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Catalogue Essay - Experiments with Figuration


The notion of figurative painting is one that did not exist for the great majority of human history; this is not because it was obscure or marginalized, but rather because it was the only known form of art. Art was for centuries divided—neatly and unconsciously-- between the decorative and the descriptive. While abstraction existed in the former, it did not in the latter, and so art history unfolded for all but the most recent past under the all-encompassing umbrella of figurative art. It is only in the last century that any alternative was suggested to this default mode of figurative sovereignty. When it finally came, however, the change was ferocious and startling.

It is often asserted that this moment resulted—psychologically, artistically, and inevitably— from the carnage of the First World War, when artists responded to the staggering loss of life with a knee-jerk recourse to abstraction. However, this explanation is too simplistic: the wide-scale rejection of figurative work was as much a reaction to the aesthetics of romanticism as a politically-charged revolution in taste. Seen in this light, the genesis of modernism was a much slower process, beginning in the late nineteenth century, reaching ‘on or about December 1910’ a tipping point. (The full quote from Virginia Woolf is from an essay called Character in Fiction, and the quote reads: ‘On or about December 1910 human character changed.’ It is not specific to art, but to the modern mode of being). In truth, both the immediate trigger of the outbreak of world war in 1914 and the slow erosion of the romantic inheritance came together to create what retrospectively appears to have been an explosive change in artistic practice in the 1920s.

If anything, the Second World War only intensified the general belief that figurative work could no longer adequately reflect human experience, that it was unequal to the task and therefore morally indefensible--or at best naïve--in the modern era. Cubism and Surrealism in the interwar period distorted figuration, but abstract expressionism and its successors after 1945 smashed it to pieces. Initially the turn to abstraction took the form of a vehement rejection of the figurative tradition that had preceded it. In its earliest stages, modernism broke with figuration as modernity broke with the pre-industrial world: completely and violently. It was as totalizing in its systematic departure from the figurative tradition as that tradition had itself been.

The story does not end there, however. Picasso quickly returned to figurative painting after his initial flight into abstraction in the 1910s and 1920s, as did many other painters of the time; furthermore, he dallied in both kinds of painting for the rest of his life—periodically switching from one to the other, and often commingling the two to great effect. The difference in this new figurative work was that it was engaged in an implicit dialogue with abstraction. Once the alternative to figurative work was widely acknowledged, choosing it as a means of expression had to be justified for the first time in history.

The coexistence of abstract and figurative art in the second part of the twentieth century and the first decades of this one have added a new dimension to the artist’s process and to the viewer’s experience. This seems so deeply fundamental to us today, so indivisible from the way we interact with artworks, that it is easy to overlook. However, it is there, and it is inescapable. Since Pop Art emerged as a dominant form in the late 1950s, uniting high and low culture while folding strong elements of abstraction into essentially figurative work, a new epoch in painting has begun.

It is the contemporary artist’s choice to paint figuratively. The tension created by the artist’s choice to paint figuratively after everything has been thrown into question demands that the artist uses the resulting fragments of meaning to piece together a version of reality lacking the sturdy structure of convention that has supported artists for centuries; these artists must constantly create work afresh - sometimes giving way to a whole new school of art, sometimes characterizing an individual artist’s corpus, or simply defining a solitary work.

Figurative art has an inescapable historical dimension within this ever-growing pantheon of contemporary artistic practice. Each time we see a new work that makes reference—either implicit or explicit—to the tradition that so fiercely dominated our artistic heritage, we cannot help but be implicated in a situation of an infinite regress that somehow propels us backwards even as we attempt to grope forwards toward new understanding. Artists can use this phenomenon to astonishing effect, and it is this quality that endows figurative art with its curious potency in today’s art world. Freighted as it is by ineluctable analogues in life and precursors in art history, figurative art easily can slip into referential academicism or kitschy platitude; in the hands of skilled artists, however, it is a tremendously powerful admixture of innovation and referentiality.

Katherine Stirling