Art » Modern and Contemporary Art

The best books on Figurative Painting Today

recommended by Julien Delagrange

Collectors and curators have been clamouring for figurative art in recent years, as a generation of painters take a more traditional, representational approach to addressing major cultural themes in their work. But is figurative painting today merely a reactionary impulse, a kind of nostalgia for art that preceded modernism, postmodernism and the fragmentation in art-making that was ushered in by conceptual art? There is much more to it than that, argues painter and art historian Julien Delagrange.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

Before we discuss your selection of books, what do we mean by figurative painting today?

Figurative painting today can be a surprisingly slippery subject, but in short, we are talking about contemporary painting in a representational visual language. However, while a painting can be representational or figurative, this does not mean the painting is relevant, good or successful. For example, a person paints an orange. The intention of the painter is to replicate this orange to the best of her ability. The subject matter of the painting, the orange, is subjugated to the exercise in skill, and has no further intentions than copying reality. The painting of this particular person is indeed figurative. However, the painting itself may not be relevant from a contemporary point of view as an art historic object. The premise or pretext of figuration does not perforce fulfil the outcome of relevant art. For this interview and when I refer to this new wave in painting, I’m talking about historically relevant painting for which the visual language is representational. The figuration is in fact often rather a casing, a vehicle of language externalising its concepts and embodying our current zeitgeist. In recent years, this wave of painting has become increasingly visible as a cultural phenomenon in the visual arts, as we shall see with the five books we are discussing.

Tell me about Contemporary Art Issue, your latest project.

Over the past five to six years, I’ve been sharing my vision on contemporary painting on the historical predecessor of this project, Figura Pictura, an online daily digest of figurative painting. I felt a community of like-minded people growing, a lot of artists began following this effort, sending messages. Like me, they feel something is and has been happening in painting over the past two decades or so. Collectors too were very interested, those collectors who have figurative painting as a niche focus of their collection. It was very exciting to see how many people were on the same wavelength.

I had been writing a lot. I think this is a healthy thing to do if you’re an artist, and certainly when you’re an art historian, to write about your thoughts and impressions. It started out as a daily feed with featured artworks – the image alone – I felt the need to share more than just a picture of an artwork daily, and wanted to share not only my writings relating to art but also the thoughts of other artists on the topic. The interesting thing with this wave or movement in figurative art is that it manifests itself in the studios of practising painters, sometimes consciously because they’re influenced by certain other artists, but sometimes even unknowingly.

On occasion, it’s our desire or urge to paint or to make art in this kind of manner. To see this concept returning time and time again across many studios and a variety of work makes this, by the logic of induction, the manifestation of an art historic phenomenon. Once you’ve observed this continuity, the exciting part is to try to understand the concepts lying underneath the trend. What is it? And why at this historic moment do we as a culture seem to have such a desire or urge to make art in this manner? Or as a viewer, what’s so appealing to this form of art? That was the main line of questioning for Figura Pictura and now for Contemporary Art Issue.

Further, we’ve been rethinking approaches to publishing in the 21st century and decided to go one step further than merely launching a book or a magazine, and to create our own publishing house. It is in fact, I believe, the first artist-formed publishing house dedicated to this question. We want to reinstate the book as an alternate space for art and as an art object itself.

We’ve spoken elsewhere on the site about the importance of the physical artefact of the book when appreciating visual arts. Perhaps nowhere is this more true than with a medium like painting, which has traditionally been very tactile. To have the physical analogue to the visual experience is key.

The book is a collectible art object. This fact really came to the fore when art shows were cancelled during this pandemic, for example. Art in the form of reproductions were the only way to see art besides viewing from your screen. It slows down the time more than viewing art on a screen. The book is a document, it’s something you can linger over. That’s a characteristic aspect of an art book, which is so important. In terms of art historiography, it can heighten the effect of an artwork, you can have an accumulation of art, it reaches a different metaphysical level. When an artwork leaves a show or enters the collector’s home, it doesn’t disappear off the face of the earth but rather in the form of a book finds its way into a collective art history. That’s an important statement for an art work, beyond the immediate impact of being viewed firsthand.

