Contemporary European Expressionist Painting (1983)



 That Expressionist painting, an art emphasizing feeling over intellect, should arise at this time is perfectly understandable in the ebb and flow, cyclical nature of art and life. When the pendulum of human interpretation of experience has reached one extreme, it must swing back to the other.


 The domination of the art world for the last twenty to twenty-five years by art of intellectual manipulation to the point of sterile formula -- Pop, Op, Geometric Abstraction, Minimal, Conceptual -- against which the current Expressionism reacts, is, in itself, a pendulum swing against the Abstract-Expressionist deluge of the 1940's and 50's which also reached untenable extremes of cant.


 In truth, both directions in art are parallels (or entwined spirals) which are existent at all times as equally valuable and necessary poles of possible human experience and behavior. It is only when one or the other becomes severely dominant, crippling the other, that dangerous imbalance in art and life occurs.


 When Abstract-Expressionism with its emphasis on drip and slosh of paint was in power, Geometric Abstraction existed in the persons of Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko and others, though they were more or less dominated by their painterly brethren. While 19th Century Neo-Classicism and Romanticism were stylistic and psychological equivalents of contemporary Geometric and Expressionist painting (in attitude if not quality...the earlier French having much the better of it as artists), both existed side by side, fighting it out for control of the art world and the hearts and minds of the public. It must be said, however, that Neo-Classicism was the official art of the day, supported by government officials, the French Academy, establishment press and upper classes.


 Apparently, at most times, in most places, only one attitude can be dominant or officially sanctioned. Perhaps this is a law of nature that dictates we can only be one thing, think and act one way at any given time. But, perhaps it is also an innate weakness in humanity. We are not as broad-minded or broad-based as we like to think. And, perhaps it is that during more disturbed times, when established values are crumbling, our uneasiness gives rise to fanaticism, forcing us to cling ferociously to a single belief, thought, action or way.


 In a more balanced era, we ourselves may be more balanced, able to partake equally of Classicism (mind, equilibrium) and Expressionism (emotion, dynamism), the earmark of so many great artists of the past: the 5th Century Greeks, Masaccio, Michelangelo, Raphael, Leonardo and Titian in the Renaissance, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Cezanne, to name a few. We can be equally responsive not only to Classicism and Expressionism as poles of artistic expression, but commingling areas within our being.


 In the first fifty years of this century, during the years of modern art's discoveries and declamations, Classical and Romantic, Geometric and Expressionist art existed rather equally side by side. Cubism, a structural, rational art of the mind with expressionist aspects, though a dominant movement, was essentially offset by the combined forces of irrationality and feeling ... Expressionism and Surrealism. Since World War II however, while both rational and irrational currents have continued, only one, at differing periods, has been granted the crown of ruling deity.


 Our embattled age, fraught with nuclear and other tensions, has perhaps forced us to cling like grim death to our single aesthetic belief (through default of religious faith), as if it were the one true messiah who will deliver us from chaos to surety and transcendence.


 This hectic tilting from pole to pole is a very obvious form of extremism. While Barry Goldwater may have said (and gotten into a peck of trouble for saying it) that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice" -- and extreme times call for extreme measures -- it has generally been realized throughout the history of human wisdom that balance, if attainable, is an important ingredient in the experience of life.


 This see-saw in art back and forth between reason and feeling also tells us that our psyches are, indeed, split between the two, as psychologists assert, that one day for our own good and the health of society, this gulf must be bridged, the two brought into significant relationship with one another.


 It seems that such art, or personal attitude, which is too extreme in either direction, while strongly revelatory of its expressive position, also reveals and exaggerates its intrinsic weaknesses. For example, Classicism, where truly practiced, comes closest to an art balancing mind and feeling. When misunderstood, as it often is, and seen as a completely rational, literal way of art without emotion, then it becomes distorted and dehumanized into the dry formulas of academicism or the aridities of Minimal, Conceptual and Geometric art.


 The strength of Classical art (and the best Geometric painting, if we see it as a genuine representative of Classicism), is that it reflects the order and stability we believe exists in the cosmos, we hope is intrinsic to our human destiny, and we know is required in the conduct of human society.


 The weakness of Expressionism, at its extreme, is that it may degenerate into formlessness, becoming a swirling, slathered aesthetic stew, expressive of pain and disorder (or ecstasy, but there's not much of that in our day), through which we fear we will be led, without hope of redemption, deeper into the unresolved, disturbing, anarchic, primeval muck of existence which we so long, and need, to rise above, or significantly integrate into the fabric of our daily, civilized lives.


 What we mainly view as negative manifestations of Expressionism in nature: the volcano, earthquake, storm, disease and death, in man, are clearly anger, rage, emotional violence, crime and war. But, in addition to powerful extremes, the catchall of Expressionism also contains the mystery of life and the universe, and man's poetic, spiritual response to it.


