Figurative Painting in the 20th Century

Figurative painting – we are all too often told – is dead.

This was certainly the narrative of the modernist orthodoxy throughout the 20th century. Now anxious to dominate the current narrative, conceptualists repeat that old mantra. Under this continuing onslaught, it’s amazing that painting and figuration have continued not only to survive – but even thrive. For decades modernists have successfully monopolised educational institutions in both art and architecture. It’s detractors were cast as outdated and irrelevant throwbacks. But the problem with all dogmatic ideologies like modernism, is that they all ultimately doomed to failure, under the clunky weight of their unwieldy intolerance.

In his book The World New Made: Figurative Painting in the Twentieth Century, artist and critic Timothy Hyman passionately argues that abstraction was just one of the means by which artists expressed themselves. Focusing on those painters who didn’t succumb to this new movement, but instead opted for a different kind of figuration, Hyman presents them as a countermovement to the new orthodoxy once Cubism had became a movement.

Here Hyman tells the story of this often overlooked but important counterargument to Western formalism, that is also the foundation for the figurative painters of the twenty-first century.

Main Image Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, 1942

Painting and Experience in the Twentieth Century

By Timothy Hyman

To put a line around a form; to embody a vision in colour and tone; to re-create experience across a surface, equivalent to the depth and charged emotion of a lived life – for thousands of years such pictorial representations have engaged humankind. Yet in the twentieth century ‘figurative painting’ became an activity fraught with difficulty.

The history of twentieth-century art has often been told as a shift away from the illusionistic or representational towards the ‘pure’ and abstracted, structured in terms of an evolutionary sequence of ‘movements’: Cézanne passes the baton to Cubism, Cubism to Mondrian, Mondrian to American Painting… But that linear account of what we now call modernism no longer rings true. Abstract painting was just one of the ways by which, in the face of existential uncertainty, artists renewed pictorial language. In my book The World New Made, I focus on those twentieth-century painters who took a contrary path, towards a new kind of figuration.

the Dance by Henri Matisse figurative painting in the twentieth century

The Dance, Henri Matisse, 1909-10

Commissioned for the first landing of the stairs at the Moscow Mansion of Sergei Schukin, The Dance was conceived as a functioning public image.

Modernism As Liberty

In his huge canvas The Dance by Henri Matisse (1869-1954) imagines a community reborn in primal liberty; an icon of earthly joy, whose antecedents are in Gauguin’s Tahiti and Cézanne’s bathers, in the ‘primitive’ worlds evoked by African tribal sculpture, but also in Greek and Roman literature. The perennial myth of a Golden Age – a time before hierarchy, class, nation, gender, religion or race divided humankind – took on a new potency in France around 1900, when Matisse became closely linked to older Age d’Or Anarchist painters such as Paul Signac, and Van Gogh’s friend John Peter Russell on Belle-Ile.

When the means of expression have become so refined, so attenuated that their power of expression wears thin, it is necessary to return to the essential principles which made human language…This is the starting point of Fauvism: the courage to return to the purity of the means.
Henri Matisse, 1936

Ever since Le Bonheur de Vivre (The Enjoyment of Life) in 1905-6, Matisse had sought a pictorial language equivalent to that elemental vision; Bathers with a Turtle (1907-8) is another epic-scale affirmation. In The Dance he achieves a vernacular of utter directness: painting unburdened by aristocratic or bourgeois tradition, available to all. With its vast expanses of colour – the linear rhythm of the red dancers set within what he called an ‘absolute’ blue – Matisse shows how simplicity of means need not be impoverishment. Compositions of languorous nudes in a paradisal landscape had long been a staple of academy and salon – even Ingres had painted The Golden Age in 1862. Yet Matisse’s version of the Age of Gold is too exhilarating to signify mere nostalgia. Encountering The Dance today, at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, it registers as a public image of liberation, prophetic of future revolution.

