“Intermix”: On the History of Abstract vs. Figurative Art

In the art world, none has been so polarizing as the debate between abstract vs. figurative art. If we look back at the origin of art, art was utilized to represent the observable world around us. It wasn’t until the 20th century that art was for art’s sake rather than utilitarian purposes. With the invention of the camera, artists turned to more inventive ways of depicting perception. The goal of art shifted from creating the most faithful depictions of reality in favor of more painterly, stylized, and abstracted art, or art that was not intended to represent figures in real life. The creations of those who broke out of the art academe’s mold were not always readily received. In its infancy, we didn’t have a way of navigating abstract art. Taking into account the time it was popularized rendering its name “post-war art” — a term that describes the period rather than a set of styles and ideas–people began to see this dichotomy between abstract and figurative art as a political one. Figurative art was seen as reactionary. It was crucial to the role of myth-making through portraiture, for you cannot depict socialist realism through abstract composition–it is dependent on narrative for it to be serviceable to the elites. Abstract art, on the other hand, was seen as progressive for even its very conception relied on questioning our accepted definitions of what ideas truly represented at their core (Guillermo, 1983.)

Today, even without political associations, the misconceptions of either art form prevail. Abstract art is accused of being escapist, vacuous, merely decorative, something which does not require technical skill, and worse, it is, therefore “pretentious”. Yet if we look at how each abstract technique came into being, each new technique was a reaction to how people defined what art was rather than experimentation for the sake of experimentation. And as for the accusation that it does not require technical skill, conceptualization and composition are not things that can be relegated to a monkey that has been trained to paint. Abstract art is, in a word, innovative.

In contrast, figuration is accused of being retrograde and lacking in creativity as mere reproductions of the observable world. Yet if we dig deeper, it is not always the subject matter which is the message, and no one can deny the timelessness of figurative art. As many artists and art critics have pointed out, this categorization between abstract and figuration is rather simplistic because if we look at the potentialities of either art form, the dichotomy only exists from a formalist standpoint, since at their essence, both abstract and figurative art represent reality–we cannot discredit the presence of invisible things as part of our reality. Or as Ben Nicholson would say, “Realism’ has been abandoned in the search for reality: the ‘principal objective’ of abstract art is precisely this reality”.

Someone even went so far as to say that perhaps what we define as abstract is subjective. When someone asks you to describe a “dog”, we end up with as many ideas of a dog as there are individuals, from breed to pet names, to specific characteristics. By perception, it then becomes abstract. Yet when someone refers to “love”, it is more likely that we all know what it refers to. Our definition is not limited to specifics. By being universal, it becomes more concrete.

This rethinking of how perception influences our definition of how we experience the world at large and vice versa is what “Intermix” acknowledges. This group show, “Intermix” showcases the art of abstraction and figuration, a celebration of creativity and the abundance of unique forms of expression, a fusion of recognizable influences coming into their own.

Guillermo, A. (2020). Abstract and/or Figurative: A Wrong Choice. Frisson: The Collected Criticism of Alice Guillermo, 9–15. Retrieved April 2, 2022, from https://pcan.org.ph/.

WHO, 24 AUGUST 1983, 30–2.

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Nicole Lasquety

A visual artist and writer with a passion for media exploration, where big ideas are commonplace. Art, theater, personal essays. lasquetynicole@gmail.com