Contemporary Figurative Painting

A Definition, Figurative Painting in Retrospect and an Anthology

Michaël Borremans, The Devil's Dress, 2011. Oil on canvas – 200 x 300 cm. Collection Dallas Museum of Art.


What is Contemporary Figurative Painting? – A Definition

Figurative Painting in Retrospect – What Happened to the Painters?

A Contemporary Figurative Painters List – An Anthology

[Read our full article on contemporary figurative painting in our printed publication Apologia]

What is Contemporary Figurative Painting? – A Definition

In recent years, it is no secret that figurative painting has become increasingly visible. However, one must be aware of possible pitfalls and misconceptions concerning contemporary figurative painting.

Contemporary figurative painting can be described as painting being produced in the 21st century – or arguably during the last few decades of the previous century – implementing a representational visual language depicting forms, figures or images in general emanating from the physical world or reality.

Thus, contemporary figurative painting consists of painting that is not pure abstraction and is being made from roughly 1970 up to today. Often, one would tend to describe contemporary figurative painting as 'contemporary realism'. However, this terminology does not only imply the representational aspect of a painting, but also its subject matter depicting reality as it is.

For instance, a painting of an angel can not be described as contemporary realism as it is not reality the painter is depicting. Hereby, contemporary figurative painting is more accurate and should be used to describe the use of figuration. However, when an artist such as Serban Savu depicts a scene of post-communist life in Romania, illustrating the raw reality and life of the contemporary Romanian, both terms 'contemporary figurative painting' and 'contemporary realism' are applicable [see image below].

Serban Savu, The Thorn, 2020. Acrylic on board – 62 × 84.5 cm. Courtesy Galeria Plan B.

Figurative Painting in Retrospect – What Happened with the Painters?

Throughout the 20th century, and in particular during the post-war era, representational painting – and painting in general – had been pushed of its plinth. After the explosion of -isms during Modernism, postmodern art movements as Conceptual Art, Land Art, Arte Povera, Fluxus, Minimal Art, Happenings, Performance Art, Environmental Art and so on, continuously rewrote the definition of art, radically and ingeniously.

These developments in art left us wondering if there still was a place for painting, let alone for figurative oil painting – think of the iconic article by Douglas Crimp The End of Painting in 1981[1] in the context of the wider postmodern discourse in arts and literature.

From an art historiographical point of view, these groundbreaking developments throughout the post-war era indeed seem to have driven painting to the periphery of the art scene. When analyzing written art history concerning art since World War II, the debates are predominantly concerned about discussing and canonizing these new forms of art, and arguably losing sight of painting.[2] But what happened with the painters?

From a retrospective point of view, one can still affirm the manifestation of figurative painting in the highest tiers of the art world, ascertaining that (representational) painting hasn't gone anywhere. Think of the Golden Lion award during the Venice Biennale in 2013 for Maria Lassnig's (1919-2014) captivating self-portraits, or leading galleries as Victoria Miro or Zeno X Gallery, both founded in the 80s, successfully championing figurative artists since their foundation, manifesting themselves as leading figures in the art world.[3]

Installation view of 'Gerhard Richter: Panorama' (2011) at Tate Modern, London. Photo: Chloenelkin.

The museum institutes follow as well, by example the retrospectives at the Tate of Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) in 2011 [see image above] or Richard Hamilton (1922-2011) in 2014. Or, the show 'Re: Painted' in 2014 in S.M.A.K. Ghent including the works of Michaël Borremans (b. 1963), Marlene Dumas and Luc Tuymans (b. 1958).[4]

The same case is valid concerning the auction houses. Think of the dazzling and record breaking sales of Untitled (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) in 2017 ($ 110.5 million), Three studies of Lucian Freud (1969) by Francis Bacon (1909-1992) in 2013 ($ 142.4 million) or Portrait of an artist (Pool with two figures) (1972) by David Hockney (b. 1937) in 2018 ($ 90.3 million), breaking the auction record for an artwork by a living artist, temporarily dethroning Jeff Koons (b. 1955).