“Although there is no consensus yet in academic circles concerning what we call it, until something better and more succinct arrives, we can talk about our post-postmodern era”

With Figura Pictura we have been sketching the current landscape of figurative painters online. As a result, we will continue to do so with a renewed online platform at contemporaryartissue.com. The initial and main focus of our effort remains figurative painting today, the title of our interview. But our perspective on art expands, offering a more kaleidoscopic view on art. For instance, when writing about the current art scene in Cluj, Romania – one of the most vibrant and exciting places when it comes to figurative painting – we also want to talk about other important artists practising other disciplines, for example Ciprian Muresan who works across various media.

In fact, figurative painting is more than simply a very specific medium that exists in an entirely different sphere of art from conceptual art or installation art. The entire contemporary movement of figurative painting is possible precisely because of recent events and movements in the arts, such as conceptual art. Post-conceptual painting, the figurative development, and the melancholic embodiment of this movement is in fact deeply rooted in recent art historical trends, and conceptual art perhaps most strongly. That’s why in our editorial policy we have gone wider than figurative painting narrowly construed, even though this will be the focus for the first few forthcoming titles.

Let’s talk about your selection of figurative painting books. I feel like a sensible place to start our discussion would be Art Since 1900.  

Since I was a student at the University of Ghent I have gone back to this book many, many times. At around 900 pages, the book is like an encyclopaedia. Aside from the text itself, it has great further references for anyone wanting to learn more or for further research. The most striking thing for me about this groundbreaking work of art history is not only its content, but also the way it is organised. The presentation is an entirely original way of creating a book and an experience for the reader. Helpfully, the authors include a section on ‘how to read this book’, which may seem at first a bit ironic but in fact for this book, it’s very helpful.

With its information boxes, timelines, and useful cross references, for anybody trying to get a handle on what was a very diverse and even confusing century in the arts, it is extremely well laid out.

Art history from 1900 is presented year by year. Normally a retrospective look at art history will already have pre-selected everything, artworks and historic figures have already been put in categories and given labels. Here, by contrast, it almost feels as though you are reading about events as they happened. When reading it you reconnect even to work you may have seen before in different ways, and actually see what was happening and what artists were doing year by year. What were the key shows or cultural moments? How was an artwork received in its day, the iconic artworks made throughout history?

In looking back this way at the 20th century developments in painting, one can see that from the late 60s painting had been gradually but decisively shifted to the periphery from a critical perspective, even though artists have not stopped painting. It’s an interesting watershed in this subject. And while reading this book you feel almost as though you are witnessing this dynamic, as painting is pushed off its plinth. We have the postmodern art movements, Arte Povera, land art, conceptual art of various stripes, Fluxus, performance art and so on. Painting, and in particular more traditional oil painting, had been pushed to the margins of art criticism. Interestingly, as an art form it never disappears. It coexists in this exciting time with a multitude of art forms, an era in which it was far from straightforward to be a painter. In a way, perhaps the most interesting time to be a painter is when the form is contested in such a manner. Art Since 1900 was first published in 2004, almost like a bookend to the previous century, and you can really see in the work of the art critics who are the authors that they came of age in this time of proliferating new movements, the period immediately after the height of modernism.

The art historians behind Art Since 1900 do to the 20th century what the legendary art historian E.H.Gombrich did to the history of art as a whole in The Story of Art. Instead of rattling off a list of different manifestos, they have created a coherent and compelling narrative of what the 20th century represented in the visual arts.

It’s a multifaceted view, so reading it is entirely different in feel to a retrospective, monolithic treatment. That’s where the cross-references are extremely helpful. The layout makes it into a very user-friendly and complete reference volume. With over 800 reproductions, it is also visually comprehensive. The authors have a very good grasp of which cultural shifts were important for understanding developments throughout the decades. Separate heading introductions help to put the reader in the right frame of mind and spirit to understand what was happening in the culture at the time, decade by decade.  The primary sources, the further reading section and the bibliography all make this a keystone text for understanding where painting fits in the history of art in the last century. I keep it close to me.

