The Figure Essay


Published Wednesday, January 2, 2002

Depicting the figure provides an opportunity for the artist to explore and articulate the human experiences found within the parameters of private and public existence.

The human form has been employed in a variety of ways in visual arts; figurative painting is an intrinsic mode of representation within the arts. It offers an exploration of identity and articulates concepts about self and others. Australian artists such as Deborah Klein, Euan Macleod, Graeme Drendel, Terry Batt and Rick Amor, all use the human form to express personal and social values and beliefs. Figurative art expresses the social, ephemeral, physical and symbolic concerns of the artist.s personal and social values and beliefs. Figurative art expresses the social, ephemeral, physical and symbolic concerns of the artist.

Figurative art, historically, reveals differing concerns and visual conventions, which convey specific ideas as well as providing evidence and personal accounts of individuals throughout history. The style and treatment of the human figure can reflect the issues and aesthetic tradition of the artist's time and place.

The appearance and treatment of the subject may differ as stylistic conventions change over history, but the constant element offering a link between the artist and audience is the human body. Figurative art provides a personal account of the subject and the artist alike.

Throughout the history of Australian art, there has been a constant search for the authenticity of personal experience, both for the indigenous artists and those of colonial origin. Common to this treatment of figurative art is the intrinsic nature of the human form to represent the real, ideal and symbolic. Artist utilise the body as a sign of personal/social ideological belief, it reflects he concerns and perception of human nature of the time of production. It provides a bridge that links the past with the present presenting a historical insight to the artist's and subject's world. This is demonstrated with the treatment of the figure seen in the colonial artist John Glover, the antipodean artist Albert Tucker and the contemporary painter Euan Macleod; where meaning in each artists' is manifested through the depiction of the figure. Each artist reflects particular concerns of representation in term of the real, ideal and symbolic. It can not be contested that the human figure in art maintains a sense of authority and authenticity. It offers a window into the world of the subject and of the artist and the environment they each inhabit.

Postmodern artists, such as Klein, Amor, Macleod and Drendel amplify their conceptual concerns through their treatment of the figure in their art. The human form portrays an essence of humanity and being. Within this contemporary context the treatment of the figure vacillates between alienation and assimilation in a person and social environment. The theme of alienation highlights the human body as a symbol of 'marginality' within personal, psychological and physical context. Specific reference can be made to Klein in terms of 'cultural alienation' in addition to Drendel and Macleod who examine psychological alienation.

Assimilation is the suggestion of social acceptance or the main streaming of this genre, the figure is employed as metaphor that cultural adaptation. 'Cultural assimilation' could be construed in the work of Dean Bowen and Terry Batt. Although each of the mentioned artists deal with the human form in their art making, it is the diversity and ambiguity of style and treatment that makes each of these artists interesting to study. The subject matter may differ somewhat yet each artist makes a marked differentiation in approach (both technical and conceptual). Each artist reveals how the figure is placed in an environment to give meaning through the physical and imaginative properties of the art making process. The human body in a variety of genres ranging from portraiture to the nude reveals how the artist weaves personal and public symbols and signs to create innovative visual expression.

By Craig Malyon

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