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Figurative Art in the 21st Century

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

by Jessica Deutsch

An important exhibition is currently on show in Berlin at Gallerie Judin until January 2024, featuring as its centerpiece and focus an Old Master painting by Italian Baroque artist, Elisabetta Sirani.

Elisabetta Sirani David with the head of Goliath
Elisabetta Sirani David with the head of Goliath

The work is flanked by thirteen Secondary Market Contemporary artists invited to respond to Sirani’s rendering of David with the Head of Goliath. The exhibition allows for a rare opportunity to review figurative art today and how it has evolved into a style that incorporates 20th and 21st Century movements such as Surrealism; Abstraction; Pop Art or Hyperrealism. Figurative art can be defined as any type of art where the subject matter is recognizable from the real world.

Sirani - Exhibit

Exhibition Galerie Judin
Exhibition Galerie Judin - courtesy of Gallery

We explore over the next two blogs select artworks in order to better understand and appreciate younger or emerging artists some of whom we, at The Fine Art Ledger,have addressed recently on our social media. The secret we share about collecting is the ability to spot an artist early in his career before his figures climb our of reach. Appreciating what Figurative Art is all about will guide you as you explore art fairs and exhibtions. Below are two artists we recently addressed, Jenna Gribbon and Marisa Adesman.

The Honeymoon Show
Jenna Gribbon - The Honeymoon Show 2023

 Idol Hands
Marisa Adesman - Idol Hands 2023

Elisabetta’s David and Goliath is painted in the Realism and use of chiaroscuro which defines painting from the Renaissance onward. What makes the painting interesting and unique is the androgynous face of her shepherd boy David. Elisabetta was one of few women artists of this period. She had the rare opportunity to train as an artist as she had access to her artist father’s studio. As a woman she pushed against the conventions of the time and at age seventeen when she painted her David was already attracting interest from all the Courts of Europe .

The Rape of Proserpina
Bernini - The Rape of Proserpina

Contrary to the Baroque which glorified man as heroic, masculine and the center of the Universe, evident in Bernini’s muscular Pluto in the The Rape of Proserpina, Elisabetta shows her David not as a victor but vulnerable. His face is charged with a feeling of contemplation and remorse, not glee at the defeat of his enemy. The painting is modern because of David’s face and expression of feeling.

Kyle Dunn Spades
Kyle Dunn Spades 2023

American artist, Kyle Dunn, responds to Elisabetta with a statement about queer life today - a subject he returns to constantly in his work with paintings that show intimacy and domesticity between men as he explores his own emotional landscape.

His “David” contemplates not a sling but a ribbon as he stands in front of a mirror meant as a metaphor for self reflection. A note is pinned to the mirror signifying that another person also occupies the space. Dunn uses figurative art to probe his own relationship to masculinity which he describes as a complicated pull between desire and constraint. Like Elisabetta’s David the subject here, half dressed, is vulnerable to himself but simultaneously to another - the ribbon representing that bond. The painting uses realism but its use of light and the cool muted palette signifies a shaded, closed, internal environment.

Ellen Akimoto - Victory 2023

Using paint, collage and a skewed perspective, Ellen Akimoto’s Victory invites us to speculate on the act of decapitation. Typical of her style, a distorted fragmented canvas is both surrealistic and figurative the two merging to create a sense of the unreal but all too real. We do not know whether the head the woman holds in her hands is David’s or her own. Has she freed herself from her own inner demons or that of another? Akimoto states that she likes to create ambiguity so that one contemplates the possible but also the impossible.

Kitchen Scene
Adrien Ghenie - Kitchen Scene 2023

Adrien Ghenie's, with his roots in Eastern Europe, view of the world is colored by 20th Century history of trauma; war and the past political power figures he regards as evil. His canvasses are abstract but with distorted monster like forms moving through swirls of paint. He layers heavy paint and collage onto his surfaces with a palette knife and with gestural brushstrokes allowing for added abstraction. He states that he wants his works to impart a feeling for the medium and also the act of painting. In his Kitchen Scene, which is his response to Elisabetta's painting, he presents a scene at a kitchen table which could be interpreted as the butcher and his meat at a chopping board. This is a metaphor for Europe’s narrative of war and bloodshed in the 20th Century stretching from Gestapo Germany through Soviet Russia. He sees no resolution into the present for Eastern Europe with the threat from other powers now controlling Russia who are equally inhumane. Adrien’s unique style and command of his medium make him one of the most celebrated artists of his generation.

We have examined here Realism, Surrealism and Abstraction, We continue in our next blog with study of other artists in this special exhibition in Berlin and their use of styles. Please watch our social media pages as we continue to explore the use of Figurative Art as one of most dominant styles in Contemporary Art today.


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