I have placed this image at the outset of my book to stand for the cleansing of pictorial language in the early twentieth century. That moment of joyful liberty can be felt also in several of Matisse’s contemporaries in the first rooms of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but as Cubism becomes a ‘movement’, a sense of restriction and exclusion, of an oppressive stylistic imperative, sets in. Matisse himself would acknowledge having been painfully ‘grazed’ by Cubism. The full impact of art as imprisoning ideology is felt after 1920, as the modernist canon is first contested. During the 1930s both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia adopted variants of academic realism, and suppressed modernism; in the 1950s, the CIA in turn invested heavily in abstract painting as cultural propaganda of the Cold War.

The Boxer by Pierre Bonnard figurative painting in the twentieth century

The Boxer, Pierre Bonnard, 1931

A kind of tragicomic clowning is transformed – by the exquisite violet line along the shoulder, by the magically shimmering yellow-and-blue field in which the figure is embedded – into an image of unforeseen beauty.

The Dominance of Abstraction

Across the past hundred years abstract painting has carried many new meanings, but the primary rationale has always remained: that the material, observed world is less significant than the metaphysical. Hegel had written of ‘spirit… liberating itself from nature’; the theosophical underpinnings of Mondrian, Malevich and Kandinsky gave an explicitly revolutionary thrust to their art.

Abstraction is the major mode of expression in our time; any other mode is necessarily minor.
Clement Greenberg, 1954

By the mid-1920s there was a loose network, centred on the Bauhaus, united in the belief that humankind’s continuing progress was embodied in ‘non-objective’ art. Abstraction was seen as more spiritually evolved, more advanced, than figuration, which was regarded as retrograde. Geometric abstraction, especially, appeared to be aligned to modern science and engineering; the anarchist, poet and critic Herbert Read, as early as 1935, saw abstraction as ‘the art of the new classless society… all the artists of any intellectual force belong to this movement’.

Introduction to the Yiddish Theatre incorporates elements of Cubism and Malevich’s Suprematist geometric idiom within its overall design.

Introduction to the Yiddish Theatre, Marc Chagall, 1920

At its height – for some thirty years, roughly 1952 to 1982 – the triumph of abstraction seemed so evident that many believed painting was moving inexorably towards the non-representational. ‘It is no longer possible’, wrote the critic-painter Andrew Forge in 1968, ‘to imagine figurative painting as an alternative tradition.’ Modern art and abstraction had become almost synonymous.

A few years later, beginning in the mid-1970s, a parallel account had painting itself withering away in favour of other media (video and installation, interventions and stagings) – grouped together as ‘conceptual’, ‘third area’ or ‘the expanded field’. In both these versions of twentieth-century art history, figurative painters were cast as backward children, conservative throwbacks, outdated survivors.

An alternative formulation would be to see the artists in my book as a kind of ‘Resistance’, responding to Cubism, then to other varieties of abstraction, but never losing their concern for a core experience – physical, social, psychological – that could not be reduced or schematized.

Minuit Chanson by Edward Burra figurative painting in the twentieth century

Minuit Chanson (Midnight Song), Edward Burra, 1931

Burra filters the Parisians of a spring night through a sensibility essentially comic and camp. Infirmity gives a special poignancy to Burra’s re-imaginings of nocturnal glamour.

Peopling the World: Episodes From An Alternative History

A sense of unreality in objects was shared by representational as well as abstract painters. The kinds of figuration I will be celebrating in my book emerged from that same existential experience, often referred to by the artists themselves as ‘The Void’; as when Picasso writes in 1932: ‘Each time I take up a picture I have the sensation of throwing myself into the void.’ Max Beckmann invokes ‘this infinite space, the foreground of which one must constantly pile up with any kind of junk so that one will not see behind it to the terrible depth.’ Expressionists experiences this Void, Dadaists and Surrealists made a thesis of it, Abstract Expressionists a metaphysic. In the opening chapter of my book, Fernand Léger follows the path into The Void – but then he re-emerges, able to affirm a reality in objects. Léger’s art has to pass through the purgatory of abstraction in order to be liberated for a renewed, revalidated figuration. He wrote in 1937:

It was the Impressionists who made the breakthrough, especially Cézanne. The Moderns have followed by accentuating this liberation. We have freed colour and geometric form… It is possible for us to create and realize a new collective social art. We are merely waiting for social evolution to permit it.

