Neo-Expressionism: The Bridge That Tied Modernism to Postmodernism

Neo-Expressionism: Emergence and Style

Neo-expressionism was, predominantly, moving away from the intellectual and abstract artistic approach of the preceding decade and reconnecting with the expressionist traditions before World War II (Sotheby’s, 2020). Romantic and historical themes were on the table again, and mythology, nature, and primitivism. The subject presented within a frame of abstraction sought to portray the alienation and isolation of the human being due to modern society (visual-arts-cork, 2021). This portrait was delivered in an uncertain and, in many cases, fragile emotional tone, which was mainly via the style. Brushstrokes were bordering on aggressive, summing up to a thick layer of intense colors. It was also typical to receive neo-expressionist painting in large-scales (Britannica, 2019; Kordic, 2015). The movement appeared in slightly different forms in different parts of Europe and the USA.

Germany, Neue Wilden

Germany had been dealing with the aftermath of the Nazi era. Historical themes were still highly relevant, dealing with a post-war German identity (Wolf, 2014). The work of Anselm Kiefer is mentioned as the principal example in this regard. On another note, one of the most memorable moments of the movement was the dismantling of Georg Baselitz’s exhibition in Berlin, shortly after opening, the reason being indecency. Some of the paintings depicted masturbation and some male figures with erections (Kordic, 2015).

Italy, Transavanguardia

Critic Oliva named the movement in Italy, which in literal translation means beyond the avant-garde. The movement was considered a response to Italian Arte Povera. Quite similar to that of their German contemporaries, the work of Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, and Enzo Cucchi was highly parodical. Enzo Cucchi’s work reminded of paintings found in caves with darkness dominating colors and containing symbols like flames and livestock. His Untitled Self Portrait contains Neo-Expressionism’s specific aspects (Kordic, 2015) with a vivid red across the print and its highly personal emotional tone.

USA, Bad Painting

The term can be traced back to Schnabel’s paintings on velvet, reminding the paintings sold out of the back-trunk of vans parked in car parks at the time. Schnabel also challenged the lines of good and bad art with appropriation (Britannica, 2019).

Another memorable artist, Eric Fischl’s work, was mostly associated with human psychology exploring explicit topics such as adolescent sexuality. It gave an impression of private witnessing to his work (Kordic, 2015). Basquiat’s work was a whole other story, investigating oppositions like rich and poor, inner and outer experience. He had the rare talent of merging disparate traditions and styles. After his passing at 27, Schnabel directed a biographical movie on Basquiat (Rosenberg, 2011).


Neo-expressionism marked the transition from modernism to post-modernism. It was a bridge reaching back to expressionism, inevitably tying it to Conceptual and Minimalist Art and arriving into post-modernism with a final turn. The aggressive marketing strategies at the time, which was not only part of the art industry, eventually made galleries and critics suspicious of the authenticity of the artwork (Wolf, 2014); artists were accused of creating art solely for profit. Although the Neo-expressionist market collapsed by the end of the 80s, the artwork holds a particular spot at auctions to this day (Kordic, 2015).


Angie Kordic, A., 2015. 10 Masterpieces of Late Neo-expressionism Art Movement | Widewalls. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 3 February 2021].

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Neo-Expressionism,” 2019. Rosenberg, Lewis Church (ed.), “Jean-Michel Basquiat Artist Overview and Analysis,” 2011. Wolf, The Art Story Contributors (ed.), “Neo-Expressionism Movement Overview and Analysis,” 2014.’s, “What is Neo-Expressionism?”, 2020., “Neo-Expressionism (the Late 1970s onwards)”, 2021.

Image ReferencesAnselm Kiefer, “Margarethe,” 1981. Emulsion, gelatin silver print, and oil on linen, 290x400cm. Collection SFMOMA, The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection. Cucchi, “Musica Ebbra”, 1982. Clemente, “Untitled Self Portrait,” 1993. Print. Baselitz, “Ein moderner Maler,” 1966. Oil on canvas, 162x130cm. Acquired with funds from the Foundation DKLB, Berlin 1991. Basquiat, “Untitled,” 1982. Sold for $110.5 Million at the Contemporary Art Evening Auction, May 2017. Schnabel, “Homo Painting,” 1981. Oil paint on velvet, 2950x4170mm. Collection: Tate. Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton, 1996.