Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What is Figurative Art? (plus some figurative sketches)

Inbetween posts about the Threadneedle Figurative Prize, I thought it might be worth just taking a brief look at definitions of figurative art.

The sketches - of real people in real places - are what I did inbetween the Press Preview and the Preview Party which I attended at the Mall Galleries yesterday - see my post Sketching the Olympics in Trafalgar Square - and afternoon tea! on Travels with a Sketchbook for larger pics and more about them.

If you look at the way the term figurative art is actually used by people, it seems to me that there appears to be some confusion as to whether it refers to a recognizable world or to mainly figures in that world. Everybody is clear that it means art that is representational - but whether that is in a realistic way or a conceptual way also looks a bit blurred around the edges.

The medal ceremony in Trafalgar Square
11.5" x 17",
pencil and coloured pencils in sketchbook

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

This is what the Tate has to say about Figurative Art
Since the arrival of abstract art the term figurative has been used to refer to any form of modern art that retains strong references to the real world and particularly to the human figure. In a general sense figurative also applies retrospectively to all art before abstract art. Modern figurative art can be seen as distinct from modern realism in that figurative art uses modern idioms, while modern realists work in styles predating Post-Impressionism (more or less). In fact, modern figurative art is more or less identical with the general current of expressionism that can be traced through the twentieth century and on. Picasso after about 1920 is the great exemplar of modern figurative painting, and Alberto Giacometti from about 1940 is the great figurative sculptor. After the Second World War figuration can be tracked through the work of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and the other artists of the School of London, and through Pop art, Neo-Expressionism, and New Spirit painting.
Tate - Glossary - Figurative Art
It struck me that's interesting about the Tate definition is that it suggests that modern realism is actually 'traditional' ie it works in styles which predate Post-Impressionism. I love the 'more or less' qualification!

Here's the wikipedia version of Figurative Art - which references the Tate halfway through.
Figurative art describes artwork - particularly paintings and sculptures - 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:
“ Since the arrival of abstract art the term figurative has been used to refer to any form of modern art that retains strong references to the real world.[1] ”

Painting and sculpture can therefore be divided into the categories of figurative, representational and abstract, although, strictly speaking, abstract art is derived (or abstracted) from a figurative or other natural source. However, the term is sometimes used as a synonym for non-representational art and non-objective art, i.e. art which has no derivation from figures or objects.
See what I mean? Just a bit confused and confusing..............

Afternoon Tea at the National Gallery
11.5" x 17",
pencil and coloured pencils in sketchbook

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

I've got a stack of notes and photos from the Press Preview and the Preview Party in the evening - including what I think are the only photos of two of the artists with their work! However they all need sorting and processing and I need to work out how to do more posts about this fascinating exhibition - later this week.

Check back for more...........



  1. beautiful drawing...afternoon tea. I don't know how you managed to capture the serenity of it certainly did.

  2. Yes, I agree it is a confused set of definitions. The Tate one is much better written than the Wiki one, which gives us all insight into the weaknesses of Wikipedia.

    I found in these definitions some obscuration of the terms abstract and realism. How does one draw the separation between modern realism and figuration? Figuration is slightly abstracted? Realism is not at all? Who decides?

    I'll go out on a limb and say that the definition of art before Post Impressionism (give or take!) actually made some sense to me. But, who is able to do the figure without any reference to recent history? How can anyone doing art today not be effected by the tide of artists messing with reality since van Gogh, et al?

  3. Hi Katherine,
    This post certainly clears up my confusion from yesterday. I loved Nina Murdoch's Untitled painting but could not figure out why it was considered figurative since there were no people or persons in it.

    Thanks for the clarification.

  4. Katherine -- this is really helpful. One of the categories on "Illustration Friday" is "figurative" and I thought that's what I did but now I'm sure. I took it to mean, more or less, non-abstract, and I think that is, more or less, accurate. I think.


  5. But abstract art uses the colours of the real world! ;)

  6. And then there's that word 'representational' which means (more or less) the same thing?

  7. I agree with Julian - Figurative is similar to Representational and not to do with the human figure - that's what we were taught at school and on a Fine Art degree course anyway.

    And there are of course degrees of Abstraction and Expressionism within Realism/Figurative art .....

    so still a wide and blurred field!

  8. Love composition and drawing of afternoon tea, Katherine. Very appealing mood.

  9. see also for further discussion

  10. For information - That's the last anonymous comment I'm taking on this topic.

    It's not difficult now to identify yourself.


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