What is Figurative Art?

The term Figurative Art only became useful at the advent of abstraction. Before then, all art was ‘figurative’ – that is, it depicted subjects from the real world, whether still lives, landscapes, portraits or studies of the human body. As it is used today however, Figurative Art connotes a degree of distortion. Unlike Realism, which aims to faithfully transcribe an objective reality, Figurative Art revels in emotion, idiosyncrasy and altered states.
Perhaps the best known Figurative Artist is Pablo Picasso, who despite veering to its edge, never went full abstract. In Australia, Sidney Nolan, Charles Blackman and John Olsen are arguably our most famous Figurative Artists. In all their oeuvres, elements of the real world are reimagined using semi-abstract idioms. Expressive line work, exaggerated colour, flattened or distorted forms. For Picasso, the nature of reality itself was under scrutiny; for Blackman, the world was irrevocably infused with memory, desire and longing.
Despite the ever-expanding world of what constitutes art (a single line, banana taped to a wall, curry at the museum), Figurative Art remains profoundly popular. In depicting then distorting the world around us, artists draw attention to our inner worlds, political subjecthood and perception itself. In challenging what is familiar, Figurative Art is ever-regenerating. It will never go out of style.
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