About Neo-Romanticism

[WARNING: personal opinions expressed below] scream me eek!

I believe that Neo-Romanticism never became a cohesive movement due to the necessity for individual interpretation of, and personal reaction to, society and the world around us. 

The very tenets of neo-romanticism call on the artist to infuse their own emotional responses into the work (possibly with the hope to engender like-minded individuals, and thus drive change). Because that self-reflection was so integral to the work, the individuality of the artist was strongly reflected in the work. This stark reflection meant there would be no cohesion among participants – in essence it became a lot of little movements of one.

Today, perhaps more so than in any other point in history, we understand that small movements can explode into a united force that drives change. I find quite a lot from the neo-romantic period that correlates to what is happening in our modern society today, as history continues to repeat itself.

The approach was meant to unite and drive change, instead drove artists apart due to the stark social statements made.

“Perhaps being a movement of one may not be as futile as it seems. It is for this reason that I paint the way I do.” David signature

Listed below are a few articles on Neo-Romanticism. I think you will find as much variety in the interpretation of this movement as there is in the art it produced. But throughout, you will find core values and themes that run fairly consistent among all of these articles. The first article is probably the best I have found so far.

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(Source: https://discover.goldmarkart.com/brief-history-neo-romanticism/)

The writer and editor Raymond Mortimer first coined the term ‘Neo-Romantic’ in 1942, defining it, somewhat succinctly, as an ‘expression of an identification with nature’ that he saw common to a number of British artists of the 1930s and early ‘40s. The term is, as it was then, as nebulous as the artistic style it described, for the Neo-Romantics were no organised band or militant collective driven by a single course. The catalogue of artists to whom the label has since been applied reads like a jumbled dictionary of pre-Pop British greats: Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Paul Nash, Keith Vaughan, Michael Rothenstein – the list goes on. Though they certainly shared an affinity with landscape and the natural world, through which they described the swirling emotional storm of the interwar period, the sheer breadth of styles and technical approaches between them could hardly make a coherent movement.

If anything, Neo-Romanticism represented not a union of artists nor an art theory but an intense, intimate, spiritual way of seeing the world, developed from their visionary forebears and amalgamating disparate elements from the 20th century’s great Modernist movements. The continuity of that vision across so many diverse artists demonstrates just how deeply the Neo-Romantic influence penetrated British art, and the lasting impact it had on those who continued to paint in the tradition even throughout the politicised years of the 1960s and beyond.

In the dazed aftermath of the First World War, the British art world remained unsure how to react. On the continent, it had led to an explosion of artistic developments, perhaps most prominently the rise of Dada and Surrealism, whose deconstruction of the human psyche came as a clear reaction to the fragmentary effect the war had inflicted both physically on the landscape and metaphorically on society. But in Britain, there was no distinct parallel or alternative. Surrealism failed to capture British artists, perhaps – as Brian Catling has suggested – because there is already eccentricism innate to the British character, from our idiomatic language to our ironic and absurdist sense of humour.

Instead, as their name suggests, the early Neo-Romantics – namely Sutherland and Nash – began by looking back to the original Romantics themselves – to the ‘Ancients’ William Blake, Samuel Palmer, and Edward Calvert. In mythic images of Arcadian shepherds strolling through woods and camping at moonlight, Blake and his cohort had emphasised the sublimity of Mother Nature, her all-encompassing awesomeness in contrast to flawed man. The metaphor must have seemed terribly apt amid the mechanised and industrialised carnage of the war, and so the Neo-Romantics once more turned to the landscape for answers.

In relocating Romanticism to the very changed world of the 20th century, there was undoubtedly an element of self-delusion to the early Neo-Romantic ideal. Before the print market fell through after the Wall Street Crash and the economic depression of the early 1930s, Sutherland and Nash were making etchings and engravings of the provincial English countryside – idyllic rustic barns, ramshackle sheds and kissing gates, farmers picking wheat in the fields. Envisioning a rural life that traced its roots back to Palmer’s etchings of bucolic sheep fields under moonlight, or Blake’s illustrations to Virgil’s Georgics, there was little concern here for social realism, for depicting the reality of post-war rural existence.

