Student Resource

Human Figure Exam Help

Explore people drawn, painted or sculpted from life and art that explores abstract ideas about being human

Sarah Lucas, ‘Pauline Bunny’ 1997
Sarah Lucas
Pauline Bunny 1997
Tate
© Sarah Lucas

Introduction

For thousands of years the human figure has appeared in art. Early cave paintings show figures of hunters simply depicted using a few strokes. In ancient Greece human figures were the main subject on decorated vases. Through the ages the human figure has appeared in portraits, has been used to tell stories or express beliefs, or used to explore what it is to be human.

The human figure from life

Myles Murphy, ‘Figure with Yellow Foreground’ 1974
Myles Murphy
Figure with Yellow Foreground 1974
Tate
© Myles Murphy

At art school drawing from the human figure is often one of the first skills taught. Life drawing helps young artists to look closely and understand proportions, as well as experiment with techniques.

Explore some of the ways artists have drawn and painted the human figure from life:

Alberto Giacometti, ‘Seated Man’ 1949
Alberto Giacometti
Seated Man 1949
Tate
© The Estate of Alberto Giacometti (Fondation Giacometti, Paris and ADAGP, Paris), licensed in the UK by ACS and DACS, London 2019
Gwen John, ‘Study of a Girl Holding a Doll’ c.1916–20
Gwen John
Study of a Girl Holding a Doll c.1916–20
Tate
Joseph Mallord William Turner, ‘A Supine Male Nude, Seen Foreshortened’ c.1799–1805
Joseph Mallord William Turner
A Supine Male Nude, Seen Foreshortened c.1799–1805
Tate
David Hockney, ‘Study for ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’’ 1970
David Hockney
Study for ‘Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy’ 1970
Tate
© David Hockney
Maggi Hambling, ‘Portrait of Frances Rose’ 1973
Maggi Hambling
Portrait of Frances Rose 1973
Tate
© Maggi Hambling. All Rights Reserved 2018 / Bridgeman Images
William Scott, ‘Seated Nude’ 1939
William Scott
Seated Nude 1939
Tate
© The estate of William Scott
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt, ‘Study of a Seated Male Nude for ‘The Liberation of St Peter’ in the Church of St Michael and All Angels, Lyndhurst, Hampshire’ c.1863
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Bt
Study of a Seated Male Nude for ‘The Liberation of St Peter’ in the Church of St Michael and All Angels, Lyndhurst, Hampshire c.1863
Tate
Wyndham Lewis, ‘Crouching Nude’ c.1919
Wyndham Lewis
Crouching Nude c.1919
Tate
© Wyndham Lewis and the estate of Mrs G A Wyndham Lewis by kind permission of the Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust (a registered charity)
Josef Herman Sketch of a nude seated on low stool

Josef Herman, Sketch of a nude seated on low stool
© The estate of Josef Herman
Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

Aubrey Williams Sketch of a female nude bending down with one arm outstretched behind her

Aubrey Williams Sketch of a female nude bending down with one arm outstretched behind her ...
© Estate of Aubrey Williams. All rights reserved, DACS 2018

Felicia Browne Sketch of a nude figure

Felicia Browne Sketch of a nude figure
Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

Bernard Meninsky Sketch of a standing male nude

Bernard Meninsky Sketch of a standing male nude
© The estate of Bernard Meninsky. All Rights Reserved 2018 / Bridgeman Images

William Mulready, ‘Academy Study’ 1846, reworked 1857
William Mulready
Academy Study 1846, reworked 1857
Tate

For most artists who draw, paint – or sculpt – ‘from life’ their fascination with the human figure is much more than simply creating an accurate representation of their model.

The painter Lucian Freud spent 60 years drawing and painting the human figure, mainly using friends and family as his models.

Lucian Freud, ‘Girl in a Striped Nightshirt’ 1983–5
Lucian Freud
Girl in a Striped Nightshirt 1983–5
Tate
© The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images
Lucian Freud, ‘Bella in her Pluto T-Shirt’ 1995
Lucian Freud
Bella in her Pluto T-Shirt 1995
Tate
© The Lucian Freud Archive / Bridgeman Images

Although his drawings and paintings of people look like straightforward depictions, there is a psychological intensity to many of the portraits. The figures often seem awkward and their poses suggest vulnerability. As well as the phsyical nature of the human figure, Freud seems to also be exploring the emotional fragility that we as humans sometimes experience.

