Behind the figure: 10 artists on why they’re drawn to the human form
From the 1940s to the present day, we’ve unearthed why artists, such as Willem de Kooning, Charles White, and Claire Tabouret, revel in figuration — in their own words
‘For me, people come first,’ Alice Neel stated in 1950. ‘I have tried to assert the dignity and eternal importance of the human being.’ Creating art during a period that was prized by abstraction, Neel expertly carved out her own mode of expression by reinvigorating the outdated genre of realist portraiture.
Inspired by the Expressionist paintings of Edvard Munch and Oskar Kokoschka, Neel keenly explored her sitter’s personalities and settings, which she skilfully translated into paint in a way that sought to reveal her subjects’ inner selves. Speaking of her conscious attempt to inhabit the mind and body of her sitters, Neel has explained: ‘I become the person for a couple of hours, so when they leave and I am finished, I feel disoriented. I have no self. I don’t belong anywhere… It’s terrible this feeling but it just comes because of this powerful identification I make with the person.’
During the height of abstraction, Willem de Kooning triumphantly emerged as the Abstract Expressionist painter whose signature style would centre around the figure. When asked in a 1960 interview about restoring the human form to a movement dominated by abstraction, de Kooning replied: ‘It’s really absurd to make an image, like a human image, with paint today, when you think about it, since we have this problem of doing it or not doing it. But then all of a sudden it was even more absurd not to do it. So, I fear that I’ll have to follow my desires.’
While de Kooning’s return to figuration was extremely radical at the time, it was rooted in tradition, adding that his Women ‘had to do with the female painted through all the ages, all those idols.’ And yet, bringing in cues from his surroundings as well as the rise of consumer culture, de Kooning’s Women are distinctly a sign of the time.
‘The initial public reaction to my work has generally been one of shock, which appears to rise out of a confrontation with subject matter unfamiliar to most persons,’ explained Harlem Renaissance artist and luminary, Romare Bearden in his 1969 essay, Rectangular Structure in My Montage Paintings.
Known for his dynamic paintings and collages depicting African-American culture during the height of the Civil Rights movement, Bearden denied his early critics stating, “It is not my aim to paint about the Negro in America in terms of propaganda. It is precisely my awareness of the distortions required of the polemicists that has caused me to paint the life of my people as I know it — as passionately and dispassionately as Brueghel painted the life of the Flemish people of his day. One can draw many social analogies from the great works of Brueghel — as I have no doubt one can draw from mine — my intention, however, is to reveal through pictorial complexities the richness of a life I know.’
Charles White is celebrated for his distinguished draughtsmanship and distinct ability to promote and honour the pride of Black Americans during a time of civil unrest in America. As he has explained: ‘My work takes shape around images and ideas that are centred within the vortex of a Black life experience, a nitty-gritty ghetto experience resulting in contradictory emotions: anguish, hope, love, despair, happiness, faith, lack of faith, dreams.’ Both artist and educator, White’s legacy has inspired generations of Black artists, from Ernie Barnes to Kerry James Marshall and David Hammons.
‘I was browsing through a Harlem bookstore when I came across a portfolio of reproductions of Charles White drawings. I was in awe of such a discovery. My entire being was alive with excitement,’ Barnes described of his first encounter with White’s work. ‘Never had I seen such strong expression and power in images which became a symbol of Black people longing for the beauty of human existence.’ Barnes adds that it was the first time in his life that images showing Black lifestyles had made such a profound effect on him, ‘One that made me commit to one day producing the type of art that would awaken serious reflections about human life.’
Professional athlete-turned-painter, Ernie Barnes paintings were shaped by his southern roots and the world of sports. Growing up in the segregated South, art became a spiritual solace for Barnes — who would continue to paint and sketch throughout his six-year professional football career. This connection is so strong in Barnes’s work that he has stated that his artworks possess ‘all the rawness and passion of the game.’
And yet, while Barnes is known for his vibrant depictions of sporting events, dances, and backroom billiards games, his art is fundamentally rooted in a deep passion and hope for humanity. ‘I tend to paint everyone, most everyone, with their eyes closed,’ he has explained, ‘because I feel that we are blind to one another’s humanity so if we could see the gifts strengths and potentials within every human being, then our eyes would be open.’
