Did the advent of photography contribute to the disappearance of figurative painting from the history of arts? Or was it the rise of all the experimental avant-garde movements looking for a brand new way of expression? Defined as ”imitation, or realistic representation” of familiar objects, this concept seems to have become rather boring, if you will, after centuries of being completely unassailable among those who practiced art. But then came Futurists, Dadaists, Constructivists, Cubists, Minimalists and finally Abstract artists, and figurative painting was pushed aside, giving way to all things non-realistic.
Struggling for a place at the high art table, it started its slow resurgence in the 1960s, with the works of Philip Guston, who dared not to have his visions depicted by the abstract gesture. However, its biggest moment of vengeance came with the 1980s and the Neo-Expressionist artists who rejected the dominating urge to paint concepts and ideas. Today, figurative painting is experiencing an unprecedented revival, with a handful of artists who are regularly exhibiting at major institutions and galleries and whose works are counting serious dollars at auctions worldwide. With this in mind, we’ve taken a look at the way these contemporary talented individuals, working with painting today, have interpreted and redefined this concept, making sure that this time, it’s here to stay.
Editors’ Tip: A Brush with the Real: Figurative Painting Today
Celebrating the work of 51 artists, each experimenting with painting in different ways, A Brush with the Real comprises of individual interviews through which it is revealed how they work, what their motives are and how they draw inspiration from the great masters before them. Examining those who work with appropriation and found images, to those trying to get as close as possible to contemporary reality and first-hand experience, to artists who are simply using painting as a door to parallel or imaginary worlds, the book makes the argument that, since perhaps the early Renaissance, the role fulfilled by painting has never been so vital or timely: in our image-saturated culture, digital technology has given painting and its slow, full-resolution images a new lease of life.
Between landscapes and portraits, the art of Alex Katz can first and foremost be described as “highly stylised”. This legendary artist portrayed the world around him, inhabited by fellow painters, poets, critics, family members, writers, the very protagonists of the artistic scene of New York City, along with his immediate surroundings in Soho or the views of Maine. Flat in color and form, the figurative painting of Alex Katz is considered a precursor of Pop art for its representational approach to the daily and the mundane. In turn, he was inspired by the woodcuts produced by Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro. His two sons, as well as his wife Ada, are frequent subjects of his paintings; Ada can be found on over 250 canvases he created so far!
Featured image: Alex Katz. Photo by Rob Greig via timeout.com
The figurative painting of George Condo is often described as grotesque, bizarre, yet captivating and original. Looking at his work is like looking at classical masters like Raphael, Goya, Picasso or Velasquez while wearing a set of glasses that make them all become hybrid, disfigured, even hideous. What George Condo creates is a carnival of the classical, almost a new kind of Cubism that throws our own imperfections to our face and tells us it’s ok; as if the human psyche finally showed its real face and we can’t look away anymore. The artist was one of the pivotal figures in the painting renaissance of the 1980s, along with Julian Schnabel and Jean Michel Basquiat, although his contributions to drawing, sculpture and printmaking should also be noted.
Featured image: George Condo. Photo by Adrian Gaut via wsj.com
Elizabeth Peyton works mostly with small-scale portraits, inspired by the traditional approach to depicting a human figure and personality pioneered by photographers like Felix Nadar and Alfred Stieglitz. Also, if you’re looking for an idealised, but also stylised portrait of a celebrity, she would be your go-to person; her subjects include a wide range of fellow artists, musicians, actors and actresses, members of the European royal families, politicians, fashion designers and many more. The artworks of Elizabeth Peyton are often moody, oozing with fame and youth, and because they are often based on photographs, hers or someone else’s, she was sued by photographer Dennis Morris for copyright infringement on two occasions.
Featured image: Elizabeth Peyton. Photo by Roe Ethridge via thegentlewoman.co.uk
Dubbed “one of the greatest portrait artists of the 20th century” by Barry Walker, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which organized a retrospective of her work in 2010, Alice Neel is the creator of some of the most honest portraits you will ever come across. Influenced by Expressionism and psychology, she depicted her family, friends, people she encountered and complete strangers. Her personal struggles and adversities remained a recurring topic in her long career, which only got to its peak towards the end, finally giving Alice Neel the long-overdue recognition. Perhaps her strongest works are among the female nudes or the nude self-portraits she painted towards the very end of her life, in 1984.