Furthermore, a large number of publications emerges concerning painting with the new millennium, such as Painting Today and the Vitamin P series[5] by Phaidon, one of the leading publishers concerning art books. So, it seems to be that figurative painting has found its way from the periphery back to the center of the art world.

Yet, all too often I read statements as ‘the return of figuration’, ‘the rebirth of [figurative] painting’, or, ‘painters go back to figuration’. However, this so-called ‘return’ implies a reactionary movement. Even more, in the first place, it implies that figurative painting not only had been driven to the periphery, but had been abolished, excommunicated from high art. In fact, when reflecting upon our recent art history, I must argue the opposite seems to be true.

For instance, throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s, in the sphere of influence of Pop Art, there was by example Sigmar Polke (1941-2010) [see image below] and David Hockney, whom are – from a retrospective point of view – highly influential for figurative painting today.

Sigmar Polke, Untitled (Quetta, Pakistant), 1974-1978. Gelatin silver print with applied color – 56.9 × 85.9 cm. Collection Museum Ludwig, Cologne.

What about the so-called Capitalist Realism in the 60s and 70s, represented again by the omnipresent Sigmar Polke, but also Martin Kippenberger (1953-1997), Neo Rauch (b.1960) or the ubiquitous Gerhard Richter? Also, since the 1960s, there was Photorealism with among others Chuck Close (b. 1940) or the hyperrealist paintings by Rudolf Stingel (b. 1956).

From the 70s Neo-Expressionism came about, the Neue Wilden in Germany, Figuration Libre in France, Transvanguardia in Italy and Bad Painting in the States. Painters such as Georg Baselitz (b. 1938), Anselm Kiefer (b. 1945), Markus Lüpertz (b. 1941), Jörg Immendorf (b. 1945), Remi Blanchard (b. 1958), François Boisrond (b. 1959), Francesco Clemente (b. 1952), Enzo Cucchi (b. 1949), Paula Rego (b. 1935), Philip Guston (1913-1980), Julian Schnabel (b. 1951), David Salle (b. 1952), Eric Fischl (b. 1948), Jean-Michel Basquiat and many more seemed to reinvigorate, or rather, emphasize the public's appetite for paint and a renewed interest for figuration in painting. Not to mention the School of London, with today's painter's-painters Lucian Freud (1922-2011), Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) and again the aforementioned David Hockney.

A final argument for the persistent presence of figurative painting throughout the second half of the 20th century when (figurative) painting was proclaimed to be dead or obsolete is the presence of figurative painters in the top 100 of the most influential artists today, whom all have made their careers during the 60s, 70s and 80s up to today. As a result we have compiled a listing article of the 20 most famous painters today, including twelve figurative painters such as Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, William Kentridge (b. 1955), David Hockney, Alex Katz, Anselm Kiefer, Richard Prince (b. 1949), Albert Oehlen (b. 1953), Markus Lüpertz, Marlene Dumas, Michelangelo Pistoletto (b. 1933) and Leiko Ikemura (b. 1951).

So I think we answer our previous question. What happened to the painters during the second half of the 20th century? They never left.

A Contemporary Figurative Painters List – An Anthology

As we return to the 21st century, we have one final question to answer; Who are the most important contemporary figurative painters of this very moment. For this issue, we present you an extensive and reasoned anthology of the most influential contemporary figurative painters who have been dominant during the first few decades of the new millennium for you to discover. Enjoy!