Gwen John, ‘The Convalescent’ 1918–19
Gwen John
The Convalescent 1918–19
Tate
Emma Amos Eva the Babysitter 1973 Courtesy of Emma Amos, the Amos family, and RYAN LEE Gallery

Emma Amos Eva the Babysitter 1973 Courtesy of Emma Amos, the Amos family, and RYAN LEE Gallery

Gwen John also seems to have been interested in capturing what people are thinking and feeling in her paintings of the human figure. The simple pictures of women in interiors suggest intimacy and quietness, but also often loneliness or sadness. Her drawings and paintings don't obviously tell a story. But by using harmonies of pastel colour, she creates a subtle sense of mood which gives the works their emotional impact.

As well as suggesting the psychology of their sitters, many artists want to suggest their character and celebrate who they are. Clothing and pose is important in doing this. Emma Amos’s painting Eva the Babysitter shows a woman dressed in jeans, t-shirt and trainers, sitting casually and smiling – as if sharing a joke with the artist. Her pose and causal look suggests confidence and that she is at ease with being painted.

Photographing the human figure

John Coplans, ‘Self-Portrait (Hands Spread on Knees)’ 1985
John Coplans
Self-Portrait (Hands Spread on Knees) 1985
Tate
© The estate of John Coplans

Photographs by definition are taken from life. Photography is often used to capture or record the human figure.

John Coplans uses photography to scrutinise the relentless effects of ageing on his body. Although these are self-portraits, Coplans doesn't show his face. Instead he focuses on isolated body parts such as hands and feet (and knees!), showing them enlarged and close-up with every wrinkle and area of gnarled or sagging flesh brutally on show.

Samuel Fosso, ‘Untitled’ 1978
Samuel Fosso
Untitled 1978
Tate
© Samuel Fosso, Courtesy JM Patras / Paris.

Cameroonian photographer Samuel Fosso also uses photography to capture and explore who he is. He photographed himself in a series of adopted identities that often comment on the history of Africa. Dressing up in costumes ranging from European outfits and uniforms to African folk costumes, he reflects on how identity is often determined partly by things which we have little control over. He also suggests that regardless of outside factors, we can create our own identity.

Rineke Dijkstra, ‘Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 23 1992’ 1992
Rineke Dijkstra
Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 23 1992 1992
Tate
© Rineke Dijkstra
Rineke Dijkstra, ‘De Panne, Belgium, August 7 1992’ 1992
Rineke Dijkstra
De Panne, Belgium, August 7 1992 1992
Tate
© Rineke Dijkstra

For her series of photographs of young bathers, Rineke Dijkstra chose similar locations and set her camera at a relatively low viewpoint before inviting her subjects to pose. By using the same simple background for each photograph we focus on the figures. Each figure seems to be scrutinised by the camera (and by us), making them seem self-conscious and vulnerable. But at the same time the bathers scrutinise the camera. As a result, her images are filled with an uneasy intensity.

As well as documenting individuals, photography is often used to document the lives of people. Have a look at some of the ways photographers have captured the human figure in everyday situations.

Marketa Luskacova, ‘People around a fire, Spitalfields Market, London’ 1976, later print
Marketa Luskacova
People around a fire, Spitalfields Market, London 1976, later print
Tate
© Marketa Luskacova
Karen Knorr, Olivier Richon, ‘Untitled from the Punks series’ 1976
Karen Knorr, Olivier Richon
Untitled from the Punks series 1976
Tate
© Karen Knorr and Olivier Richon
Chris Killip, ‘Boo and his rabbit’ 1984, printed 2012–13
Chris Killip
Boo and his rabbit 1984, printed 2012–13
Tate
© Chris Killip
Errol Sawyer, ‘Untitled, London’ 1997
Errol Sawyer
Untitled, London 1997
Tate
© Errol Sawyer

Abstracting the Human

Francis Bacon, ‘Triptych August 1972’ 1972
Francis Bacon
Triptych August 1972 1972
Tate
© Estate of Francis Bacon

Artists often experiment with abstracting the human figure: either simplifying it or depicting it in a way that isn’t necessarily straightforward, often distorting elements of the body.

Have you ever experienced emotions – of anger, sadness or frustration – that are so intense you feel as if you are being tortured by them? How would you represent these feelings in art? Francis Bacon's twisted figures express a powerful sense of the psychological pain and anguish that people sometimes experience. He used photographs from books and magazines as the starting point for many of his paintings.