Featured image: Alice Neel. Image via mubi.com
A colourful chaos. Comic figures in acts of creativity or violence. These scenes are Dana Schutz’s response to what she thinks is happening in the world, our culture and society. I think in terms of adjectives and adverbs,” the artist once said, and this surely is vividly visible in her figurative painting. Often, the critics put an emphasis on the process of her creation, rather than the scenery or the cartoonish subjects, and the truth is that Dana Schutz paints as she goes, inventing the next move or composing it based on the information she receives straight from her subjects. With clear references to Cubism, she turns the ugly into imminently compelling, almost forcing the viewers to redefine concepts of beauty for their own sake.
Featured image: Dana Schutz. Image via The Met Museum
His is the imagery that you instantly recognize. What Kehinde Wiley does is replace the historical figures with handsome young black men, who pose for him in a heroic manner, expressing strength, spirituality and hope. They’re usually depicted against colourful patterns that, of course, have deep references to textiles and decorative motifs of various cultures, from 19th century Judaica paper cut-outs, the Islamic symbolism, French Rococo and urban hip hop to Martha Stewart’s interior color swatches. Kehinde Wiley explores the notions of identity, the status of young African-American men in contemporary culture and the way they’re perceived by others. Most of his models are men he sees on the street, though not always.
Featured image: Kehinde Wiley. Image via CNN
With a remarkable technique, John Currin depicts women that often look like the subjects of classical paintings, yet have odd proportions, perhaps like caricatures, that take you by surprise yet make you not be able to look away. Some of them even call to mind Jeff Koons and his controversial Made in Heaven series, and John Currin’s imagery, too, leaves nothing to imagination. It is an endearing mixture of high and low culture that leaves you puzzled for a bit, as you’re not sure whether to like it or not, but when it comes to their execution, there is no doubt that the artist took figurative painting to a whole new level, and one that we certainly haven’t seen in a while too - if we don’t take art history books into consideration.
Featured image: John Currin. Photo by EMS via Huffington Post
For seventy years, Lucian Freud had been a devoted servant to portraiture. Perhaps because he was the grandson of Sigmund Freud, he painted psychologically complex imagery of his models, looking to stay true to the subjective feeling of what he sees too. With portraits that grew in size with time, Lucian Freud depicted his friends, family, fellow painters, lovers, children, rarely disclosing their identity through the artwork’s title. What’s also interesting is that in the 1970s, he spent some 4,000 hours on a series of paintings of his mother; in fact, it often happened that his sessions took long amounts of time. Later in life, he created portraits of fellow artists Frank Auerbach and Francis Bacon, as well as of the Queen herself.
Featured image: Lucian Freud. photo by David Dawson via culturewhisper.com
Now here’s a figurative painter whose main topics are landscapes. Peter Doig draws inspiration from his childhood, which he spent in Canada, as well as photographs, newspaper clippings and movie scenes, in order to create dream-like scenery that is also somewhat abstract. His most famous series to date is dedicated to the modernist communal living apartments by Le Corbusier, known as l’Unité and located in Briey-en-Forêt in France. These architectural monuments are captured against a grand, thick forest, which reveals and hides its part in a dynamic tension that is an integral part of Peter Doig’s figurative painting - the artist often delves into moments of tranquillity and contrasts them with uneasy oneiric elements.
Featured image: Peter Doig. Image via houseofthenobleman.com
From a Young British Artist, you can expect the unexpected, so why would Jenny Saville be any different? Her subjects are mainly deformed, disease-taken, obese, mutilated or violated women, as a response to the male-dominated stereotypical representation of the female body. Her departure points range from people she sees every day to patients being prepped for liposuction. Jenny Saville’s figurative painting is an extraordinary one, characterized by high-caliber brush strokes and a rich use of color that accurately transmits her subject’s physical, but also mental state. Her art doesn’t aim to be pretty - au contraire, it strives to make a feminist comment by showing the other side of reality that we often neglect or run away from.
Featured image: Jenny Saville. Image via emaze.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.