Nonetheless, the authors seem to take at face value the modernist leitmotif that ‘painting is dead’. Yet the elephant in the room is the fact that painting continues to be incredibly vibrant, even as we’ve seen the fragmentation and proliferation of artistic media across a range of different new approaches. They also seem to downplay sheer aesthetic enjoyment of visual art. Painting Today, your second selection of figurative painting books, feels like it sets out to be an antidote to the central argument of Art Since 1900. Would that be fair? 

The subtitle of Art Since 1900 here holds a key: ‘Modernism, Anti-modernism, Post-modernism’. It was published at the culmination point of post-modernism. Modernism was based on idealism, a utopian vision of life and an almost dogmatic belief in reason and (teleological) progress. Postmodernism, on the other hand, was based upon skepticism and a suspicion of reason, a radical ontological and epistemological doubt. As a result, the definition of art was contested, fading the distinction of high art and low art or popular (mass-)culture, introducing appropriation, eclecticism, breaking the formal conventions of art and questioning the establishment. And so it questioned painting and the so-called stranglehold of aesthetic enjoyment in art. The arts today seem to be in a state of post-postmodernism, for which there is still no agreed monicker. There is already a different tendency from what Art Since 1900 leaves off with. The postmodern moment in art criticism seemed driven to liberate art from being aesthetic. In a way, art theory had argued that aesthetic form had traditionally been a component of bourgeois identity, but to (post-)modernists it was deeply suspicious, perhaps even the ultimate bourgeois delusion. Which may have led to a denigration of the aesthetic in relevant art.

However, I disagree that aesthetics were abolished by artists throughout postmodern movements such as conceptual art. If a conceptual work of art has been made – in essence meaning that the concept or the idea is the most important element, and not the aesthetic end result – it does not perforce mean the artwork cannot be aesthetically pleasing. Take as an example perhaps the most iconic conceptual artwork, One and Three Chairs by Joseph Kosuth. It has a refinement and simplicity that I think is very aesthetically pleasing – the arrangement of the chair and the panel. Or take for instance Jan Vercruysse, a Belgian conceptual artist. He was an aesthetic pur sang, and a bona fide conceptual artist. There are aesthetic considerations to making a work of art even when that work never sets out to have the ambition of being pleasing to the eye or in good taste.

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In this post-postmodern era, we maybe find comfort in this sort of beauty. In our forthcoming book, titled Apologia, there is the juxtaposition of a work by Marcel Broodthaers, the Belgium conceptual artist, featuring eggs on a table – not something which many people would describe as aesthetically redeeming in any form or way – next to a painting by his compatriot Michaël Borremans, of a person holding an egg in his hands. On a conceptual level, both artworks do in fact the same things. They present an interplay on the meaning of the egg. You can see at the same time that there is no narrative. Both works are in fact absurd or surreal, but they have the same semiotic approach towards the egg and its role in art history. As a medium for painting and pigment, for example, as in the case of egg tempera paint, a very traditional technique. Or, simultaneously, for the genesis of things when you consider the symbolic meaning of the egg. So in fact this liberation of art from aesthetic considerations, and the shift in the semiotics for art, remains central even in the art being produced today. Aesthetically pleasing work can perform an overtly conceptual function. For me, maybe with the case of Michaël Borremans, the work is even too beautiful to fully grasp at first the more intellectual interplay of symbolic elements or the semiotics in the artwork, but these are still very much present, they are in fact the driving force throughout his oeuvre.

