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.
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.
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.
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.