Miguel Cullen

Why has figurative painting become fashionable again?

Identity politics is spurring on the art world's renewed embrace of this once conservative style

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.

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