Figurative painting is often characterised as a reactionary movement. In fact, as this example has illustrated, it is more like a synthesis that builds upon this legacy of conceptual art. It takes a different form today. Beauty and aesthetics are an important element because the radical and uncompromising statement of modernism, and even postmodernism, left us a bit alienated. Now we find comfort or solace, more a connection with our feeling and our guts in the medium and in the beauty of the medium. Given the primacy of figuration in painting in the West over many centuries, these are elements that feel familiar. Painting makes these sentiments accessible again.

I feel that in our post-postmodern era we are living a synthesis in the arts. Everything which happened since the 1900s up to today – we had modernism, anti-modernism and postmodernism – it feels like we are in a new era. Although there is no consensus yet in academic circles concerning what we call it, until something better and more succinct arrives, we can talk about our post-postmodern era.

So figuration can serve as a vehicle for either historical or conceptual ideas, for art theory, in a way that’s much more readily apprehended by the average viewer — or even the sophisticated viewer? — than perhaps some of the more abstruse critical approaches of late 20th century?

The broad brushstroke stereotype is that figurative painting is something traditional, even old-fashioned or obsolete. Yet nonetheless critics and collectors and fellow artists admire someone like Borremans simply for his brushstrokes. That can actually go too far, and obscure some of the ideas inherent in his work, which is also wrong in a certain way. As so often, art is trying to strike a delicate balance. Figurative painting today is innovative in a way, for all of its traditional media. It’s new. Like any emerging phenomenon, it’s normal that there are certain pitfalls and misconceptions around figurative painting today. It functions as a justification – hence the title of the first publication, Apologia, for Contemporary Art Issue and forthcoming books.

This is where reading not only what art historians and critics have written is important. It is arguably even more important to understand the practitioners themselves. What in particular are artists themselves seeking to express? What was the incentive for their work? How does art history and other artists’ work influence theirs?

That brings us to the next in your selection of figurative painting books, Painting, part of the Documents of Contemporary Art by Whitechapel Gallery.  It’s a very eclectic collection of essays, journal articles and catalogue entries which starts and ends with a quote from Delacroix (whose Journals we have featured elsewhere on the site): ‘What moves men of genius or rather what inspires their work is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.’  

So apt! I love that one-liner. In a way, this book sets out to say what has already been said! So the opening and closing of the book are like an inside joke by Myers. What has been said about ourselves but also about what has been said about the arts. In order to say something new, one needs to know what has already been said. This is also chronologically set out, going through the most important essays, interviews and other writings about art by artists and the most respected art critics in their day. Once again you can really feel yourself transported to their time as you read this, decade by decade.

So we start with the ‘end of painting’ text by Douglas Crimp, which is a famous critique from the early twentieth century that you can feel is also very present throughout our prior selections, Painting Today and Art Since 1900. In fact, it seems to be a question we cannot stop asking ourselves, whether painting is dead or not. It also features here, and in the introduction of Vitamin P2, Picturing People and also in my introduction to Contemporary Art Issue. This entire notion of cycles of rebirth of painting is a recurring notion, because in fact it’s not really a cycle so much as an historical continuum of reinvention. A characteristic of art of every period since we have been speaking about art in historical terms, right up to other postmodern art movements is that they are all reinventions of art itself. Painting has been undergoing the same process, but interestingly from my perspective, it has a much longer tradition than more novel forms of expression. However its longevity does not mean that it hasn’t been reinventing itself. On the contrary, it has been compelled to do so with even greater regularity, right into our present moment!

One of my favourite entries was Marlene Dumas, who is on the record as having said  ‘Painting is a dialogue with other painters.’

This book is full of examples of painters and artists literally in dialogue with one another. There are some great conversations, Vija Clemins with Chuck Close, Svetlana Alpers with Matthew Collings and even Gerhard Richter in conversation with the art historian Buchloh, one of the co-authors of Art Since 1900, to name a few incredibly rich dialogues. Dumas in particular is someone who really proclaims this empowerment of the artist in the debates on contemporary art. She writes her own catalogue texts for exhibitions, something I admire and hope to do as well over the years. Many artists can be a bit distant when it comes to talking about their own work and art in general, as if it’s not something they should talk about, or a task to be left to others. It’s exactly something artists should talk about and Contemporary Art Issue wishes to do the same, to re-empower the artist in these debates about the art of our time. Therefore books like Documents on Contemporary Art are extremely valuable; I think vital. These texts are canonical, but might otherwise have been lost as magazine clippings from the likes of Artforum or show catalogues. Here again, we see the importance of their reproduction in book form, documenting art and accumulating into a collective art history.

