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The Avant-Garde and Expressionism in the 20th Century

November 19, 1998 – February 22, 1999

The beginning of the 20th century marked the triumph of many of the revolutionary values that first surfaced before 1900. Armed with utopian ideals and political beliefs , the avant-garde questioned the great figurative legacy of Western art and defended new ideals that broke beyond purely aesthetic ground. While Paris maintained its leading role within the art establishment the early years of this century were a very fertile  period of artistic experimentation throughout Europe. In France artists such as Albert Gleizes developed a Cubist vocabulary that broke with traditional perspective and the illusory appearance of depth. In Germany and Austria, a diverse range of artists emphasized the properties of pictorial form in order to explore subjective emotions and spiritual states. Whether employing the bright, unnatural colors typical of Heinrich Campendonk, the agitated brushwork seen in Oskar Kokoschka’s painting, or the “primitive” simplification of form evident in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s work, the Expressionists used emotionally charged images and abstraction alike to convey contemporary psychological truths. Abstraction flourished among artists such as Vasily Kandinsky and László Moholy-Nagy who imputed spiritual and utopian properties to the essentials of pure form and color. Finally, across Europe Surrealism explored the relationship between the unconscious and lived reality, using automatist strategies to freely interpret mental imaginings via biomorphic forms as seen in the work of Jean Arp, Alexander Calder and Joan Miró.

The aesthetic fragmentation shared by these diverse movements—the fractured planes of Cubism, the disjointed figures of Expressionist painting, and the hybrid juxtapositions of Surrealist imagery—may all be read as visual analogues to the social and psychic fragmentation of reality. Of all of them, Expressionism has proved to be one of the enduring strains, re-emerging at different moments throughout the century. Successive generations of artists revived its subjective tenor and re-examined it within a contemporary context. An expressionist sensibility re-emerged then in the 1950s as Abstract Expressionism in America and Art Informel in Europe, and in the 1980s as Neo-Expressionism.

After the Second World War, the United States inherited the legacy of Europe and became the new art center of the Western world. Abstract Expressionism was the first major art movement in postwar America. The expressive aspect of this art has been linked to the subjective heroism of earlier forms of Expressionism. The foremost painters of this school, such as Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Mark Rothko, sought to unite form and emotion in canvases on a monumental scale, focusing the content of their painting on the introspective expression of the artist. At the same time, there emerged in Europe a new plastic movement influenced by Existentialist philosophy and Oriental thought, which many have called the European equivalent of Abstract Expressionism: Art Informel (or art without form). This stylistic current was characterized by spontaneity of execution and a surrender to the virtues of gesture. The physical properties of the work took on great importance as evidenced in the art of Jean Dubuffet, Asger Jorn and Antoni Tàpies, in which metal foil, sand, and other unconventional materials appear.

In the 1980s, after the conceptual and minimal movements of the 1960s and 70s, Neo-Expressionism took back expression and representation in the work of art, invoking the formal language of the old avant-garde. The German artist Georg Baselitz influenced this new generation in his efforts to reinvigorate European painting and grapple with the spiritual depletion of the postwar period. His fellow countryman Anselm Kiefer became one of the foremost representatives of a Neo-Expressionism that embraced an approach characterized by a violent, gestural and critical position, here infused with references to both the German romantic tradition and his country’s political heritage. A truly international phenomenon, Neo-Expressionism also emerged in Italy where it was known as Transavanguardia, and was led by Francesco Clemente, Sandro Chia and Enzo Cucchi; and in New York where artists such as Julian Schnabel and Jean-Michel Basquiat introduced both materials (such as broken crockery) and vocabularies (graffiti) found outside the traditional realm of art in order to heighten the emotive content of their work.

Clyfford Still

Untitled, 1964

Oil on canvas

259 x 222 cm

Guggenheim Bilbao Museoa

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