Francis Bacon Extract from unidentified boxing magazine

Extract from unidentified boxing magazine with photograph painted over by Francis Bacon 1950

Francis Bacon, ‘Study for Portrait on Folding Bed’ 1963
Francis Bacon
Study for Portrait on Folding Bed 1963
Tate
© Estate of Francis Bacon
Francis Bacon, ‘Seated Figure’ 1961
Francis Bacon
Seated Figure 1961
Tate
© Estate of Francis Bacon

Many of the writhing, twisted poses were inspired by photographs of wrestlers. The distorted screaming faces have an unlikely photographic source – dental magazines showing diseases of the mouth! Bacon was also greatly inspired by artist Pablo Picasso's the abstracted figures.

In his paintings, Bacon often paints a square box around his figures. This makes them look as if they are trapped in a cage or other enclosed space, and adds to the sense of horror.

Artists are obsessed by life and by certain things that obsess them that they want to record. And they’ve tried to find systems and construct the cages in which these things can be caught.

Rebecca Warren, ‘Come, Helga’ 2006
Rebecca Warren
Come, Helga 2006
Tate
© Rebecca Warren, courtesy Maureen Paley, London

Rebecca Warren's clay sculpture Come, Helga 2006 shows two female figures standing side-by-side. The kneaded, lumpy and messy figures challenge society's ideas about the ideal body. The work references a range of sources, from traditional figure sculptures to fashion photographers and cartoonists. The exaggerated proportions of the women's figures suggest clichés of the sexualised representation of women. However, the confrontational pose of the women is confident and complicates the way the figures are seen.

Sarah Lucas, ‘Pauline Bunny’ 1997
Sarah Lucas
Pauline Bunny 1997
Tate
© Sarah Lucas

Sarah Lucas also explores female identity and how women are often sexualised. Like Rebecca Warren’s Helga, Lucas’s Pauline Bunny 1997 has a humorous cartoony look. Made from nylon tights stuffed with cotton wadding, the limp, floppy form undermines the fantasy of the glamorous ‘bunny girl’.

The human figure broken down

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, ‘Cyclops’ 1957
Sir Eduardo Paolozzi
Cyclops 1957
Tate
© The Eduardo Paolozzi Foundation
Parviz Tanavoli, ‘The Poet and the Beloved of the King’ 1964–6
Parviz Tanavoli
The Poet and the Beloved of the King 1964–6
Tate
© Parviz Tanavoli

Often artists abstract the human figure by breaking it down into separate body bits or by adding other non-human elements. Eduardo Paolozzi adds machine parts to his figures, while Parviz Tanavoli adds architectural features. They create abstracted robot-like figures that perhaps comment on our lives and how we live them. In drawings such as Tree with Shoes 1998, artist Louise Bourgeois also mixes unlikely elements – such as tree branches – with the human figure. Her sculptures often include isolated body bits. She uses aspects of the human to explore of a range of themes including childhood memories, sexuality and mortality.

Romare Bearden, ‘Pittsburgh Memory’ 1964
Romare Bearden
Pittsburgh Memory 1964
Lent by the Tate Americas Foundation 2017
© Estate of Romare Bearden / DACS 2019

African American artist Romare Bearden creates richly textured abstracted collages. His work focuses on unity and cooperation within the African American community. To create this powerful collage of two men, he has used elements taken from different found images from newspapers and magazines. In doing this the figures become universal. Bearden became a founding member of the Harlem-based art group known as The Spiral, which formed to discuss how African-American artists could help in the struggle for civil rights.

Douglas Gordon, ‘A Divided Self I and A Divided Self II’ 1996
Douglas Gordon
A Divided Self I and A Divided Self II 1996
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© Douglas Gordon

The human figure broken down is also something artist Douglas Gordon explores in his video A Divided Self I and A Divided Self II 1996. Two arms – one hairy and the other shaven – are shown fighting each other on separate screens. On one screen the hairy arm defeats the shaven, while the reverse happens on the second screen. Gradually the viewer becomes aware that the arms belong to the same person suggesting a battle between two halves of the self.

Moving figures abstracted

William Turnbull, ‘Marching Figures’ 1953
William Turnbull
Marching Figures 1953
Tate
© William Turnbull. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019
David Bomberg, ‘Ju-Jitsu’ c.1913
David Bomberg
Ju-Jitsu c.1913
Tate
© Tate

Many artists have experimented with ways of depicting the human figure in motion. This often leads to abstracted representations of the human figure. William Turnbull explores very literally the act of walking in this print Marching Figures 1953. He said: 'I wanted to ...express the implication of movement (not describe it)’. The figures look a little like photographs of figures in motion created in the 1880s by Eadweard Muybridge.

