New European Painting

Definition, Historical Context and Main Representatives

Left image: Marcel Broodthaers, Armoire blanche et table blanche, 1965. Painted furniture with eggshells - 86 x 82 x 62 cm & 104 x 100 x 40 cm. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. / Right image: Michaël Borremans, The Egg IV, 2012. Oil on canvas - 42 x 36 cm. Courtesy of Zeno X Gallery.

Luc Tuymans, De Wandeling (The Walk), 1993. Oil on canvas – 37 x 48 cm. Courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp.





Contents


What is New European Painting?

Historical Context & Subject-Matter

The Development, Generations and Main Representatives of New European Painting

New European Painting Today and New Figurative Painting



By the end of the 20th century, the term New European Painting finds its way into the terminology of the art world and is still used today. In this article, we aim to define the term, sketch the historical context and meaning of New European Painting and discuss its main representatives over the decades.



What is New European Painting?


Although there is no exact written definition in our current – contemporary – art historic glossary, one can state a general consensus on the subject matter concerning the definition and demarcation in time and space.


New European Painting is an art historic term used to describe contemporary painting in Europe since the 1980s and 1990s up to now.[1] This movement is characterized by new figuration in relation to the previously dominant American abstraction, marked by our collective history, memory and post-war trauma.


The foundation and character of this movement which connects a group of artists across several generations is based on a historic connection of artists with the tradition of European naturalistic painting and (recent) European history (cf. infra; Historical Context & Subject-Matter).


Sigmar Polke, Dürer Rabbit, 1968. Oil on canvas – 80 x 64,5. Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden © The Estate of Sigmar Polke VG Bild-Kunst Bonn.



Historical Context & Subject-Matter


This connection with naturalism and European art history is of vital importance. It is what in fact a pretext for the renewed interest in figuration. New European Painting is situated after Modernist painting – of which the culmination point was (American) Abstract Expressionism. The key principles of modernism included – among others – the rejection of history and tradition, resulting in an almost teleological progress to abstraction, abolishing our own traditions and history.[2]


In a post-war era, this left us feeling a bit alienated. The art world reacts with postmodern art, resulting in conceptual art, installations and performances. From the perspective of painting as a medium, it is in this era it is declared to be dead within the wider postmodern discourse of "Le fin des grands récits" as stated in Jean-François Lyotard's (1924-1988) La Condition Postmoderne.[3]


However, with postmodern painting – in particular in the 80s and 90s – a renewed interest in figuration comes along while 're-ambracing' and acknowledging our tradition and history. For instance, Sigmar Polke (1941-2010) – a pioneer in postmodern painting and one of the leading painters for the first generation of New European Painting – effectuates an ingenious eclecticism by implementing Albrecht Dürer's (1471-1528) hare and monogram on a layer of abstract brush marks, siting on top of a mass-produced fabric. [see image above]


This painting illustrates exactly what is happening at this moment in time with Postmodern painting. From a dialectic perspective, the German artist searches for a new synthesis for his day and age. He uses abstract brushstrokes, reminiscent to abstract expressionism, which was at that time seen as the pinnacle of advanced art and painting, symbol for innovation and progress. But at the same time, he acknowledges our history and tradition by depicting Dürer's hare, Polke's compatriot and arguably the most important painter of his Germany. A third element and surface comes in to play be using the mass-produced fabric referencing to consumer and popular culture, one of the key characteristics of postmodern art.


Doing so, from a modernist point of view the painting is relevant with his abstract surface. He is at the time relevant in a contemporary context as a postmodern artist, referring to popular culture and the fading distinction between high and low art. And finally, he innovates by re-ambricing his history and tradition, pioneering the renewed interest and importance of figurative art and New European Painting with Dürer's hare.[4]


Installation view of the exhibition "Anselm Kiefer: Walhalla" (2017) at White Cube, London. Photo: White Cube, London.


The subject matter of New European Painting is strongly related to the European post-war.[5] Their is a very strong connection to the artists shared, personal and general history. For instance, Neo-Expressionist and German painter of the first wave of New European Painting (cf. infra; The Main Representatives of New European Painting) Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945). Kiefer grew up, literally, between the ruins of World War II. As a result, these ruins were a starting point for the German painter-sculptor and have been visually present throughout his entire oeuvre, up to today.[see image above]


Another example can be found with Belgian pictor doctus Luc Tuymans (b. 1958). Deeply rooted in the tradition of Northern European Painting – think of his public adoration for the Early Netherlandish painter Jan Van Eyck (1380/1390-1441) – Tuymans' artworks are strongly connected to the historic trauma of World War II and its lingering effects on the lives of Europeans.[6] Throughout his childhood, the aftermath of World War II was never far away, as his mother's family was part of the resistance, helping refugees in hiding, his father's side had connections to the Hitler Youth and collaboration.


