Angela Edwards

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August 25, 2022

What is Figurative Art?

For the uninitiated, art can be very overwhelming. There are different eras, types, and styles that, if you don’t understand, sound like a bunch of gibberish that so-called “art snobs” use. Most novices believe these terms are only used by connoisseurs to appear intellectual. That’s not the case. 

To those who appreciate art and are connoisseurs of its various mediums, these descriptors are vital and understanding these descriptors plays an integral role in the experience. Knowing these terms could also help you enjoy art in all its forms.

The best place to start would be to focus on art styles. There are several eras, styles, and subcategories, but most of the art being created and enjoyed today is contemporary art.

You can divide contemporary art into five distinct art styles, each of which has its own characteristics.

These include figurative, expressionist, abstract, geometric, and minimalist.

What Does Figurative Art Entail?

If you don’t consider yourself an art connoisseur but admire and enjoy art, you’ll find figurative art to be one of the least intimidating contemporary art styles.

That’s because figurative art portrays easily identifiable real-world objects in paintings, sculptures, or other art pieces. This art style is a reflective form of art, enabling viewers to contemplate the subject of the piece. This often means that the artist will interpret humans and animals to point to a – less obvious – subtext.

Much like contemporary art has distinct art styles, figurative art has subcategories. These include surrealism, realism, renaissance, and baroque, each gaining popularity in different eras.

It’s also these subcategories that make figurative art more enjoyable, irrespective of your tastes.

The History of Figurative Art

Figurative art dates back 35,000 years. Many of the most popular paintings and sculptures of the last millennia form part of the figurative art style, many emerging in the 15th century – like Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Since the 15th century, every art era has been defined by figurative art. Yet, the figurative art style we know today has its roots in the 20th century as the expressionist art movement gained traction.

From the 15th to 19th century, most figurative artists created life-like pieces nearly identical to the objects they were painting, sculpting, or drawing. This lack of deviation meant the tones were neutral, the aspect ratio was life-like, and the objects in each piece were easy to identify.

1901 to 1909

But in the 20th century, artists began experimenting with colour, shapes, and space, taking a more interpretative approach to the pieces they create rather than an analytical approach.

Artists first started exploring colours when a group of artists – Henri Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck, and Andre Derain – met in 1901 and, deciding to share a studio, embraced the use of colour in their pieces. Given their brighter, often unrealistic use of colour, they were referred to as the “Wild Beasts,” a name they embraced.

1908 to 1930

Not even a decade later, artists began exploring more with this newfound form of figurative art. As the expressionist movement gained traction, cubism – the use of three-dimensional objects in images – became popular for artists of this era. Birthing the likes of Pablo Picasso, whose early works – Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) – for example, used cubism to make his beloved distorted paintings.

The ensuing years saw many art styles emerging, each contributing to figurative art, with varying significance.

The 1930s and 1940s

In the early 30s, for example, after surrealism had built momentum as a movement, many figurative artists like Salvador Dali – think Persistence of Memory (1931) – took a liking to the unconscious creative process that defined the movement.

Abstract expressionism also emerged during World War II in the 1940s as a revolt against the Nazi regime, which proclaimed non-traditional artwork “degenerate.” Despite being significant to Abstract art within contemporary art, the movement had very little impact on figurative art.

The1960s and 1970s

Instead, the next significant influence on figurative art came in the 1960s when Pop Art took centre stage; at the time, it was known as Conceptual art and is still referred to by some as conceptual art.

Andy Warhol was a pioneer of the era, which had its roots in the belief that the concept of art was more important than its aesthetic quality. This era was also heavily influenced by pop culture and revolutions during the ’60s and ’70s.

For example, as feminism grew, so did the role of female artists in shaping figurative art. Street art influenced colour and design.

The 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s

From the beginning of the 1980s to the early 2000s, figurative art didn’t have many notable influences. It is also this period that is largely referred to as “contemporary art” without much detail on the sub-art styles and characteristics.

2010s and 2020s

Now, most art is inspired by digital spaces. Many figurative artists of this era draw influence and inspiration from advancements in technology and social media. But this era is also characterised by its contemplative look at society. 

Figurative art is still being explored by artists today, forcing this style to adapt to the “trends” of today.

The Significance of Figurative Art

Contemporary figurative art has been most influential to artists – and by extension, viewers – today. The initial break from tradition in the 20th century meant more artists were exploring the objects they were recreating from personal expression rather than realism.

Subsequently, brighter colours were used to create interpretative pieces 

But figurative art today also affects fashion, interior design, and even architecture to a degree. Artists on the precipice of the latest trends can captivate audiences with their creations, and the digital age is able to spread those creations, enabling designers to incorporate some of these elements into their work.

Now that you understand more about figurative art, you can enjoy the changes in each period leading to the brighter, bolder, more abstract figurative art many artists have embraced. But can also appreciate the influences that have led some figurative artists to embrace more of the minimalism of pre-20th century art.