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Figurative Art

  Figurative art, also known as representational art, is the mirror image of abstract art. That is, it portrays figures or objects as they might appear in nature: the objective correlative is something real rather than (as in abstract art) a pattern, geometrical shape or other intellectual construct. Whatever distortions or fantasies the artist builds into the representation, this real correlative keeps it representational. Thus, even the most angular Cubist statues (such as those of Lipchitz), even the most diagrammatic of folk-art religious paintings, so long as they depict real things or are based on what we can see in real life, are figurative.

Folk art often shows, in simple forms, both extremes of the figurative approach. On the one hand are faithful portrayals of people, animals, plants, and so on; on the other are shapes which reduce the object portrayed to its basic elements, to a symbol, and which can be hard for the untutored eye to recognize. Thus, Mother Earth is represented both as the statuette of a beaming, fecund woman, fertility and motherhood personified, and as an oval with a dividing line from top to bottom (symbolizing the female genitalia) or as a single, nippled breast. In depictions of hunting scenes, animals or enemies can be shown in recognizably lifelike forms, or as stick-like representations (sometimes reduced to as little as a single line). Supernatural beings are often imagined, and depicted, as hybrids of real objects: their faces are half human, half gnarled tree-root; they have snakes for hair; they have knives for teeth and fires for eyes. The tendency to pattern-making in all folk art often blurs the boundary between the figurative and the abstract—lightning-zigzags, fish-ovals, snailshell-coils and tree-trunk forks are built into the texture, offering the eye the satisfaction of pattern and the brain the pleasure of association with the story, legend or scene alluded to. This tendency has been adopted by the fine art of Islam (where figurative representation is discouraged): representation becomes pattern and pattern representation, in a combination of directness and allusion whose complexity is often increased by specific and overt religious references.

In most cultures, figurative art begins with religion, and specifically with human-like or beast-like representations of the divine. These are often meticulously lifelike—there are no more naturalistic sculptures of the human body than those of Aphrodite in the Greek tradition, for example, or of Shiva dancing in the Indian—and the artists take the opportunity to show ‘idealized’ forms of beauty for beneficent deities, and self-consciously grotesque beasts and humans for demons. In many cases—for example in the canopies and wings which surround depictions of apsaras in Buddhist art, or the Edenic tendrils and petals of medieval Christian art—the figurative is extended to provide a semi-abstract pattern, a practice which, again, perhaps began as an attempt to depict the meta-reality of the supernatural world, but surely continued out of sheer artistic exuberance.

Secular figurative art often uses the same or similar forms as sacred, but removes the mystical element. Instead, artists often go for detail of the everyday, carving veins and wrinkles on human figures, painting every fleck of dew on a cobweb, fold in a fabric or ray of light through the leaf-canopy in a forest. In second-rate hands, this attention to detail can be tiresome, bleeding life from the work as in the all-engulfing battle scenes favoured in 19th-century European board-rooms, or the equally overwhelming corporate portraits or cityscapes hung in their contemporary Japanese equivalents. But where genius is at work, meticulousness gives the art a kind of richness which seems to remove it from the world, in much the same way as the decoration of religious art transcends reality. In a Rembrandt portrait, for example, or an Exekias pot-painting, it is as if not just the particularity of the person or thing represented, but its entireness, its metaphysical identity, has been captured and represented. This is one quality of figurative art, the power to focus the general through the particular, is one to which abstraction can never aspire. KMcL



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