Blurring the Line Between Figuration and Abstraction

Until relatively recently, figuration and abstraction alternated, passing in and out of fashion and competing for the favor of the critics and the general public.

by Maria Doubrovskaia

Since the dawn of the 20th century, history of art in the West has been defined by the tension between figuration and abstraction. Until relatively recently, these modes of representation alternated, passing in and out of fashion and competing for the favor of the critics and the general public. In this day and age, however, this juxtaposition is no longer as severe as it has been in the past. Agora Gallery is proud to represent a number of artists, whose work successfully bridges both artistic idioms.

Figuration and Abstraction
Horse Carrrying Twin Souls | Watercolor on Paper | 20″ x 28″ by Kate Walters
Liberty Leading the People (1830) – one of Eugène Delacroix’s most famous painting. Source: Wikipedia

Figurative art, also termed representational, has traditionally derived its existence from real objects. At different times throughout the history of art in the West, artists approached figuration differently.  In the 19th century, for example, the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres favored Classical idealization, while his bitter opponent, Eugène Delacroix, championed Romantic dramatization of reality. Although these painters espoused different styles based on different philosophies of art, each artist remained faithful to working from life in his own way.

As the century wore on, ever-increasingly radical versions of representation emerged in the works of pioneering artists like Edouard Manet, the Impressionists, and the Post Impressionists. But the true break with figuration did not arrive until the first decade of the 20th century, when the self-proclaimed Cubists, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, abandoned perspective used to depict space since the Renaissance and blended the distinction between the foreground and background of a painting. The Cubists also ceased to represent the figure in realistic ways, exploding the very notion of the object as a cohesive, self-enclosed entity that exists separately from its surroundings. Instead, they displayed it in motion, from many angles at once. Art historians argue that these innovations responded to transformations in the experience of space and time, brought about by modern technology.

Composition 6, 1913 by Wassily Kandinsky
Source: Wikipedia

Cubism may have paved the way for Non-Objective art, but it was not until Wassily Kandinsky and his 1912 book “On the Spiritual in Art” that abstraction really entered the arena of Modern art. In his treatise, Kandinsky outlined what he viewed as the mission of the abstract artist: to transcend the ancient tradition of mimesis in order to represent a truer, more spiritual, invisible reality. Kandinsky’s detailed discussion of the abstract “vocabulary”: color, line, dots, shapes, and composition on a flat surface, serve as a manual of abstraction to this day.

Kandinsky’s radical approach ushered in the age of Non-Objective art, immortalized by such glorious movements of the early 20th century as Constructivism, the Dada, or the Bauhaus. Yet this new aesthetic, powerful as it was, did not simply do away with figuration. Representational art never entirely went out of style. The Surrealist painters maintained a strong bond with the visible reality even as they tried to subvert it. Even though the Expressionists habitually worked from life, they distorted and intensified reality. By the early 1930s, Europe and the Americas were in the grip of the new figurative style: Socialist Realism, Fascist art, monumental realism of the New Deal WPA project came to replace the revolutionary styles of the preceding era.

As the century wore on, representation and figuration continued to alternate, compete, and evolve in the process. After World War II, when Abstract Expressionism was all the rage, British painters Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, etc., doggedly worked to develop new approaches to figuration, as did the Bay Area Figurative movement. Even in the late 1970s and the 80s, at the onset of a new historical era defined as postmodernism, the brave new world of Pop Art and abstractionist movements like Minimalism met their match in the Neo-Expressionism of Jean-Michel Basquiat and figurative Symbolism of Francesco Clemente.

Today it is no longer possible to argue that abstraction is superior to figuration or vice versa: the very notion of a strict distinction between these two styles has become obsolete. In the 21st century, artists may freely choose to work in the style suits them best. They may utilize any number of visual idioms, often within the parameters of a single artwork.

Agora Gallery represents several painters whose work engages with the heritage of abstract art without abandoning representation.

Colombian artist Diego Velez explores yet another facet of the relationship between figuration and abstraction. Velez’ interest in flat shapes and color lend his work a mural-like quality. The artist eschews modeling and shading, yet retains interest in figurative elements. Using repeating motifs of the face and the mask, urban landscape, and organic shapes, Velez achieves highly expressive compositions that could be as powerful on the large scale as they are as easel paintings.

Painting is about healing and recovery for Brazilian artist Gray. As an oncologist who deals with physical and psychological suffering of his patients on a daily basis, Portela uses the creative process to express and replenish himself. While the primary subject of his artwork is the human body, the artist is more interested in the expressive potential of the figure rather than its realistic appearance. Gray often limits his choice of color to just one or two and emphasizes line in a way reminiscent of Egon Schiele. Certain distortions of the body, always present on Portela’s canvases, may represent emotions, or they may represent the way we experience emotion in our bodies.

María de Echevarría is a painter, who works within the paradigm of color field painting in the spirit of Mark Rothko. But whereas Rothko reduced his color compositions to large blocks of two-three colors, de Echevarría preferences a more varied palette. Her paintings incorporate representation. For this artist, the merging of abstraction and representation achieves a specific purpose: to lend her work an aura of mystical spirituality.

An interesting example of how contemporary artists merge abstraction and representation can be gleaned from the work of Iranian Canadian artist Fariba Baghi. Her paintings are heavily influenced by her upbringing in Persia. The artist creates ethereal, abstract figures with organic paints that are earthy in tone, exploring the contrast and connection between the human form and the delicate elements of nature.

Need some specific advice regarding your art collection or help in starting afresh? Benefit from our curatorial services! To know more, contact us at [email protected]

In the 21st century, when the major battles for the dominance of this or that style are behind us, blurring the line between figuration and abstraction yields a wealth of creative possibilities.

Maria Doubrovskaia is a visual artist and scholar. She moved to New York from St. Petersburg, Russia, when she was a kid. The Chelsea Hotel was seedy, and the Limelight was still a club back then. Maria loves cities and prefers slightly dangerous cities to glossy shiny ones. Some favorites are Naples, Palermo, Dakar, and Brooklyn before 9/11. If Maria was not a visual artist and a scholar, she would be an anthropologist.


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