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The Neo-Expressionism movement begins in Germany at the end of the 1970’s with large scale and mostly violent themed paintings. The artists would deliberately roughly and rapidly apply paint and alternative materials to the canvas, which would give a three-dimensional feel to the paintings, that almost seemed like objects. Occasionally, this would hinder the understanding of the work, leading some art critics to call them bad paintings. About a decade before the Neo-Expressionist movement starts, abstract art was at its low point, as well as painting itself, for the post-modern art world was filled with new acceptable competing media.
The ferocity being depicted in these paintings were mostly a reflection of Germany’s violent past, as seen in Anselm Kiefer’s work. Kiefer dedicates his whole artistic career to his memory of the Cold War since he grew up playing in the wreckage of his country. His paintings reflect this, as he uses unconventional materials such as glass and lead, sometimes melted or hammered onto the canvas. Kiefer can work for many years on a single work, adding and removing material from his creation. In his painting, The Red Sea, he uses led, shellac, and oil with woodcut and photography on canvas.
In 1977, a group of German artists formed a collective called Neuen Wilder (Wild Youth) and founded the Galerie am Moritzplatz in Berlin. This group was influenced by another German artist named Georg Baselitz. He would create thick layers of paint on a carved linoleum plate – a technique that wasn’t well seen at the time – to achieve rich textures on his prints. The themes he used were disturbing and provocative, like in Three-Legged Nude. Baselitz worked with upside-down images in the year of 1969, believing this helped him better represent his content. The artists involved in this movement would portray their vision of the world along with their personal and emotional view on the matter. They were free to choose a variety of themes, such as historical, mythological and personal.
Jorg Immendorff began as a Neo-Dadaist artist and was a student of Joseph Beuys, later becoming part of the group Neue Wilder, where he is most known for painting Cafe Deutschland. This work represents the tension that was involved in Germany’s separation and its reunification. The artist was able to join a series of images – some understandable and others not so much – in a contrast of bright, almost neon colors and black. Immendorff was able to mix many subjects in one work, like social and political comments, historical and mythical references, autobiographical images, and with no particular reference point for the viewer to start.
Many American artists also adapted to this movement, such as Julian Schnabel with his extravagant, gestural, figurative and large-scale paintings. He used broken clay plates and other objects on his paintings and also didn’t shy away from traditional topics and styles, as he referenced religion and the triptych composition, seen in his work The Student of Prague. Schnabel breaks with the two-dimensionality of the work and uses this to imply the importance of painting and its comeback.
The youngest artist of the Neo-Expressionism was Jean-Michel Basquiat, an American artist that, like many others from this movement, worked with large-scale paintings and intense colors. His work often portrayed the urban and intellectual life, with buildings, police officers, and automobiles, but in a primitive style. His terrified looking figures were bony and often wore masks, resembling a modern take on stone-age rock art. Basquiat would paint with intense brush strokes, many times mixing with collage and writing. His art has a strong social theme, as he portrayed many black icons and questioned racial issues, as well as demystifying and desacralizing relevant art icons, like the Mona Lisa. Sadly, the artist passes away in 1988 of overdose.
Even though the raw and violence of the Neo-Expressionist art were not well seen by many art critics, this movement was very well received by gallery owners and the art market in general. The movement meant a comeback of palpable and sellable artwork, as a contrast to earlier performance art, installations, conceptual and land art, as well as many other movements. The artists continue to maintain the ideals of the Neo-Expressionism, even after the movement dies down in the mid-1980’s. This movement represents the comeback of figurative painting to the art world and is proof that the post-modern art world is not exclusively abstract and can work with new ways of representing traditional media, like redefining painting.