What is the Place of Figure Art in Contemporary Art?

April 27, 2016

The figure art was largely ignored for most of the 20th century, in favor to the important avant-garde movements. From Cubism to Minimalism, we see the vast embrace of abstraction and the move away from realism. The battle between abstract and figure art was possibly one of the most important periods, and the most influential and productive time in Art History. The birth of Cubism and many writings of intellectuals, and critics, such as Clement Greenberg, emphasized the move towards a non-objective art, while the figure art, and art that relied on realism, on the other end of this hierarchy, was in return considered to be less important, traditional, and even to represent the enemy politics. Few of the movements, such as Surrealism and Pop, included figuration but it was not until the Neo-Expressionism that the dominance of abstraction was stopped. Since then, the figure art has seen a rise and this is more than evident in the recent art market boom of figuration. So, where do we see figure art today, more importantly, what place does the human figure hold in Contemporary Art?

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Left: Henri Matisse - Red Room. Image via wikipedia.org / Right: Henri Matisse - Blue Nude. Image via artfund.org

The Erased Body of the Past

We must ask one question first and that is - how do we define figuration? At one point, the total abandonment of the recognizable object, that we saw as the 20th century progressed, and in the works of Wassily Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock, seemed to place color, marks, drips, at the center of the paintings, making the act of painting all about the painting itself. But, on the other hand, the act of painting, for the painter of the Abstract Expressionism movement, Jackson Pollock, linked to exemplify the views of Existentialism philosophy, is by many viewed as a form of figuration, as a form of documentation of the body of the artists. By laying the canvas on the ground, and dripping the paint onto it, the body of the painter was also immersed with color, the marks of his movement were also left on the canvas, as well as the ashes of the cigarettes the painter smoked while working. In his non-objective work, his paintings still hold a documentation of the artists himself, of his body. Could we consider this to also represent figuration, as much as we consider the disfigurement of a body in Blue Nude by Henri Matisse, or in Pablo Picasso’s famous work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, as examples of work that focus on the move towards abstraction, and the erasing of the figure?

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Max Beckmann - Family Picture. Image via de wahooart.com

The Symbolism of Figuration

For the artists, the preoccupation with the representation of the body or figure was always present. As the world around us changed, and as the dominating canons of realism or classical art were abandoned by the artists of the 20th century, the understanding of figuration also changed. On one hand we have figures that represent the depicted person, but also, we have figures that are symbols of the political, social, and psychological views. As mentioned above, The Blue Nude, representing the idea of the disfigured body, or the simplification of the body into an ornamented surface, like in his painting Red Room, are just one of the ways that the figure could be viewed to represent different symbols. German Expressionism artists and the figures that are depicted in the works of Max Beckmann are figures that represent political views and stand to represent the rebellious citizen. Later, in the period of Neo-Expressionism, and in the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat for example, we can understand the distorted figure to represent the inner world of the artist, and the expressive way of depicting the figure to suggest the inner energy, sometimes even the struggle. This we can also link to the works of William de Kooning. So, if we understand figuration or the human figure as a carrier of certain values, codes, and as a symbol, or a documentation of the artist himself, what can we say about the figure art in Contemporary art today?

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David Humphrey - Interspecies Embrace. Image via galeriezurcher.com

The New Figure Art Mixes With Abstraction

It was the artist Francis Bacon who always considered his work to exist in the middle ground between figuration art and abstraction. This use of the two of the dominating forms of expression is what we see today as happening in the figure art. In recent years, a number of contemporary painters have begun reaching back to the roots of modern art to find new modes of expression. They seem to use, with much more freedom, figure art, and other recognizable forms, with elements of abstraction, for the creation of sometimes ambiguous narratives. The big questions, such as the end of painting with the birth of photography, or the polarization between abstraction and representation, are just meaningless in the world of Postmodern thought. With the notion that all is open for grabs, and that no narrative is safe from destruction, we see a very eclectic approach to figure art and to art in general. The artist, Norbert Bisky, with his figure art, that intertwines the propaganda of the Social Realism imagery with the use of bright colors, explores the past promises, the state, and religion of today. Alongside this view, we can find works of many other contemporary artists, that reveal the abstraction in figuration, for example, seen last year in Santa Fe and the exhibition (Un) Real. There we could see, works of David Humphrey that are cartoon based and mix figuration and gestural marks, besides the hyper-realistic, almost photograph-like work of Martin Mull. These two examples only emphasize the idea that figuration art today contains elements of abstraction and that it also follows no rules at all.

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Left: Gottfried Helnwein - The Disasters of War # 13 / Right: Gottfried Helnwein - The Disasters of War # 12. Images via heinwein.com

The Rise of Hyper Realistic Figure Art

I did mention above that the nature of figure art in contemporary art today is very eclectic and allowing for all experimentation possible, but we must acknowledge the rise of hyper-realistic paintings and sculptures that are happening today. The German-Irish painter Gottfried Helnwein, is possibly one of the most internationally acclaimed artists that works in this way and produces works that are questioning and challenging the world around us. The production of the works, of slick and shiny surfaces, evident in the work of Jeff Koons sculpture of the Pop-icon, Lady Gaga, suggests the need to almost erase any personality or any flows.

In the world today, where the image production is suffocating, and the need for speedy knowledge is a must, we are confronted with figure art that is both realistic and at the same time abstract. Maybe, we can find the explanation for this in the philosophy of Postmodernism and in the nature of the world around us that demands all of us to be omnipresent and shape shifting. This for sure, is evident by the eclectic nature of art today.

Editors’ Tip: A Brush with the Real: Figurative Painting Today

Exploring the revival of figurative painting in the digital age, the book presents a survey of key contemporary artists who have all embraced painting and work within a realist tradition. Focusing on deepening the knowledge of the painting medium, and also the understanding of the motives behind the works of the 51 artists interviewed for this book, the survey offers the readers a comprehensive analysis of this art language. Discussing the methods of working, motives and sources, from art history to the Internet, the book is a first-hand experience of the artists who aim to push the painting medium into a new direction.

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured images in slider: Adam Miller – Anticipation, detail. Image via apassion4art.wordpress.com; Norbert Bisky - Aquageddon. Image via norbertbisky.com