Let’s talk about Vitamin P2.  

The Vitamin series, which covers drawing and painting, ceramics and textiles and other approaches, is a great series. I love the format. There are many books that want to take on painting, which is a very visible and collectible medium, but few do so as consistently as the Vitamin P series. It is particularly appealing to approach painting in this manner, an ongoing series with a great selection of artists overseen by the art critic Barry Schwabsky. These are artists regarded very highly across a range of art world practitioners, not all as famous as Chuck Close or Marlene Dumas, but nonetheless consistently regarded as important painters of their generation, roughly from the 1970s onwards. This is a useful way to sketch a relevant landscape of painters. Many, particularly those featured in P2, are within the selected field of research for Contemporary Art Issue – painters such as Teodora AxenteFrançois Bard, Michaël Borremans, Y. Z. Kami, Justin Mortimer to name just a few.

As you turn the pages, even without being able to put your finger on what it is precisely that connects them all, there is an unmistakeable continuity here, one has the distinct feeling that you can see connections between what’s happening, what individual artists are doing, even if they are not part of a defined movement. The author doesn’t steer or push you towards this or that interpretation, what the artworks are about, etc, but you can see it unfold throughout the pages. It’s a terrific survey of the state of the art in painting at the moment, without resorting to labelling stuff. Rather than the artificial imposition of labels or categories, the developments in painting emerge organically, which, after all, is how art develops. I really value the editorial approach, which involved dozens of international critics and artists and curators who nominated the list of 115 artists represented here, almost like a peer-reviewed assembly of artists that are regarded as in some way innovative or original in their approach to painting.

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It’s no surprise that when you go through this selection every artist is relevant for art today. The choices are not arbitrary. This is a real catalogue raisonné, a reasoned selection of new influences in painting. Vitamin P2 is really a standout for me, the second volume in the series, for the collection of artists which really fits the selected field of research of Contemporary Art Issue and this wave of new European painting or new figurative painting that we are exploring. I say ‘European’, but I don’t think today, in a globalised world, we can sensibly talk about global trends, have Europe stand in for global culture, or even talk about a homogenous Europe. There are so many interesting local variants even on seemingly similar trends. Take for example the New Leipzig School or the Eastern European scene and so on. Nonetheless, in a globalised world, we’re all connected and influenced at a rate and velocity which has never been seen before. Perhaps it’s too early to describe ‘new European painting’ as a movement, but nonetheless what I discern is a lineage from Richter and Sigmar Polke, followed by Luc Tuymans and Dumas to the likes of Borremans, Neo Rauch and Peter Doig as a third generation. Now I feel there is another generation coming with the likes of Adrian Ghenie, Alexander Tinei and Justin Mortimer to name a few. P2 captures some of the spirit of this new figurative painting today.

Many of these painters also seem to give primacy to visual pleasure, which brings us to the final selection that you made. Charlotte Mullins’s Picturing People comes back to the pleasure principle I feel, a voluptuous selection of paintings that are visually delightful, even as they are rendered in many different ways. 

Agreed. As a catalogue of paintings, what a great show this selection would make! Her subtitle, ‘A New State of the Art’, is telling. I feel she really embraces this new tendency, and the rehabilitation of the aesthetic, the appetite for paint we see across many artists working in different parts of the world, and the desire to paint the figure. This is another reasoned selection of painters who really deserve a place amongst other artists who are keeping this art historical dialogue with painters of the past alive. This is also the only book from our list of five fully committing to take on only ‘figurative’ painting.