The pastoral world they were reimagining no longer existed – and had not for quite some time. Gone was the local farmhand, his face framed by a floppy hat and sweat-sodden calico shirt, ploughing the fields with oxen or shire horse. By the early 1920s he had been replaced by the tractor and, sure enough, these new machines were soon assimilated as powerful symbols within the Neo-Romantic vernacular, with artists like Rothenstein and Kenneth Rowntree celebrating the colliding of natural and mechanical worlds in rust-red tractors scraping through soil or dragging hunks of felled timber.

In their early pastiches of Blake and Palmer’s work, the Neo-Romantics had sought out an idealised version of landscape into which they could escape, denying the awful events and consequences of the Great War. But as these artists began to develop their own, individual styles, they revitalised their Romanticism, reflecting in images of rolling Welsh mountains and scattered patchwork fields the ominous portents of the coming Second World War and the economic and political unease that anticipated it.

Though its proponents were by no means merely landscapists – indeed, artists such as Michael Ayrton and the Roberts Colquhoun and MacBryde put forward a powerful Neo-Romantic statement in their sinewy, elongated figures – it was in landscapes, more than anything, that the Neo-Romantics developed their vision. Their aesthetic centred around introspection, delving into rich, rural tableaux in an attempt to find something deeper, something indicative, perhaps, of the human condition.

Dr Peter Wakelin, in his introductory essay on the McDowall collection of Neo-Romantic art, writes of how its artists, ‘looked two ways – across the Channel to Picasso, Ernst, Dix and others, and back to Turner, Blake, Palmer and the life and landscapes of the British Isles.’ Just as the Neo-Romantics were looking forward as well as back, from the Ancients to the avant-garde, they looked inwardly as well as outwardly, reconciling the physical, visual reality of landscape – its earthiness, its greenery, geology, and topography, and its hot, sprawling urban spaces too – with the artist’s emotional, imaginative response. ‘The unknown is just as real as the known’, remarked Sutherland, ‘and must be made to look so.’

Their approach was not faithful in the sense of strict, realistic representation. Rather, it centred on the idea of the genius loci – the ‘spirit of place’ – that imbued any given range of peaks, or fields, woodlands and coastal stretches. Like the Expressionists before them, they sought in the landscape a mirror to reflect their own emotional experience of place. Their images of pastures, hedgerows, hilltops and copses are pregnant with anthropomorphic emotions and pathetic fallacy: dark clouds roll angrily about bulging hills, fields melt or burn in refulgent Fauvist oranges, reds and virulent greens. A favourite technique was to play with scale, such that it became impossible to tell whether the writhing, biomorphic forms one could see were details of plants, roots and undergrowth blown up for the naked eye or vast swathes of countryside churned and twisted through deliberate distortions of form.

This animism of landscape, in which even dead trees, withered shrubs and unmoving stones seem to possess a living, breathing spirit, naturally brought out deeper, more personal resonances from its artists: the contorted thorn formations of Sutherland’s later work, for example, that show a pained attempt to understand the suffering of his Christ; or John Minton’s half-moons, full of youthful mystery and a hint of tortured madness.

The personal element of Neo-Romanticism is worth stressing. Though it may seem obvious to say that an artist’s work is one of self-expression, this was especially and consciously the case with these artists, for whom individuality and identity were more important than stylistic creed or code. There was no Neo-Romantic manifesto, no one collective identity to which artists found themselves drawn nor which they fought to defend in print. By comparison, a great many of the early 20th century’s ‘isms’, its most vociferous movements, were predicated on some form of intellectualism. Surrealists turned to Freud and Jung, to automatic poetry, psychology, a kind of cryptic and macabre surgery of the mind. Abstraction in its many reincarnations – from Vorticism and Futurism to Mondrian’s grids, Malevich’s black square, and the much later ‘action painting’ of 1950s New York – was inextricably connected to theory, be it the spiritual purism of geometry or the desire to construct images from outside our immediate visual realm.

