Buffeted by the arrival of abstract art in the 20th century and threatened with being rendered irrelevant by much of contemporary art, figurative artists have long been accustomed to having to fight their corner.
In recent years, however, the increasing prominence of new figurative work - or at least pieces that contain strong figurative elements - has been a notable feature in exhibitions at top galleries and institutions. The effect has been such that many industry players have talked about a ‘resurgence’ in figurative art.
In truth, this is a genre that has never gone away and certainly hasn’t buckled to the recurring threat that “painting is dead”. Even at times when non-representational art has dominated the limelight, new trends in figurative art such as pop art and photorealism, and prominent individual artists - from Lucien Freud and David Hockney, through to Michaël Borremans and Wilhelm Sasnal - have ensured ongoing relevance. That being said, it’s clear that figurative work is currently basking in the art world’s sunlit uplands.
High profile figurative exhibitions that have recently opened and will continue into 2022 include a major double David Hockney exhibition at the Bozar Centre for Fine Arts in Brussels (until 23 January); displays of work by Jenny Saville at Florence’s Museo Novecento and other venues around the Renaissance city (until 20 February); and Tate Modern’s large-scale show of recent work by Lubaina Himid, alongside highlights from her career (until 3 July).
In June 2022, one of Spain’s leading art museums, the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, will stage the country’s first ever retrospective for the veteran figurative maestro Alex Katz (b. 1927). Heralded as a precursor to Pop Art, Katz first emerged with his bold figurative style at the height of Abstract Expressionism and is well versed in how the reception for new figurative art has waxed and waned over the past half-century or more.
In an interview with the UK’s Apollo Magazine in 2014, Katz noted that for much of his career people in Europe had rejected him as either a bad Pop artist or a bad photorealist. “My work: he told interviewer Matthew Sperling, “fell right in between the cracks of those two.”
Having seen that perception begin to shift from the late 1990s onwards, Katz has now become used to seeing his work regularly exhibited at galleries across the continent. The Thyssen-Bornemisza exhibition, though, will undoubtedly mark a particular highpoint, with the artist securely elevated out of the cracks to be celebrated at the pinnacle of Europe’s art world. It will also likely come as a relief when it finally opens, with the original summer 2020 opening postponed due to COVID-19.
Summarising Katz’s place within art history, Leticia de Cos, the exhibition’s technical curator, notes that “Katz is a figurative artist and this is a continuation through all the history of art that does not seem to end shortly. There will always be artists who follow this path. His subjects are the traditional ones: landscapes, single and group portraits, flowers. Katz’s approach to these subjects matches very well with the language of visual culture today - advertisements, bright colours, plain areas of colour.”
Among the younger generation of figurative artists working today, one artist who has been particularly influential is Peter Doig (b.1959). The Scottish-born painter has spent large periods of his life living in Trinidad but has had a big impact on European art, not least through his professorship at Düsseldorf’s renowned Fine Arts Academy.
Among those to benefit has been the German artist Florian Krewer (b.1986) who studied at Düsseldorf under Doig. Part of a wave of emerging artists who have contributed to the idea of a ‘resurgence’ in figurative art, Krewer has enjoyed considerable early success, including having solo shows in 2021 with Michael Werner Gallery in both New York and London.
Discussing the idea of a resurgence and Krewer’s place within contemporary painting, Gordon VeneKlasen, a partner at Michael Werner, says: “First of all, I have to take into account Michael Werner Gallery’s more than 50 year history with figurative painting, a history that acknowledges many changes in taste and trends in art, and the supposed “death of painting” over and over again. The artists the gallery has championed throughout its history, A.R. Penck, Baselitz, Polke, Immendorff, Lüpertz, Doig, and even Kirkeby have all dealt with figuration throughout their long careers. In this context, I see Florian as a contemporary figure in a long history. That the paintings happen to be figurative is less important to me than the way the paintings are made. What is powerful to me about his work is that, within the history of painting, the paintings are incredibly contemporary and of the moment. There is a sense of urgency in the paintings and a need to exist that I find exciting and admirable.”
VeneKlasen adds that learning directly from Doig has been a key point in Krewer’s development. “The way the paintings look, the way they are made, are very much Florian’s,” VeneKlasen explains, “but Peter’s guidance was, and remains, crucial to Florian. Having worked with and gotten to know other painters in Peter’s class, including Raphaela Simon, Tim Breuer, Stanislava Kovalcikova and Christoph Matthes, they all have a work ethic, innate confidence and will to paint that could not have come from anywhere else. I am sure it is satisfying for Peter to see so many artists he has taught so present in the world of contemporary painting.”
Rather than seeking to make predictions about how Krewer’s practice will now develop, or to try and pigeonhole him within particular trends, VeneKlasen ends by saying, “That’s the beauty of making art, we won’t know until the artist makes it. I think we can expect a lot from him and I know he will deliver.”
The free, forcefully expressive nature of Krewer’s work and its bold use of colour, as well as the way it combines both figurative and abstract elements, are hallmarks often seen in the kinds of figurative work currently commanding attention.
While the new generation of artists are legitimately bringing their own approach and producing captivating work, their contribution, as VeneKlasen and Leticia de Cos both suggest, is the latest chapter in a long story. Different threads can be traced back from the younger artists working today through artists only a decade older, such as Romania’s Adrian Ghenie, to the likes of Doig and then back further to the looming figure of Francis Bacon.
On a different path, the pop artists who were working at the same time as Bacon, in a strikingly different style, are also a big influence on many artists working today. All of this, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg, with contemporary painters often having monographs of the Old Masters lying around their studios.
In an attempt to survey how contemporary painters living and working in the UK are utilising the medium, London’s Hayward Gallery has recently been staging its exhibition Mixing It Up: Painting Today (until 12 December, 2021). Presenting work by 31 artists, many of whom originally come from other countries, a key takeaway from the exhibition, says the Hayward’s Assistant Curator, Thomas Sutton, is the “vibrant diversity” of painting today.
“The term ‘figurative’" Sutton tells Euronews, “could certainly be applied to many works in the exhibition but for most of the artists, the idea of distinct genres of abstract and figurative art no longer holds water. Influential figures like Lubaina Himid and Hurvin Anderson have inspired a new generation of painters to draw on references to the world around them whilst also including elements that are more abstract.
Others such as Rachel Jones and Vivien Zhang both layer referential imagery into otherwise abstract compositions. It is a composite way of making paintings that is common to several artists in the exhibition.”
Sutton’s view is certainly accurate and holds true for much painting being produced across Europe. Nonetheless, the current openness of the art world to the “vibrant diversity” of painting is likely to mean that audiences can still expect to see plenty of work with a figurative twist when they visit exhibitions next year.