Jean-Michel Basquiat didn’t like interviews, and — unlike his friend and collaborator, Andy Warhol — he was not overly verbose about his art. In a rare interview with Isabelle Graw, Basquiat explained of his process: ‘I start with a picture and then finish it. I don’t think about art when I’m working. I try to think about life.’ And yet, Basquiat always managed to say exactly what needed to be said on the surface of his pictures.
The events surrounding Basquiat’s interest in the human figure are now that of legend. At the age of seven, he was hit by a car. While he recuperated in the hospital, he scoured the pages of Gray’s Anatomy, which ultimately sparked a life-long fascination with the figure. Throughout his tragically short career, Basquiat championed his heroes within his art and elevated Black celebrity. As he famously described to Henry Geldzahler in 1983, his subject matter was composed of ‘royalty, heroism, and the streets’.
Combining cutting-edge digital modelling tools with the time-honoured tradition of figuration, Avery Singer has relaunched the human form in the digital era with her futuristic subjects. Noting that her robotic figures are cast in everyday scenes, Singer explained in a 2020 interview: ‘They come from a myriad of places: lived experience and noticing how I look at things and how they appear to the world. My sketches come out of 3D-modelling programmes that I use to visually construct the different figures and spaces in my work.’
‘It started as a simple figure I constructed using the pared-down geometry I was capable of producing in my limited knowledge of the programme,’ she added, while also noting that ‘The hair pattern actually came out of my attempt at depicting the peiyes [sidelocks] on a Hassidic character from a painting titled Jewish Artist and Patron. I also have a figure that is based on Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner sculptures representing a human bust.’
‘I’m very quick to leave behind the images I use,’ painter Claire Tabouret recalled of her photographic references in an interview with art historian, Léa Bismuth. ‘I’m often asked whether I work from photographs, I don’t think that’s the right way of putting it. They’re a stimulus, a trigger, then painting becomes a palliative to everything I’m feeling that isn’t actually visible in the photograph.’
Tabouret’s interest in the figurative was sparked by a collection of family photographs that she had long known about yet hadn’t fully discovered until her grandmother’s passing in 2012. In her figurative paintings, the French artist investigates the notion of identity and adolescence. Of her enigmatic paintings of young females covered in makeup, she has said: ‘These paintings are painted in two steps. First, I paint a portrait of a child — nice and tidy. Then I cover it with makeup as one of a child’s first primitive gestures related to painting. The makeup is about painting, but also about wearing a mask. Makeup, when it is not neatly applied can be disturbing, and evoke madness, or brutality.’
On the surfaces of her canvases Allison Zuckerman presents a humorous remix of the entire art historical canon. ‘Each painting is an inextricable link in a long line of storytelling and character development,’ Zuckerman explained to Jo Thomas in a recent interview, additionally noting that, while a portion of her compositions are digitally executed, ‘The painting process brings the entire composition to life, giving it a kind of warmth that is impossible to create digitally. When the painting begins to sing, I know that I am close to letting it go into the world.’
Of particular importance in Zuckerman’s art is her treatment of the female figure. ‘While there have been some crucial and incredibly important female artists in the canon of Western art history, women have largely been the subjects and rarely the makers,’ she has attested. ‘I am drawn to art history so I can re-present it. I would like to tell a different story, one from a female point of view. The woman on display is proud while vulnerable, imperfect yet real. She intimidates rather than seduces. I want these figures to be empowered and autonomous.’
Choreographing collaged features with painted elements, Deborah Roberts dismantles and then reassembles images of Black youth. Roberts’ children range from victims of the Jim Crow South to contemporary children faced with lingering prejudices. ‘Black boys are not given the opportunity to be as vulnerable as we know they are,’ Roberts recalled in an interview earlier this year. ‘These kids are going to grow up to be men. Let’s treat them as kids, let’s give them everything we can give them to be respectable citizens instead of just automatically thinking they’re up to no good.’
Roberts added that, while all of her children begin with innocent faces, the destruction that is undergone in the art making process is ultimately a result of ‘all this stuff that history has placed on him — society, contemporary, pop culture — all this is placed on the body of an eight-year-old and in the face of a 10-year-old. And we have to enter the world like that.’