  • Mark Alexander (b. 1966, GB)

  • Hans Aichinger (b. 1959, DE)

  • Jia Aili (b. 1979, CN)

  • Ellen Altfest (b. 1970, US)

  • Mamma Andersson (b. 1962, SE)

  • Teodora Axente (b. 1984, RO)

  • Radu Baies (b. 1988, RO)

  • Tilo Baumgärtel (b. 1972, DE)

  • François Bard (b. 1959, FR)

  • Hernan Bas (b. 1978, US)

  • Norbert Bisky (b. 1970, DE)

  • Anna Bjerger (b. 1973, SE)

  • Radu Belcin (b. 1978, RO)

  • Marius Bercea (b. 1973, RO)

  • Michaël Borremans (b. 1963, BE)

  • Robert Bosisio (b. 1963, IT)

  • Fernando Botero (b. 1932, CO)

  • Glenn Brown (b. 1966, GB)

  • Jonas Burgert (b. 1969, DE)

  • Guillaume Bresson (b. 1982, FR)

  • Gillian Carnegie (b. 1971, GB)

  • Manuele Cerutti (b. 1976, IT)

  • Gil Heitor Cortesao (b. 1967, PT)

  • Rudy Cremonini (b. 1981, IT)

  • Njideka Akunyili Crosby (b. 1983, NE)

  • Ken Currie (b. 1980, GB)

  • John Currin (b. 1962, US)

  • Cynthia Daignault (b. 1978, US)

  • Noah Davis (1983-2015, US)

  • Jules de Balincourt (b. 1972, FR)

  • Thierry De Cordier (b. 1954, BE)

  • Andy Denzler (b. 1965, CH)

  • Marc Desgrandchamps (b. 1960, FR)

  • Peter Doig (b. 1959, GB)

  • Kaye Donachie (b. 1970, GB)

  • Marlene Dumas (b. 1953, ZA)

  • Cecilia Edefalk (b. 1954, SE)

  • Martin Eder (b. 1968, DE)

  • Thomas Eggerer (b. 1963, DE)

  • Nicole Eisenman (b. 1965, FR/US)

  • Judith Eisler (b. 1962, US)

  • Tim Eitel (b. 1971, DE)

  • Lars Elling (b. 1966, NO)

  • Jana Euler (b. 1982, DE)

  • Bendt Eyckermans (b. 1994, BE)

  • Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964, CN)

  • Oana Farcas (b. 1981, RO)

  • Adrian Ghenie (b. 1977, RO)

  • Tomoo Gokita (b. 1969, JP)

  • Remus Grecu (b. 1976, RO)

  • Simone Haack (b. 1978, DE)

  • Karin Hanssen (b. 1960, BE)

  • Kati Heck (b. 1979, DE)

  • Gottfried Helnwein (b. 1948, AT)

  • Barkley L. Hendricks (1945-2017, US)

  • Oda Jaune (b. 1979, BG)

  • Chantal Joffe (b. 1969, GB)

  • Johannes Kahrs (b. 1965, DE)

  • Mi Kafchin (b. 1986, RO)

  • Y. Z. Kami (b. 1956, IR)

  • Karen Kilimnik (b. 1962, US)

  • Komar & Melamid (b. 1943 & 1945, RU)

  • Susanne Kühn (b. 1969, DE)

  • Melora Kuhn (b. 1971, US)

  • Michael Kvium (b. 1955, DK)

  • Ulrich LamsfuSS (b. 1971, DE)

  • Laura Lancaster (b. 1979, GB)

  • Fang Lijun (b. 1963, CN)

  • Pere Llobera (b. 1970, ES)

  • Rosa Loy (b. 1958, DE)

  • Tala Madani (b. 1981, IR)

  • Marcin Maciejowski (b. 1974, PL)

  • Victor Man (b. 1974, RO)

  • Ana Maria Micu (b. 1979, RO)

  • Kerry James Marshall (b. 1955, US)

  • Peter Martensen (b. 1953, DK)

  • Tonino Mattu (b. 1979, IT)

  • Yue Minjun (b. 1962, CN)

  • Marilyn Minter (b. 1948, US)

  • Justin Mortimer (b. 1970, GB)

  • Muntean / Rosenblum (b. 1962, AT/IL)