This tension resulted in dubious and politically charged paintings, referencing to the Second World War indirectly, as well as directly. For instance, one of his most controversial paintings titled Gaskamer from 1986 [see image below] depicts a gas chamber from the Nazi concentration camp Dachau, confronting the viewer with the trauma of the Holocaust.


Beside references to World War II,[s.n.: see image at the top of the page] Tuymans also takes on Belgium's controversial colonial (recent) history, as well as other socio-political and ideological events such as 9/11, the War on terror and more. Think of his portraits of political figures such as Condoleezza Rice or of Patrice Lumumba.


Luc Tuymans, Gaskamer (Gas Chamber), 1986. Oil on canvas – 50 x 70 cm. Courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp.


With Tuymans, a second characteristic aspect concerning the subject-matter of New European Painting comes into play; simulacra, a flood of images, new media and its effects on image theory and therefore on painting. Since the 80s, European painters have been interested in the effects of new media on the image and on representing/reproducing images with painting, resulting in a so-called postmodern archive "fever".[7] With the development of the World Wide Web and the democratization of the access to images, this technological event functions as a catalyst for this attitude towards archive images or 'archive art'.


A great example to illustrate this important facet of New European Painting can be found with Marlene Dumas (b. 1953);


"Second hand images can generate first-hand emotions."[8]


Dumas 'feverishly' collects second hand imagery in high volumes and with a very specific intension. She never paints directly from life but opts to paint from her ever-growing archive of images full of personal imagery such as reference pictures of herself or her daughter, but also from the collective memory and 'public' images or recognizable figures.


Even today, this element of image theory, the archive of images and in increasing amount the flood of images due to new digital media are utmost contemporary and relevant. The current generation of painters are deeply imbedded to this issue, in subject-matter as from a visual perspective. In fact, the ever-increasing amount of flat screen images have changed our esthetics drastically, resulting in a photographic – not photorealistic – visual language in painting characteristic for the 21st century. Even with painters such as Michaël Borremans (b. 1963) or Markus Schinwald (b. 1973) who opt to render their images in an Old Master-like manner, the photographic character of the image remains present in their esthetics.[9]


Marlene Dumas, The Image as Burden, 1993. Oil on canvas – 40 × 50 cm. Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam.



The Development, Generations and Main Representatives of New European Painting


The emergence and development of New European Painting has unfolded over the years. In the archive of the New York Times, we find an article from 1983 titled New European Painters.[10] The article tells us how collectors are buying figurative paintings from European artists by the dozen and also mentions the role of the post-war climate in Europe.


One could distinguish three different generations throughout the development of New European Painting [see table above]. The article in question discusses several artists by name, such as Georg Baselitz (b. 1938), Sandro Chia (1946), Francesco Clemente (1952) and the aforementioned Anselm Kiefer and Sigmar Polke. These artists, and several others such as Add Bracha Ettinger (1948) and Gerhard Richter (b. 1932), are the pioneers forming the first generation of New European Painting.


It is clear to say this first generation is strongly connected to the emergence of Neo-Expressionism in the 70s and 80s. The Neue Wilde in Germany, Figuration Libre in France or Transavantgarde in Italy take the European continent by storm and indicate the renewed interest in figuration and the strong appetite for paint(ing). However, what distinguishes these artists from so-called Bad Painting, the Neo-Expressionist equivalent in the States, are the typical aforementioned aspect in the subject matter of the paintings, such as the European Post-War trauma and the practice of turning historical and personal images/photographs into art.


From a visual point of view, some of these artists from the first generation escape the label of Neo-Expressionist painting. For instance, Sigmar Polke, who seems to defy categorization with has strong variation throughout his oeuvre. Even more, Gerhard Richter and his photo paintings illustrating the practice of reproducing photographs into art, without being a photorealist [see image below]. One could even state that Richter is the true predecessor, or the most important figure, for the future generations of New European Painting and even for contemporary painters today.


Gerhard Richter, Portrait Kühn, 1970. Oil on canvas – 60 x 50 cm. Courtesy Gerhard Richter, Catalogue Raisonné 257-1.


