Figurative art  

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Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels (detail, c. 1450) Jean Fouquet
Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels (detail, c. 1450) Jean Fouquet
Olympia (detail) by Édouard Manet
Olympia (detail) by Édouard Manet

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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 because 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.

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.

Until the arrival of radical early Modernism circa 1912, figurative art was dominant in Western art. By the late 1920s it had fallen deeply out of fashion in the art world, as various forms of Modernist (and later post-Modernist) abstraction became the dominant mode. Yet through major artists such as Balthus and Francis Bacon it retained an important place in Western art to the present day.


Figurative art is itself based upon a tacit understanding of abstracted shapes: the figure sculpture of Greek antiquity was not naturalistic, for its forms were idealized and geometric. Ernst Gombrich referred to the strictures of this schematic imagery, the adherence to that which was already known, rather than that which is seen, as the "Egyptian method", an allusion to the memory-based clarity of imagery in Egyptian art.

Eventually idealization gave way to observation, and a figurative art which balanced ideal geometry with greater realism was seen in Classical sculpture by 480 B.C. The Greeks referred to the reliance on visual observation as mimesis. Until the time of the Impressionists, figurative art was characterized by attempts to reconcile these opposing principles.

The rise of the Neoclassical art of Nicholas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David ultimately engendered the realistic reactions of Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet.

New figurative art

Figurative painting is now slowly becoming accepted again in the contemporary art world from artists such as John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage and Odd Nerdrum.

In Belgium this trend is exeplified by the work of Luc Tuymans and Michaël Borremans.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Figurative art" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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