  • Paulina Olowska (b. 1976, PL)

  • Ronald Ophuis (b. 1968, NL)

  • Christopher Orr (b. 1967, GB)

  • Richard Patterson (b. 1963, GB)

  • Yan Pei-Ming (b. 1960, CN)

  • Elizabeth Peyton (b. 1965, US)

  • Daniel Pitín (b. 1977, CZ)

  • Flavia Pitis (b. 1978, RO)

  • Ged Quinn (b. 1963, GB)

  • Till Rabus (b. 1975, CH)

  • Neo Rauch (b. 1960, DE)

  • Thomas Riess (b. 1970, AT)

  • Pietro Roccasalva (b. 1970, IT)

  • Terry Rodgers (b. 1947, US)

  • Lou Ros (b. 1984, FR)

  • Gideon Rubin (b. 1973, IL)

  • David Salle (b. 1952, US)

  • Chéri Samba (b. 1956, CD)

  • Nicola Samorì (b. 1977, IT)

  • Wilhelm Sasnal (b. 1972, PL)

  • Jenny Saville (b. 1970, GB)

  • Serban Savu (b. 1978, RO)

  • Markus Schinwald (b. 1973, AT)

  • Ben Schonzeit (b. 1942, US)

  • Julian Schnabel (b. 1951, US)

  • Dana Schutz (b. 1976, US)

  • Sebastian Schrader (b. 1978, DE)

  • Ben Sledsens (b. 1991, BE)

  • Mircea Suciu (b. 1978, RO)

  • Agus Suwage (b. 1959, ID)

  • Alexander Tinei (b. 1967, MD)

  • Sergiu Toma (b. 1987, RO)

  • Yuma Tomiyasu (b. 1983, JP)

  • Kon Trubkovich (b. 1979, RU)

  • Luc Tuymans (b. 1958, BE)

  • Yves Velter (b. 1967, BE)

  • Szabolcs Veres (b. 1983, RO)

  • Nicola Verlato (b. 1965, IT)

  • Ruprecht Von Kaufmann (b. 1974, DE)

  • Wolfe von Lenkiewicz (b. 1966, GB)

  • Caroline Walker (b. 1982, GB)

  • Jonathan Wateridge (b. 1972, GB)

  • Richard Wathen (b. 1971, GB)

  • Alison Watt (b. 1965, GB)

  • Matthias Weischer (b. 1973, DE)

  • James White (b. 1967, GB)

  • Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977, US)

  • Paul Winstanley (b. 1954, GB)

  • Uwe Wittwer (b. 1954, CH)

  • Clare Woods (b. 1972, GB)

  • Liu Xiaodong (b. 1963, CN)

  • Zhang Xiaogang (b. 1958, CN)

  • Mao Yan (b. 1968, CN)

  • Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. 1977, GB)

  • Lisa Yuskavage (b. 1962, US)


[1] D. Crimp, "The End of Painting." in October 16 (1981): p. 69-86.

[2] E.g.: The chronological overview of 20th century art in the reference publication Art since 1900 illustrates a significant relapse of important events since roughly 1960, concerning the traditional disciplines of visual arts, painting, sculpture and drawing. See: H. Foster, R. E. Krauss, Y.–A. Bois, B. H. D. Buchloch and D. Joselit, Art since 1900 : modernism, anti-modernism, postmodernism. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2004.

[3] E.g.: Alice Neel (Victoria Miro), Peter Doig (Victoria Miro) or Luc Tuymans (Zeno X Gallery) and Marlene Dumas (Zeno X Gallery).

[4] Charlotte Mullins, Picturing people. (London: Thames and Hudson, 2015), p. 6.

[5] Barry Schwabsky, Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting. London: Phaidon, 2002; Barry Schwabsky, Vitamin P2: New Perspectives in Painting. London: Phaidon, 2016; Barry Schwabsky, Vitamin P3: New Perspectives in Painting. London: Phaidon, 2019.

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