The second generation of representatives of New European Painting are born roughly around 1955-1960. With this second wave of painters, the aforementioned element of "archive fever" comes in to play. Their works are strongly influenced by the emergence of new media and the digital evolution. Television, the computer and the World Wide Web function as catalysts for the collecting of images, a certain distrust towards the image and its meaning, as well as the influence of these developments in image theory on the society and therefore on art.


The most important representatives of this second generation are the aforementioned Luc Tuymans and Marlene Dumas, but also for instance British painter Peter Doig (b. 1959).


Further, a third generation can be ascertained with painters born around 1965-1970 such as Michaël Borremans, Wilhelm Sasnal (b. 1972), Chris Ofili (b. 1968) or Paulina Orlowska (b. 1976) [see image below]. With this third generation, one notices a strong manifestation of (Neo-)surrealism and existentialism which is continued into a possible fourth generation of artists, emerging today from a wider and more international wave in painting, building upon the legacy of the aforementioned representatives of New European painting.



New European Painting Today and New Figurative Painting


Due to the further development and influence of New European Painting, the terminology has become rather uncertain and problematic in the current state of the arts. Although the first two to three generations primarily manifested themselves in Europe by European painters, one notices with the third and currently emerging fourth generation that this tendency in painting has moved beyond the European border and is now manifested more globally. As a result, a recurring term related to this tendency is New Figurative Painting, seeming to replace New European Painting.


However, the foundation and character, rooted in the first two generations of this movement remains true with the current generation of European painters building upon the works of their contemporary predecessors. This foundation is based on their historic connection of the tradition of European naturalistic painting and (recent) European history (cf. supra; Historical Context & Subject-Matter).


Paulina Olowska, Zofia Stonybroke, 2016. Collage with embroidery, oil, gouache and enamel on canvas – 220 × 180 cm. Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery.





Edited and written by Julien Delagrange Published online on 7/12/2020 by Contemporary Art Issue

Latest update: 9/12/2020

© 2020




Notes:

[1] Chris Dercon, "1980-1996" in Face a l'Histoire. (Flammarion: Centre Georges Pompidou, 1996), pp.496-561.

[2] Julien Delagrange, "Painting in a (Post-)Postmodern era" in Apologia. (Kortrijk: Contemporary Art Issue, 2020), p. 20.

[3] Jean-François Lyotard, La condition postmoderne. Paris: Les éditions de minuit, 1979.

[4] Tony Godfrey, Painting Today. London: Phaidon, 2014.

[5] Griselda Pollock and Penny Florence, Looking Back to the Future. G&B Arts Press, 2000. [6] Zeno X Gallery, Luc Tuymans : Biography at http://www.zeno-x.com/artists/LT/luc_tuymans_bio.html consulted 5/12/2020.

[7] Griselda Pollock, Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum: Time, Space and the Archive. Routledge, 2007.

[8] Quote by Marlene Dumas. Source: Tate, Marlene Dumas: The Image as a Burden at https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/marlene-dumas-image-burden consulted 5/12/2020.

[9] S.n.: This photographic character is also a result of the artistic process, using photographs as sketches, studies and as reference for the painting.

[10] John Russel, "The New European Painters" in The New York Times. April 24 (1983): p. 28.




List of illustrations:

Luc Tuymans, De Wandeling (The Walk), 1993. Oil on canvas – 37 x 48 cm. Courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp. Sigmar Polke, Dürer Rabbit, 1968. Oil on canvas – 80 x 64,5. Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden © The Estate of Sigmar Polke VG Bild-Kunst Bonn. Installation view of the exhibition "Anselm Kiefer: Walhalla" (2017) at White Cube, London. Photo: White Cube, London.

Luc Tuymans, Gaskamer (Gas Chamber), 1986. Oil on canvas – 50 x 70 cm. Courtesy Zeno X Gallery, Antwerp.

Marlene Dumas, The Image as Burden, 1993. Oil on canvas – 40 × 50 cm. Collection Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. Gerhard Richter, Portrait Kühn, 1970. Oil on canvas – 60 x 50 cm. Courtesy Gerhard Richter, Catalogue Raisonné 257-1.

Paulina Olowska, Zofia Stonybroke, 2016. Collage with embroidery, oil, gouache and enamel on canvas – 220 × 180 cm. Courtesy Simon Lee Gallery.







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