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Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Figurative does not mean figure

Where do you fall on the continuum from representation to abstraction?
I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, 1928, Charles Demuth, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art
English (my daughter never tires of telling me) is a descriptive, rather than proscriptive, language. Words mean whatever most people agree that they mean. That’s why English is so endlessly adaptable—why, for example, we can suddenly accept the ungrammatical ‘their’ as a replacement for ‘his’ or ‘her’ without making a Federal case of it. English sees a need and answers it, and its users follow along.

There is one neologism I resist, however, and that’s the substitution of the word figurative for figure. As descriptions of art, they are not equivalent. Figure painting means painting the human form. Figurative painting means realism.

Rider, Attic red-figured cup, middle of 5th century BC, courtesy of Luynes Collection
Figurative is an old word in English, and comes to us from French. It has always had overtones of metaphor and meaning. It’s slightly different from figure, which has multiple meanings in English. Figure can mean a shape, the human body; a number, or a symbol. Think of the term figure eight and you begin to understand the complexity of the word.

Figurative art, or figurativism, however, is simple: it means representational art. The term was coined when abstraction came along, to describe abstraction’s opposite number. A painting of your car is as figurative as a painting of your spouse.

Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket, 1874, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts 
What is the difference between figurative and abstract art? It’s not easy to draw a line. There have always been elements of abstraction in figurative art. This is why ancient art often surprises us with its modernity.

Even hyperrealism is a form of abstraction. It’s seemingly impossible for humans to represent nature exactly as it appears. Imperfect beings, we insist on putting our own spin on everything.

Likewise, there are often figures in abstract art, and much abstraction derives from observed figures in nature. The abstract geometry of Piet Mondrian, for example, resonates with us because we’ve observed such geometry in nature.

Premier Disque, c. 1912-13, Robert Delaunay, private collection
The ‘figure’ in Charles Demuth’s I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold is both a number and a symbol. And it’s both abstract and realistic. It was painted in homage to his friend William Carlos Williams’ poem, The Great Figure:

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

1 comment:

Bruce McMillan said...

Ah, Carol, I Saw the Figure Five in Gold. And I saw I Saw the Figure Five in Gold. The MET in NYC, who owns the painting, refers to to it as an abstract. "Demuth completed eight abstract portraits between 1924 and 1929 as tributes to modern American artists, writers, and performers." Go figure. It's online here:

It brought up even more confusion. In a review of my children's picture book Fire Engine Shapes (1988) a School Library Journal reviewer wrote "And some adults will spot the homage to Demuth's famous painting of another Engine 5." This led to an amusing Letters to the Editor exchange in School Library Journal. The letters and photos are on my children's book website here: Go figure.