The term has been particularly used since the arrival of abstract art to refer to artists that retain aspects of the real world as their subject matter, though in a general sense figurative also applies retrospectively to all art before abstract art.
Modern figurative art can be seen as distinct from modern realism in that figurative art uses modern idioms, while modern realists work in styles predating post-impressionism (more or less). In fact, modern figurative art is more or less identical with the general current of expressionism that can be traced through the twentieth century and on.
Picasso after about 1920 is the great exemplar of modern figurative painting, and Alberto Giacometti from about 1940 is the great figurative sculptor. After the Second World War figuration can be tracked through the work of Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and the other artists of the School of London, and through pop art, neo-expressionism, and new spirit painting.