What Is Figurative Art?

By Keith Vaughn

Figurative art is a form of artwork that has existed for thousands of years in cultures all around the world. Figurative art can be made in any media and in a variety of styles. Artists have made, and continue to make, figurative art.

Definition

Figurative art refers to any form of art that clearly represents an image from the real world. Figurative art, beginning in antiquity, has a lineage that runs through many schools of modern and contemporary art. Though the term figurative art commonly refers to art that has the human figure or animal figures as its subject, the term can also be used in the more general sense of distinguishing representational art from abstract art.

Abstraction

Abstract art, which appeared in the early 20th century, simplified, idealized or distorted the forms of realistic referents to an unrecognizable degree or eschewed reality altogether. Abstract art is a term often used interchangeably with nonrepresentational art. Abstract art does not represent the physical material of the real world in the same way as does figurative art.

History

Figurative art has a history as long as the history of representation itself. The earliest example of figurative art is the carved, sculptural figure of a woman discovered in Hohle Fels Cave of southern Germany. Carved from the tusk of a mammoth, the figure is at least 35,000 years old. The cave paintings of Lascaux, France, depict a variety of animals native to the region. These paintings date back 16,000 years. There are notable examples of figurative art from ancient cultures around the world.

Function

Figurative art not only depicts a real subject but can also reflect the cultural values of the time in which it was made. Sculpture, portraiture, genre painting and artwork with religious or mythical themes can all be figurative art. Figurative art has the capability to depict a subject while alluding to intellectual concepts. Ancient Greek statuary depicted gods and goddesses in a way that also celebrated geometric precision. Portraiture of the 19th century, exemplified by Jean-Auguste-Dominque Ingres, portrayed the likeness of the subject, but subtle stylization also conveyed the standards of beauty of the time. Still other forms of figurative art, such as a scientific illustration, dispense with stylization in the interest of accurate, mimetic documentation.

Types

Different schools of modern and contemporary art fall under the heading of figurative art. The distorted figures of cubism, as painted by Pablo Picasso, the elongated, surrealist sculptures of Alberto Giacometti, and the flat, pop art paintings of Andy Warhol, though dissimilar in intent and style are all examples of figurative art.

About the Author

Keith Vaughn is an artist and writer in Asheville, NC. Vaughn regularly writes essays and fine art reviews for Bees And Trees Blog. He also paints and exhibits his work regularly. He holds a Master of Fine Arts from the Cranbrook Academy of Art.