In his painting The Mud Bath 1914, painter David Bomberg has reduced the human figure to a series of geometric shapes. The human figure is hardly recognisable, but the angled shapes suggest a very real sense of movement. Like many artists at the beginning of the twentieth century he was interested in finding ways of expressing the dynamism of the modern world.

Browse the slideshow below to explore more ways that artists have abstracted the human figure.

Robert Therrien, ‘No Title (Beard Cart)’ 2004
Robert Therrien
No Title (Beard Cart) 2004
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© Robert Therrien
Dame Elisabeth Frink, ‘Bird Man’ c.1966
Dame Elisabeth Frink
Bird Man c.1966
Tate
© Frink Estate
Karel Appel, ‘People, Birds and Sun’ 1954
Karel Appel
People, Birds and Sun 1954
Tate
© Karel Appel Foundation
Jacques Lipchitz, ‘Seated Man with Clarinet I’ 1920
Jacques Lipchitz
Seated Man with Clarinet I 1920
Tate
© The estate of Jacques Lipchitz, courtesy, Marlborough Gallery, New York
Keith Vaughan, ‘Bather: August 4th 1961’ 1961
Keith Vaughan
Bather: August 4th 1961 1961
Tate
© The estate of Keith Vaughan
Roger Hilton, ‘February 1954’ 1954
Roger Hilton
February 1954 1954
Tate
© The estate of Roger Hilton
Ibrahim El-Salahi, ‘Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I’ 1961–5
Ibrahim El-Salahi
Reborn Sounds of Childhood Dreams I 1961–5
Tate
© Ibrahim Salahi
Georg Baselitz, ‘Adieu’ 1982
Georg Baselitz
Adieu 1982
Tate
© Georg Baselitz
Leon Golub, ‘Fighter’ 1965
Leon Golub
Fighter 1965
Tate
© DACS, London and VAGA, New York 2019
Thomas Schütte, ‘[no title]’ 1993
Thomas Schütte
[no title] 1993
Tate
© Thomas Schütte, DACS 2019
Sarah Lucas, ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ 2000
Sarah Lucas
Beyond the Pleasure Principle 2000
Tate
© Sarah Lucas
Avis Newman, ‘Sensible Ellipse of Lost Origin’ 1985–6
Avis Newman
Sensible Ellipse of Lost Origin 1985–6
Tate
© Avis Newman
Jake Chapman, Dinos Chapman, ‘Exquisite Corpse’ 2000
Jake Chapman, Dinos Chapman
Exquisite Corpse 2000
Tate
© Jake and Dinos Chapman

Telling Tales

Lubaina Himid, ‘The Carrot Piece’ 1985
Lubaina Himid
The Carrot Piece 1985
Tate
© Lubaina Himid

As well as using the human figure as a way of exploring the human form or human psychology, the human figure is often used by artists to tell a story or to make a point. – exploring political or social ideas, or memories.

The figures in Lubaina Himid's Carrot Piece 1985 were cut out of plywood and painted. Carrot Piece shows a white man failing to tempt a black woman with a carrot. Her arms are already full with everything she needs. Himid says that the work was a comment on cultural institutions that ‘needed to be seen’ to be integrating black people into their programmes and the tricks they used to do this.

We as black women understood how we were being patronised ... to be cajoled and distracted by silly games and pointless offers. We understood, but we knew what sustained us… and what we really needed to make a positive cultural contribution: self-belief, inherited wisdom, education and love.

Ellen Gallagher, ‘Bird in Hand’ 2006
Ellen Gallagher
Bird in Hand 2006
Tate
© Ellen Gallagher

Ellen Gallagher's multi-media painting, Bird in Hand 2006 is a dominated by the standing figure of a black sailor or pirate with a peg-leg and an abundance of swirling hair. He seems to be underwater as he is surrounded by trails of colourful shapes that resemble seaweed and marine-like vegetation. Gallagher often explores narratives surrounding the slave trade in her work. The undersea landscape is related to her imaginative exploration of the Middle Passage, the most treacherous part of the slave trading route between Africa and North America.