There was no such theory to Neo-Romanticism, no doctrine to which its artists adhered. It was a movement – insomuch as it could be called a movement – as easily defined by what it wasn’t as what it was: never strictly abstract, though abstraction of form was key to Keith Vaughan’s quilt-like townscapes and Sutherland’s bristling sketches of Pembrokeshire; neither silly nor sexualised enough for Surrealism, and yet greatly informed by its sense of poetic strangeness, as in the musical work of Ceri Richards.

In truth, there has been little else like it in the modern history of British art – and Neo-Romanticism was an overwhelmingly British response, finding little favour in Europe or America during the post-war years when Abstract Expressionism reigned king. It remains perhaps the least celebrated and yet most pervasive influence of 20th century art in this country. Even a momentary glance at the work it produced reveals a treasure trove of extraordinary, undiscovered gems.

Source: https://www.thelightbox.org.uk/blog/an-introduction-to-neo-romanticism

The term ‘Neo-Romanticism’ is used to describe a school of painting that emerged in 1930s and 1940s Britain. Under this umbrella term, you can expect to see paintings inspired by British landscapes, often interpreted and portrayed in a surreal or abstract style.

Reacting to the despair and drabness of life in Britain since WW2, Neo-Romantic paintings can have intense and moody atmospheres, lonely figures, and sombre, abstract scenes. If that doesn’t sound too upbeat, it’s because the artists were dealing with the psychological consequences felt by everyone across the country – namely destruction of homes and cities, emotional loss, feelings of threat and paranoia – and expressing it through their art.

Neo-Romantic artists reimagined a nostalgic and romantic vision of the British landscape, with John Piper and Graham Sutherland leading the way. They influenced John Minton, John Craxton and Keith Vaughan (amongst others) who infused their figures and landscapes with an emotional, personal charge.

Neo-Romanticism might be a movement in British art, but it combined Romantic themes from the past with European trends in Modern Art such as Expressionism, Surrealism and Abstraction. You can see influence from Samuel Palmer in the landscapes, but at the same time you can see elements of Picasso’s Cubism in the shapes and depictions. 

Unlike other art movements the Neo-Romantics were not a purposefully unified group. The term itself was invented well after the style emerged, and it was a wide movement which encompassed quite a variety of styles. The key British artists now considered to be Neo-Romantics never came together to exhibit or collaborate as a group, unlike the Camden Town Group, for example.

Having started in the 1930s and continued to the early 1950s, Neo-Romanticism’s popularity with artists, critics and the public alike waned with Pop Art’s loud arrival on the scene. Nowadays there is a renewed appreciation for the artists, with an unearthed John Minton painting recently selling for nearly £300,000 at auction. 

(Source: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/n/neo-romanticism)

The work of these artists often included figures, was generally sombre, reflecting the Second World War and its approach and aftermath, but rich, poetic and capable of a visionary intensity. The term is also applied to a group of figurative painters working in Paris in the early 1920s. Their brooding often nostalgic work quickly became labelled neo-romantic.

If anything, Neo-Romanticism represented not a union of artists nor an art theory but an intense, intimate, spiritual way of seeing the world, developed from their visionary forebears and amalgamating disparate elements from the 20th century’s great Modernist movements. The continuity of that vision across so many diverse artists demonstrates just how deeply the Neo-Romantic influence penetrated British art, and the lasting impact it had on those who continued to paint in the tradition even throughout the politicised years of the 1960s and beyond.

(Source: https://www.wise-geek.com/what-is-neo-romanticism.htm)

Neo-romanticism is a broad movement crossing artistic boundaries that gave more importance to the representation of internal feelings. It started as a reaction to naturalism in the 19th century and harked back to the Romantic era, but it has since become a reaction to modernism and post-modernism. Neo-romanticism began in Britain around 1880, but later spread to other parts of the world including Eastern Europe, America and even India. It covers painting, literature and music.

Characteristics of neo-romanticism include the expression of strong emotions such as terror, awe, horror and love. The movement sought to revive romanticism and medievalism by promoting the power of imagination, the exotic and the unfamiliar. Other characteristics include the promotion of supernatural experiences, the use and interest in Jungian archetypes and the semi-mystical conjuring of home and nation.