It might seem a violation to construct any common cause out of such wayward individuals as Max Beckmann and R. B. Kitaj, Charlotte Salomon and Philip Guston, Alice Neel and Ken Kiff, Balthus and Bhupen Khakhar, Leon Gloub and Stanley Spencer, yet in their different contexts each was linked by their ‘resistance’. These artists should not be confused with academic diehards; their art was nourished by the same concern for a renewal of pictorial language that fed their abstract counterparts. There is a shared trait of the emphatic in several of these painters – in the exaggerated black contours of Léger, Beckmann, Hartley and Guston, for example – that evidences their difficulty in resisting the dematerializing Void, as if they needed to insist on The Real.

Began in Paris, then continued in Amsterdam, Acrobats was completed just before the invasion of Poland.

Acrobats, Max Beckmann, 1937-39

Even so apparently unwavering a figurative painter as Beckmann viewed ‘positive tangible reality’ as an illusion. ‘I hardly need to abstract things, for each object is unreal enough already, so unreal that I can only make it real by means of painting.’ This could be applied to most of my cast here. Their figuration acknowledges the Void, even if they rebound from it. They are aware of the claims of abstraction – as a transcendence, as a purification, as an autonomous pictorial language – and it affects their art. Abstraction, both in its salutary stringency and in its oppression, becomes midwife to a newborn figuration.

Man would prefer to make the void his object than be devoid of objects.
Friedrich Nietzsche, 1887

In The World New Made I am not attempting any comprehensive survey; the field is too large, too crowded with the most diverse individual artists. I have conceived it, rather, as an archipelago – with each painter as an island on which to touch down, however briefly, almost as a picaresque episode, before flying on to the next. Several will be represented only by a single painting; each stands for some much wider hinterland.

My first decision was to cut back on the two painters I recognize as by far the most influential: Picasso and Matisse. Through the chapters that follow, these two will be felt as giant, but mostly hidden, presences. This allows me to focus on artists whose development may be less familiar (for example Hartley, Salomon, Kiff, Neel, Khakhar) and to give space to those most central to my project (including Léger, Beckmann, Balthus, Chagall, Spencer, Kitaj and Guston). My bias throughout is evident: I am less concerned with ‘straight realism’ than with artists who create narratives and microcosms.

You Can't Please All by Bhupen Khakhar figurative painting in the twentieth century

You Can’t Please All, Bhupen Khakhar, 1981

‘Remember one thing, my son, you can’t please all,’ concludes the famous fable The Father, the Son and the Donkey. In Khakhar’s own gloss: ‘The moral of the story is that, in life, we all the time make social adjustments in order to please people around us. We forget our duty towards ourselves.’

Although early in the century artists such as Paula Modersohn-Becker and Frida Kahlo exemplify that new flowering of women painters prophesied by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in practice an exaggeratedly masculinist painting-culture became dominant. The women figurative painters I look at are the exception. Eventually, a range of prominent artists who happened to be both figurative painters and women (Mamma Andersson, Marlene Dumas, Nicole Eisenman, Rosa Loy, Nilima Sheikh and Dana Schutz among them) did emerge, but their achievement has mostly been recognized after 2000.

One spur for writing was the exclusion from current narratives of twentieth-century art of so many of the paintings I have loved most. Thus within the 700 dense pages of the quasi-canonical Art Since 1900 (written by Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin Buchloh and Hal Foster, published in 2004), there is almost no overlap with my own cast: no early Chagall, no Rousseau, no late Léger; no mention of Balthus or Spencer; no Beckmann triptych or late Bonnard self-portrait; no Charlotte Salomon or Alice Neel; no late Guston or Henry Darger. So this ‘alternative’ account is both corrective and refutation – a recognition of diversity.

Perhaps my book is best understood as the history of a collective retrieval. All across the world, isolated artists found an idiom for human-centred painting in the midst of modern life. Both anthology and hagiology, my book sets out to assemble those free spirits. Together they offer a counter-argument to Western formalism, as well as a promise, and even a foundation, for the figurative painters of the twenty-first century.

THE WORLD NEW MADE: Figurative Painting in the Twentieth Century

by Timothy Hyman
published by Thames & Hudson,
RRP £32

Photography supplied courtesy of Thames & Hudson


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