 At its best, Expressionism offers an outlet for, and revelation of, this very important half of our being -- the human, feeling, loving, hating, uncivilized part -- that must have its role in our existence. In an over-reactive, rather primly puritanical age which, primarily for safety and efficiency's sake on many levels, denies the primitive base of our natures, restricting feeling while exalting a perverted form of reason, Expressionism becomes a personal and societal easing of explosive pressure without which neither will survive intact.


 Thus European Expressionism appears on the scene as an attempted antidote to the dehumanizing malformation of art and life by over-rationality. While other forms of Expressionism exist, and have existed long before the appearance of the Europeans, for whatever reasons of psychological need, aesthetic convenience or financial consideration, it is the Germans and Italians who have come fashionably to the fore.


 (Considering some possible Expressionist national characteristics, it is, perhaps, with the Italians, their overt emotionality, expressiveness and largeness of gesture which, in addition to religious belief, inspired their creation of the great murals and ceiling paintings of the Renaissance and Baroque, as well as the opera as an art form. On the other hand, German rationality, desire for detail, planning and order may be seen as compensated by an undercurrent of passionate intensity ... greatness in Beethoven, fanaticism and evil in Hitler).


 On the positive side, the Europeans, like any Expressionists, remind us that if we thoughtlessly allow ourselves to be carried downstream by the current of the status quo, we are in danger of losing or distorting our humanity. In an age vaunting rationality honed to an inhuman degree, the Expressionists tell us that feeling is important.


 George Baselitz' loosely-brushed, upside-down figures remind us that we and our world are very much like this (if, indeed, we need or want reminding). Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente and Enzo Cucchi likewise speak of struggle through rude, broadly stylized figures removed from the context of everyday existence, becoming mythic by this removal, perhaps attempting to reconnect us with the deeper levels of our being. Anselm Kiefer's violently painted landscapes littered with real straw suggest a desire to regain some relation with the revivifying earth and things of life.


 On the negative side, the images of the Europeans are filled with a nearly sado-masochistic violence, horror and despair. While this attitude was no doubt legitimate earlier in the century when we saw how tough life was going to be in our time, it is also true that repetitious aesthetic shrieking will not alter the conditions of life, particularly when those aesthetics are as derivative as the Europeans'. Under the present circumstances, art like theirs only increases the psychic burden of modern man, already overwhelmed by unrelenting mediocrity and spiritual decay.


 The usefulness of the decay of contemporary art -- in both aesthetics and content -- as an accurate, if unintentional warning or measure of societal decadence, may have run its course. It is no longer necessary or even helpful to bellow that the world house is on fire. We know it all too clearly, especially with daily reminders from personal experience and that harpy of disaster, television news.


 What might be more appropriate and helpful to human survival today is an art that tries to put the pieces of life together, that encourages without diluting or diminishing life's realities -- including both beauty and ugliness, truth and falsity, good and evil -- and does so with profound content at a high aesthetic level.


 Stylistically, the Europeans are basically trotting out the time-worn aesthetics and content of yesteryear. Not that art must continually search for the "new" or novel. But we do need to grasp the specifics of our own age while relating them to the timeless truths of existence. Great art has always done this.


 Unfortunately, the Europeans' art seems a hybrid of early 20th Century German Expressionism and the American Abstract-Expressionist contribution of the 1950s. Rather than revealing original or important insights into contemporary art and life, they are essentially rummaging about in the Fibber McGee closet of modernist aesthetics, looking for a familiar, acceptable hook to hang their paintings from.


 European Expressionism, with strong Dadaist and Surrealist overtones, is very closely related to the current Punk, cartoony attitudes in art, music and popular culture – a phenomenon of violence and extremes of simplistic, childish, primitive behavior – an obvious attempt, and a desperate one at that, to reassert the primacy of our animal natures (in a manner clearly warped by the stresses and repressions of conventional technological existence). Contemporary European art is obviously a Punk as any Punk Rock music or hairstyle, and as such, a confrontive, yet escapist attitude offering few ultimately liberating options for either art of life.


 Ours is a confiscatory, eclectic age. The original, powerful, redemptive art has not been discovered (though it may already have been created unbeknownst to art world makers and shakers) that can free us from our slavery to the status quo. We manacle ourselves to the negativities of our time by our attitudes toward life, ourselves, the art and other essentially destructive symbols we create, accept and extol. By embracing sickness and negativity, we refuse to acknowledge that which will make us well. We cling to our pains and limitations like the masochists we are in danger of becoming, if we don't begin to hold up our heads and say, "there is a better way of life and art," and make an effort to find it.


Copyright by Don Gray


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