A term for art that refers to the representation of the human figure, however, altered or distorted. It is often applied to paintings and sculptures made after twentieth-century abstraction that re-introduced elements of the human body into abstract styles, including work by Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, Francis Bacon, and Lucian Freud.

Alberto Giacometti Femme égorgée [Woman with her Throat Cut] 1932 © The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Annette et Alberto Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris), licensed in the UK by ACS and DACS, London 2018.

What is Figurative Art?

Although the term Figurative Art could theoretically be applied to any art that represents the human figure, it is most commonly attached to paintings and other media made after early twentieth-century abstraction which explore figurative elements alongside modern or semi-abstract idioms, such as expressive passages of paint, exaggerated colours or flattened and distorted forms. Representational art made before this time is often referred to as Realism.

Avant-Garde Figures

Some of the earliest and most famous works referred to as Figurative Art are Pablo Picasso’s paintings, collages and sculptures, particularly those made after 1920. Although he experimented widely with different styles and techniques, Picasso never delved into full abstraction, choosing instead to retain some reference to the real world in all his work. Paintings such as Nude Woman Lying in the Sun on the Beach, 1932 and his portrait, Lee Miller, 1937, subvert real forms into crude, jagged shapes in electric colours, rendering his sitters almost unrecognisable. Alberto Giacometti’s sculptures, including Woman with Her Throat Cut, 1932, reveal similar tendencies, distorting the female form into a series of surreal plant and animal-like forms that conjure up disturbing, psychological states of mind.

The School of London Painters and their Legacy

After the Second World War, Abstraction, Pop and Conceptualism overtook figurative styles of art, but in the 1950s the loosely affiliated School of London painters including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, R.B. Kitaj and Leon Kossoff did much to reinvigorate figurative subject matter, later influencing artists working in a range of media. They painted the people and places around them in London with wild, aggressive passages of paint and liberal colours, revealing an awareness of avant-garde abstraction, while demonstrating the powerful ways figuration could express levels of angst and turmoil that abstraction just could not reach. In the 1980s Neo-Expressionism arose in the wake of the London School, with its many practitioners, including Julian Schnabel, Georg Baselitz and Steven Campbell, investing their work with equal levels of abstraction and social concerns.

Figurative Art Today

In relation to contemporary art practices the term Figurative Art is used to describe a wide range of media that makes reference to the human body, which could be as diverse as installation, photography, sculpture or film. Painters such as Peter Doig, Marlene Dumas and Luc Tuymans continue to pursue styles influenced by the Neo-Expressionists, making Figurative Art with many abstract qualities.

 

Artists

Pablo Picasso
1881 - 1973
Alberto Giacometti
1901 - 1966
Francis Bacon
1909 - 1992
Lucian Freud
1922 - 2011