charged the movement; New York had thrived on abstract expressionism, and neo expressionists thrived there also as the 1980s and the Reagan era came round. Names like Schnabel and Basquiat emerged in the art galleries, with subjects and influences in their work ranging from historical imagery to graffiti, and often in highly personal and emotive contexts. With consumerism and capitalism running wild around it, the art world boomed and pieces were selling for vast prices in New York auction rooms, which many of the artists happily embraced. Opinions shifted though, and critics began to question the validity of the movement.

The cycle of art movements continues into contemporary art

The vast amounts of money present around the movement drew criticisms of having more in common with conservative art trends than the typical left-leaning avant-garde. Politics was often present in the work of neo-expressionist artists, but not with any real intent of critiquing or changing it; they simply depicted the world as it existed.

Beyond the but-is-it-art critique, a clearer problem lay in over-production; the market became flooded with work, the average quality declined, and as the consumerist party of the 80s began to wind down, so too did neo-expressionism. Debates continue as to whether the movement was modernist or post-modernist, which probably identifies it as a perfect bridge between the two.

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