The figure is back. Faces stare, bodies sprawl, fingers swipe, mums clutch, hands loll. The Venice Biennale was full of it. After decades of being pushed to the margins, figurative painting is once again dominating the art world. Peter Doig, Alex Katz, Chris Ofili and Jenny Saville head the sales at auction houses, but there is a whole market of up-and-comers snapping at the heels of these established names.
How has this happened? Until quite recently, the figure, like melody in music, was associated with the most reactionary elements within art. The body emerged out of the second world war a wreck, blinking amid the glare and slash of abstract expressionism, pop art and conceptualism. Its earnest presence went against everything that was fundamental and fashionable in post-Duchampian art with its commitment to the sly and chin-strokey.
What changed was the demand to affirm and bear witness to your identity and ‘lived experience’. Suddenly the emotional and communicative legibility of the figure became an ally to the progressive cause. As in politics, where ideas have migrated from left to right and right to left, so in art we now see figuration as the radical act.
The new movers in new figurativism — Chantal Joffe, Michael Armitage, Nicole Eisenman, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Issy Wood, Jill Mulleady, Justin John Greene, Adrian Ghenie, Henry Taylor, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye — are predominantly female or black and ethnic minority. They paint all-too-human forms. And while some new figurativism softly retreads previous ground, at its best this school defaces, crushes and repurposes the back catalogue of Western art.
Chantal Joffe is a star of the female form, her speciality the bond between mother and child. Her 2018 show Personal Feeling is the Main Thing at the Lowry took its title from the artist Paula Modersohn-Becker, who died in 1907, and was, along with Artemisia Gentileschi, one of the first female painters of nude self-portraits. Portraits of nude pregnant women are of particular interest to Joffe. So many Madonna del Partos have been painted by the unknowing eyes of the male Renaissance. Joffe and Jill Mulleady have reclaimed the female gaze. In paintings such as ‘Sex Murder’, in which a woman is disembowelled, Mulleady provokes the viewer. What is contained within that tear in the stomach? Should we look?
New figurativism shows us a mirror of ourselves, but also teleports us into other bodies. We look into these eyes as we might at passersby on a street. We live in an era where it has never been easier to come out, to change sex, to be a minority within a majority, but the inviolable nature of those rights is paradoxically being tested, hence the confrontational restatement of identity within this movement. We traffic images that we can relate to and hope others align with us and join the tribe.
Michael Armitage is a mixed-race painter who uses Ugandan bark for his canvases. Gauguin’s languid scenes and ripe colours are put through the blender by Armitage and poured out into sensuous paintings that revel in surface and representation. The portraits of British-Ghanaian artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye are more forthright; her black figures stare right out at us.
Speaking to me from his Frith Street studio in Soho, figurative painter Des Lawrence (who recently had a show at White Cube) gives me his version of how new figurativism bloomed again in the UK: ‘The current vogue is partly curatorial — things come around — but for a long time the UK art world, led by the Tate, was dominated by a sort of minimal conceptualism.’
‘It’s OK if you’re the Chisenhale Gallery and it’s what you do, and you want to have some abstract video art. But I’m happy that figuration has come back.’ In the US, Americans have always been open to new modes, says Lawrence. In the UK, focus has so long been with the minimalist conceptualists (artists such as Richard Serra) that when fashion changed, British curators had to twist their trajectories, and create a back-history for it. Forerunners of this figurative turn, such as Marie Lassnig and Denzil Forrester, are witnessing a revival.
One of the most commercially successful of the new figuratives is Romanian Adrian Ghenie, an artist who commands £7 million at auction. In recent work, such as ‘The Raft of Medusa’, he charts the course of migrant refugee vessels. Ghenie’s work has the supernova-afterglow of a Bacon (with whom he has been often compared). His work is complex, dark and luminous. What differentiates Ghenie from his fellow new figurativists is his need to disfigure, while keeping a trace, a recognisable outline of his target.
Coming to terms with the weirdness of the world unites the group. They’ve realised that a sort of benevolent paranoia is needed to document and analyse what’s going on. So while figuration has become the dominant language, an emotionally charged surrealism is the predominant tone. And as the gap between the fleshy and the digital, the god-given and man-made, continues to disappear, this near-hysterical new figurativism is only going to become more important as we try to make sense of our increasingly alarming surroundings.