Neo-Expressionism emerged out of Post-Modernism in the late 1970’s and a dissatisfaction with Minimalism and Conceptual Art.  Because of the overlap between these two movements several of the artists I read about in Post-modernism were also members of this group, such as Julian Schnabel and David Salle. 

Both in the writings about Post-modernism and Neo Expressionism several authors have referred to the exhibition titled ‘A New Spirit in Painting’ that took place in 1981 at London’s Royal Academy as being a critical turning point in history.  The curators of this exhibition were making the point that in their critical estimation the art of Painting had been undervalued in comparison with the work of modernist artists and other art genres over the preceding decades and they wanted to redress the imbalance.  This exhibition, combined with the arrival of a new generation of wealthy art collectors such as Charles Saatchi, seems to have changed the debate and marked the point at which Neo Expressionism and Post Modernism were really launched in the minds of critics, controversially for some.  A lot of this contextual studies research is causing me to ponder the role of Art Critics and Art Historians in determining the future course of art, rather than reporting on what has already been created.

Dempsey describes the term Neo Expressionism as covering a a shared tendency rather than a specific style, characterised by technical and thematic features.  Use of materials tends to be raw, tactile and vibrantly expressive of emotions.  It also marked a return to subjects that had been neglected by modernist and minimalist artists such as: figuration, subjectivity, overt emotion, autobiography, memory, psychology, synbolism, sexuality, literature and narrative.  The Neo Expressionist label became applied to a wider and wider number of artists and groups such as the new painting in Germany by artists such as Georg Baselitz and Gerhard Richter, also the Ugly Realists (eg Markus Lupertz) and the Neue Wilden (eg Rainer Fetting), Figuration Libre in France, Trans-avantguardia in Italy, and individuals and groups in the USA such as the ‘Bad Painters’.  In Britain Howard Hodgkin, Leon Kossoff  and Paula Rego were included.  In fact masses of diverse groups and individuals seem to be caught under the umbrella of Neo-Expressionism.

All the books identify Gerhard Richter as a major example of a Neo Expressionist artist.  Given that I read up a lot about Richter for the power point presentation I find it staggering and quite embarrassing that I missed this vital detail.  For my research however, I mostly concentrated on Richters own writings and that of curators who had organised his major exhibitons, rather than using the Modern Art Encyclopedias which tend to put artists into historical context.  Perry and Wood state that the artists own words are only a partial explanation of his work.. implying that the critics know best.  Richter seemed to fight hard against being defined as belonging to any group, school or movement, so maybe that is why I missed the point. I am not including works by Richter as he is already covered earlier in this blog.

The Tate Gallery refers to Paula Rego as a Neo Expressionist British artist.

regoNanny, Small Bears and Bogeyman  1982 Acrylic on paper
Rego often works on paper and in series. Most of her work involves storytelling and in the context of Neo-Expressionism this particular work is figurative, colourful and vibrant, but also very emotive and actually the content is quite frightening and horrid when examined.

Howard Hodgkin has said that he paints “representational pictures of emotional situations.”  Dempsey includes Hodgkin as being an English Neo-Expressionist, but The Tate Gallery list does not include him.  At a retrospective of his work the Tate curatorial guide describes Hodgkins process as follows:

 “Binding together all his work is his consistent exploration of the representation of personal encounters, emotional experience and memories of specific events. Whether trips to India, Egypt or Morocco, social occasions such as dinner with friends, particular moments are simultaneously reconstructed and obscured through a layering of the picture surface with distinct marks and intense colours, often achieved only over a period of several years.  While associations have been made to Matisse, Vuillard, Degas and American abstract expressionist painting, as well as Pahari miniature paintings of which the artist is an avid collector through his many trips to India, Hodgkin has continued to forge a strongly independent path, developing a distinctive style. ” 

I have just watched a film of Hodgkin being interviewed by Alan Yentob in which he fiercely resists being categorized into any school or movement, but Gerhard Richter was just the same.  The only statement Hodgkin made very definitely was that he was not an abstract painter.  Looking at his work I would have thought Hodgkin should be included as a Neo-Expressionist.


Howard Hodgkin, Red Bermudas 1978-80


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