Figurative art describes any form of modern art that retains strong references to the real world and particularly to the human figure

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  • Pablo Picasso, 'Weeping Woman' 1937
    Pablo Picasso
    Weeping Woman 1937
    Oil on canvas
    support: 608 x 500 mm
    frame: 847 x 739 x 86 mm
    Accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of tax with additional payment (Grant-in-Aid) made with assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund and the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1987© Succession Picasso/DACS 2002
  • Alberto Giacometti, 'Standing Woman' circa 1958-9, cast released by the artist 1964
    Alberto Giacometti
    Standing Woman circa 1958-9, cast released by the artist 1964
    object: 651 x 121 x 200 mm
    Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1965© ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2002
  • Francis Bacon, 'Study for Portrait on Folding Bed' 1963
    Francis Bacon
    Study for Portrait on Folding Bed 1963
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1981 x 1473 mm
    frame: 2198 x 1690 x 82 mm
    Purchased 1963© Estate of Francis Bacon

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.