Neo-Expressionism: Definition, Movement & Artists

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

This lesson illuminates the history, methods, and key figures of the Neo-Expressionist movement, its roots in post-WWII Germany, its spread throughout Europe and to America, and its eventual decline at the end of the 1980s.

A Scream in Color and Form

Bright colors, gargantuan canvases, jarring images, and paint or other materials reaching up from the canvas: the minimalism of artists in the 1950s and 1960s shattered with the resurrection of an expressionist element in post-WWII Germany, a country struggling with the psychological ambivalence of its past.

Rise of Neo-Expressionism

Artists frequently revisit past styles and movements, and Neo-Expressionism represented a movement among the art community, beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, to reject the austerity and stylized forms of minimalism and conceptualism. In resurrecting the signature elements of the original expressionist movement, including expressive brush strokes, highly textured painting with paint built up from the canvas's surface, and intense colors, these artists drew attention to the method and material of the work--not just the subject--as a means of storytelling.

Neo-Expressionist themes included the cultural, mythological and historical past, nationalism, and psychology, always focused on the controversial or taboo. Large-scale works, sometimes filling the entire wall of a room, depicted these unsettling subjects with frenetic and aggressive use of color, demanding attention and forcing viewers to address them and acknowledge their own feelings and beliefs. The movement spread throughout Europe during the 1960s and 1970s and to America in the 1980s, known as Neo-Expressionism and Neue Wilden in Germany, Trans-Avantgarde in Italy, and Neo-Expressionism, which was open to street art and graffiti art, in the United States. The movement declined in the late 1980s, however, its market flooded by overproduction.

Georg Baselitz

The rise of Neo-Expressionism as a movement began with the work of German artist Georg Baselitz. His work from the 1960s onward influenced a nation of artists struggling to express the complex cultural heritage of post-WWII German identity and a divided nation with its eastern portion under Soviet control. So powerful and controversial were his early paintings that his 1963 exhibition in West Berlin, featuring one subject masturbating and another with an erection, garnered the attention of the State Attorney who shut down the show and confiscated the art on grounds of indecency. In 1966 he painted his first work with the figure inverted, a frequent theme throughout his career. Other artists joined Baselitz in creating an outlet for the extreme emotions of the nation, forming the Neue Wilden, or ''New Fauves'' by the late 1970s. Fauves refers to an earlier expressionist movement whose critics called the artists, including Henri Matisse, ''fauves'' (beasts).

Adelaar by Baselitz
Baselitz Adelaar
Fingerpainting of Birch Trees by Baselitz
Fingerpainting of Birch Trees by Baselitz
Three Hearts by Baselitz
Three Hearts by Baselitz

Anselm Kiefer

Another leader of the Neo-Expressionist movement, Anselm Kiefer, also hailed from Germany. After a year of law classes, he switched to art and learned from Peter Dreher, Horst Antes, and Joseph Beuys, whose use of cultural symbols and myth to explore deeper historical issues inspired Kiefer more than anything. Kiefer's first major art production included a series of self-portrait photographs in which he wore military gear and posed in easily-identified locations in France, Switzerland, and Italy with a Hitlerian salute. Titled Occupations, the work played on the word ''occupation,'' meaning both profession and military invasion, to express his struggle with postwar German identity.

Throughout his career, Kiefer returned to historic German cultural themes mixed with the psychological turmoil of Germany's Nazi past. Including text in his art, he wove traditional nursery rhymes with images of war, also examining the role of art in personal and historical redemption. During the 1980s he began including wood, sand, straw, and lead in his paintings to create a clearer contrast between the subject and the creative media used. Beginning in the late 1990s, Kiefer transitioned from painting to sculpting while continuing to incorporate a variety of natural objects and substances into his mixed-media creations.

Nigredo by Kiefer
Nigredo by Kiefer
Starfall by Kiefer
Starfall by Kiefer
Woman of Antiquity by Kiefer
Woman of Antiquity by Kiefer

Julian Schnabel

By the early 1980s, the New Expressionist movement had spread from Europe to the United States, finding a home with artists in New York City. One such artist, Julian Schnabel, garnered so much acclaim that he practically became the poster child of the genre in that decade. Much like Baselitz, Schnabel and his associates rejected a two-decade reign of minimalism in art.

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