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Figurative and narrative art

Related: allegory - visual art - mythology - narrativity - representational

Contrast: abstract art

Since the arrival of abstract art (before that time all art was figurative except for the handicrafts) the term figurative art has been used to refer to any form of modern art (which has largely been non-narrative from the early 20th century onwards) that retains strong references to the real world and/or concerns itself with storytelling. [May 2006]


Figurative art describes artwork - particularly paintings - which are clearly derived from real object sources, and are therefore by definition representational. The term "figurative art" is often taken to mean art which represents the human figure, or even an animal figure, and, though this is often the case, it is not necessarily so:

Painting can therefore be divided into the categories of figurative and abstract, although, strictly speaking, abstract art is derived (or abstracted) from a figurative source. However, the term is usually used as a synonym for non-representational art, i.e. art which has no derivation from figures or objects. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Figurative_art [May 2006]

A re-emergence of the figure in painting

By the late '90s, critics were pointing to a re-emergence of the figure in painting, crediting Currin along with a few other young artists like Lisa Yuskavage, Elizabeth Peyton, and Jenny Saville. The problem with this story is that figurative painting never really went away; it just retreated to the margins for a while. Artists who were interested in traditional technique gravitated toward places like the New York Academy of Art, which bases its curriculum on the study of the human figure and mastery of the painter's craft. Highly skilled representational artists like Vincent Desiderio [1], Bo Bartlett, Richard Maury, Odd Nerdrum, and Wade Schuman exhibited their work in New York galleries throughout the '90s. These painters weren't contrarians like Currin; it was just that these were the kind of paintings they wanted to make. --Mia Fineman for Slate via http://www.coldbacon.com/art/johncurrin-slate.html [Dec 2006]

New figurative art

By new figurative art I mean art since about the 1980s which depicts people in a realistic/fantastic way. Another term for this kind of painting might be "new pictorality" (see below), examples of which are Eric Fischl (Bad Boy, 1981 [1]), John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and Odd Nerdrum. The term figurative art was coined after the acceptance of abstract art in the early to mid twentieth century. Before that, all painting was figurative (notable exceptions by Whistler and near-abstract work by Turner notwithstanding).

I think I first became aware of the power of allegory by seeing -- at Art Brussels -- a painting of a man in a trench coat weeping: out of his handkerchief came tears, these tears formed a puddle at his feet, which subsequently became a brook, a river and finally to the right of him: a waterfall. A terribly funny picture. Humor is one of the things I appreciate most in contemporary art. It's wonderful when a painting has the power to make you laugh out loud.

What follows is a review by Matthew Rose of a travelling exhibition (Paris, Vienna, Frankfurt) entitled “Dear Painter, Paint Me…”. The superscripted links are image links.

The age-old profession of applying paint on canvas may have simply been overshadowed by the plethora of art strategies begun as early as 1917, with Duchamp’s “Fountain,” the overturned urinal signed “R. Mutt.” Interestingly enough, Duchamp’s very good friend, Francis Picabia, was a tried and true painter, although his approach to the canvas was anything but conventional. The flamboyant French artist (1879-1959), immensely talented and outrageously brazen, mapped out a world of tongue-in-cheek kitsch works in a prolific explosion that spanned the middle parts of the 20th century.

Picabia’s late work from the 1940s [1] [2], the fulcrum of this exhibit, borrowed generously from soft-core pornography and other photographic sources, and does more than inform the direction these artists have taken. Combining the comic, kitsch, popular culture and adding a jigger or two of surrealism, Picabia undoubtedly had a great deal more influence on pictorial subject and style than he’d ever dreamed.

“Dear Painter, Paint Me…”, (the title taken from Martin Kippenberger’s 1980s series) is a travelling exhibition (Paris, Vienna, Frankfurt) turns the spotlight on contemporary figurative painting since the Frenchman’s heyday painting pin ups in the 1940s.

Among the 18 artists in this expansive show, modern figurative masters such as Alex Katz, Luc Tuymans and even the droll French outcast Bernard Buffet, are complemented by the sexy and often grotesque contemporary worlds of John Currin, the surreal pop worlds of , and the dreamy romantic ones of Elizabeth Peyton. Kippenberger [1, nsfw], a strong influence on the group, is well represented, as are a handful of single-minded, dyed-in-the-wool painters of a younger set: Kai Althoff, Glenn Brown, Brian Calvin and Peter Doig. Sigmar Polke, perhaps the most Picabian of the group, appears with several mid-1960s masterpieces, works that are funny, skilful and acid, laying bare the bones of 20th century man (and woman). --Matthew Rose via http://www.art-themagazine.com/pages/paris14.htm [Dec 2006]

American art critic Craig Owens (1950 - 1990) and new pictorality:

One of the key texts about this new pictorality of pictures was Craig Owens' 'The Allegorical Impulse' published in 1980, then propagated in the central organ of postmodern esthetics, the 'October', founded in 1976. Owens is offering six notions, to catch on to the new complexity of pictures, which, following the then rather trendy Walter Benjamin, he summarizes in the title 'allegorical', (the only one outdated notion in Owens' conceptuality is, accordingly, this collective term). --THE PICTORIAL IMPULSE Rainer Metzger, 2004 via http://www.maderthaner.cc/maderthaner.texte/pictorial_impulse.htm [Dec 2006]

Quotes from The Allegorical Impulse:

"This deconstructive impulse is characteristic of postmodernist art in general and must be distinguished from the self-critical tendency of modernism. Modernist theory presupposes that mimesis, the adequation of an image to a referent, can be bracketed or suspended ... When the postmodernist work speaks of itself, it is no longer to proclaim its autonomy, its self-sufficiency, its transcendence; rather, it is to narrate its own contingency, insufficiency, lack of transcendence."

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