Human emotions were as important as the supernatural. Neo-romanticism sought to promote ideas such as perfect love, the beauty of youth, heroes and romantic deaths. These included the romantic traditions of Lord Byron.

In terms of style, paintings tended to veer towards the historical and the natural. There was a conscious and intellectual movement away from the ugly machinery of the industrial revolution and towards the simplified beauty of a bygone era. Most of this was nostalgia mixed with fantasy, ideas of the past shorn of their grim realities.

Neo-romanticism continued into the 20th and 21st centuries in painting. They perhaps reached their pinnacle after World War 1 and again after World War 2, when the style was used to represent the somber experiences of war. Such paintings include Keith Vaughn’s “Communication of Hate” and John Caxton’s “Dreamer in Landscape.” Other renowned neo-romantic painters include Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland and Eugene Berman.

Writers and poets from Lewis Carroll to Alan Ginsberg have been called neo-romantics. Other writers include J.R.R. Tolkien and Dylan Thomas. Tolkien, for one, was influenced by the landscapes of the village of Sarehole in comparison to the industrial revolution’s ravaging of nearby Birmingham. This juxtaposition greatly influenced his writing and the “Lord of the Rings” contains a number of neo-romantic characteristics including comparing the love of nature seen in the Hobbits and Rohan against the industrialization imposed by Saruman.

The term neo-romanticism has also been used in music. It began earlier than in literature and is generally accepted as covering a style of music from 1950 onwards. Richard Wagner first used the term to denounce poor versions of romantic music being made in France, but in an ironic twist, the term was then used to categorize his own musical creations.

Neo-Romanticism is a call for humanity to connect with nature but in a way that rejects both modern living and pre-industrial tradition and embraces progressive social ideals in art and music.

Defining Neo-Romanticism

Imagine you and a friend are looking at a painting of a landscape and admiring how beautiful it is, how there is great contrast between light and shadow, the subtle beauty of nature, and you hear a person say ‘Oh, how neo-romantic!’ What do they mean by this? Are they comparing this painting to the love shared by Keanu Reaves and Carrie-Ann Moss in The Matrix?

Neo-Romanticism is an art movement that begins around 1880 and continues to the present day. It is defined by three key characteristics:

1. A criticism of modern society as unconnected from nature

2. A wish or desire for a Utopian connection to nature uncoupled from social expectations and tradition

3. A rejection of the dichotomy between society and nature

Neo-Romanticism in the art of Minton, Sutherland, Butler, and Cross

Let’s look at some examples of Neo-Romantic paintings that will let us understand the three characteristics better.

George Edmund Butler

Neo-Romanticism is classified by academics based upon its subject content, which is mentioned in characteristic #1 above. If you look at the above painting by George Edmund Butler, Bellevue Ridge(1918), you can see a desolate landscape marred by craters. The Neo-Romantics, inspired by the harsh critique of society by the Realists, applied this to their depictions of nature, showing it as a victim of human industry and civilization. This depiction of landscapes as desolate and scarred are classic features of Neo-Romantic artists, such as George Edmund Butler and George Sutherland, and exemplifies the 1st characteristic of Neo-Romanticism as a critique of a society that feels no connection to the natural world that it victimizes.

Henri-Edmund Cross Painting
1463821353 1024px cross le bois annonciade

Now, if we look at Henri-Edmund Cross’s painting Le Bois (1906) above, we see a stark contrast to Butler’s bleak and lifeless landscape. Cross depicts human figures, freed from culture and industry rooted, in a natural setting. Unlike the romantics who depicted native peoples in their worship of nature, the Neo-Romantics, like Henri-Edmund Cross or John Minton, chose subjects in their landscapes in more intimate settings and unconnected to tradition or social norms. This painting represents characteristic #2 from above as it shows an Utopian world where figures exist completely free of needs like Eden.

The simple white dress of the sitting figure and the blankets on the ground set the figures as modern subjects, rather than tribal or futuristic individuals. This feature represents characteristic #3: the rejection of the dichotomy of society and nature. The figures are modern and yet connected to nature, symbolizing the rejection of choosing between civilization and nature.

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