The chapter headings — “Image Hunters” for example, or “The Picture in History” – at first come across as eccentric. On the other hand, in this post-postmodern moment, with a lack of agreed-upon categories, this seems a viable approach towards this new state-of-the-art. These categories point to different possible subjects, which are in fact relevant for analysing and understanding art being produced today.

It comes back to the difficulty of classifying painting in traditional genres of landscape or portraiture or figure. None of those really is adequate for example in capturing what’s going on with painters like Peter Doig, Jenny Saville or John Currin.

In the end, it’s not necessary to do so. Any label will be categorised under a container concept. Let me explain. For example, the container concept of ‘Baroque’. An altarpiece by Rubens and a still life by Frans Snyders could not be more different, from the religious context of the Counter-Reformation to the symbolic human pleasures of the still life, and yet they are both regarded as Baroque. The aforementioned book Painting Today deploys no fewer than 15 categories! When you go through them individually, you realise that the same artists are repeated throughout several categories. It’s no surprise, because most painters today are not exclusively working in landscape or still life painting. For instance, Luc Tuymans famously painted what superficially appears to be a still life painting after 9/11. However, this painting is far from being a conventional still life. In fact, it’s very insidious in a way. The pure horror made Tuymans search for the idyll. What’s more idyllic than a still life? Just painting fruits, as the example of painting an orange in our introduction on figurative painting. However, the still life is monumental and there is a certain trauma residing in it. In fact, this painting is not at all a still life painting, but history painting, as it is a reaction to a historical event.

These are categories that have outlived their usefulness, and I think this is a good thing. Terminology must not distract us from the impact or the meaning of the work itself. We can use them as a framework for discussion, but painting today goes beyond.

Nor distract us from what artists are saying, either in words or through their work. There’s certainly a noticeable trend among recent generations of artists that seem to appreciate the solitary, slow and subtle process of painting people. Perhaps as you suggest, there’s something about paint that carries a lot more meaning – conceptual, art historical or theoretical – than for example a single photographic glimpse.

Painting is in fact a privileged medium, even today. Painting can be genuine in a manner most other mediums cannot. Painting carries the touch of a human being, something that operates at a metaphysical level, and which cannot be reproduced.  One of painters’ greatest weapons is the alchemy of painting.

In our image-saturated times, where we’ve gone well beyond mere mechanical reproduction to infinite digital proliferation of images instantaneously across the entire planet, the practice of close observation that painting demands is almost an antidote to distraction.

When I look at figurative painting today, I notice an anthology of concepts such as melancholia, the German terms Sehnsucht and Weltschmerz or the Portuguese saudade. Painting seems particularly well placed for expressing notions such as these and, furthermore, for concepts such as existentialism, the human condition, absurdism, or even the state of (post-)postmodernism itself. All of these I would argue are concepts or preoccupations that are very lively today. Which is what makes figurative painting so vigorous as a discourse. I like to see myself as a painter foremost rather than an art historian. The dialogue with the painters of the past continues. All we can do is follow our desires and urges and we will contribute to this dialogue. Everything has already been said, and it hasn’t been enough. So let’s continue talking.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

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Julien Delagrange

Julien Delagrange

Julien Delagrange (b. 1994, BE) is a Belgian contemporary artist and the artistic director of Contemporary Art Issue. Graduated as an art historian at Ghent University, Delagrange has worked for the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in Brussels, the Jan Vercruysse Foundation and the Ghent University Library. His artistic practice and written art criticism are strongly intertwined, examining contemporary art and new perspectives in representational painting.

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Julien Delagrange

Julien Delagrange

Julien Delagrange (b. 1994, BE) is a Belgian contemporary artist and the artistic director of Contemporary Art Issue. Graduated as an art historian at Ghent University, Delagrange has worked for the Centre for Fine Arts (BOZAR) in Brussels, the Jan Vercruysse Foundation and the Ghent University Library. His artistic practice and written art criticism are strongly intertwined, examining contemporary art and new perspectives in representational painting.