I think of this painting as an origin myth of sorts, with a kind of evil doctor, perhaps related to Doctor Moreau or Frankenstein, at its centre
Ellen Gallagher

In this video writer Bonnie Greer discusses the layering of narratives and ideas in Ellen Gallagher's work:

Explore more artworks in Tate's collection where the human figure is used to create narratives that tell stories or make a point:

Grayson Perry, ‘Aspects of Myself’ 2001
Grayson Perry
Aspects of Myself 2001
Tate
© Grayson Perry
Tracey Emin, ‘Sad Shower in New York’ 1995
Tracey Emin
Sad Shower in New York 1995
Tate
© Tracey Emin
Paula Rego, ‘Nanny, Small Bears and Bogeyman’ 1982
Paula Rego
Nanny, Small Bears and Bogeyman 1982
Tate
© Paula Rego
R.B. Kitaj, ‘My Cities (An Experimental Drama)’ 1990–3
R.B. Kitaj
My Cities (An Experimental Drama) 1990–3
Tate
© The estate of R. B. Kitaj
Steven Campbell, ‘The Dangerous Early and Late Life of Lytton Strachey’ 1985
Steven Campbell
The Dangerous Early and Late Life of Lytton Strachey 1985
Tate
© Steven Campbell Trust
Jake Chapman, Dinos Chapman, ‘Disasters of War’ 1993
Jake Chapman, Dinos Chapman
Disasters of War 1993
Tate
© Jake and Dinos Chapman
Cindy Sherman, ‘Untitled Film Still #48’ 1979, reprinted 1998
Cindy Sherman
Untitled Film Still #48 1979, reprinted 1998
Tate
© Cindy Sherman

Traces of the human figure

Pawel Althamer, ‘Self-Portrait as a Businessman’ 2002, with additions 2004
Pawel Althamer
Self-Portrait as a Businessman 2002, with additions 2004
Tate
© Pawel Althamer

Have you ever walked into a room and been aware of someone’s presence without anyone actually being there? We are not talking ghosts here! But what about an empty cup, some clothes strewn on the sofa, a TV or computer switched on? Art about the human figure doesn’t always actually include the human the figure. Sometimes human presence is suggested.

Body casts

Antony Gormley, ‘Untitled (for Francis)’ 1985
Antony Gormley
Untitled (for Francis) 1985
Tate
© Antony Gormley
Giuseppe Penone, ‘Breath 5’ 1978
Giuseppe Penone
Breath 5 1978
Tate
© Archivio Penone

Anthony Gormley makes his sculptures of the human figure by making casts of his own body. He covers his body with plaster and then reinforces the plaster with fibre glass and lead. What we see looks like a simplified human figure, but in fact is an empty shell – the space where the human figure used to be. For Bed 1980-81 the shape of two human figures lying down are delineated in hollows eaten out of layers of sliced bread. The sculpture suggests carved medieval tombs. Gormley is from a Roman Catholic background, and is perhaps referencing the ritual of consuming the body of Christ through the taking of bread during communion. In this video Gormley talks about how he made the sculpture.

Artist Giuseppe Penone also uses an impression of his own body to create his sculpture Breath 5 1978. The clay is modelled on the imagined shape of a breath of air, exhaled from the artist’s mouth. At the top is the form of the interior of Penone’s mouth, squeezed into the clay. Along the side of the clay is an impression of the artist’s leg, wearing jeans, as he leans forward. Penone has made many artworks about the impression of man on nature. For Breath Penone has spoken of the influence of mythological explanations of the creation of man.

Body Extensions

What are these strange looking objects, and what have they got to do with the human figure?

Rebecca Horn, ‘Finger Gloves’ 1972
Rebecca Horn
Finger Gloves 1972
Tate
© DACS, 2019
Rebecca Horn, ‘Pencil Mask’ 1972
Rebecca Horn
Pencil Mask 1972
Tate
© DACS, 2019
Rebecca Horn, ‘Moveable Shoulder Extensions’ 1971
Rebecca Horn
Moveable Shoulder Extensions 1971
Tate
© DACS, 2019

These are sculptures – or body pieces – by artist Rebecca Horn. The body pieces, which include gloves and masks, are designed to extend the human body and what it can do. Although these artworks were made to be worn in performances, she also sees them as sculptures. Detached from the human figure and mounted on the gallery wall they look disturbing, suggesting a terrifying absence (or presence!).

Artist as Art: The Human Figure as Medium

Carey Young, ‘Body Techniques (after Parallel Stress, Dennis Oppenheim,1970)’ 2007
Carey Young
Body Techniques (after Parallel Stress, Dennis Oppenheim,1970) 2007
Tate
© Carey Young, courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
Bruce McLean, ‘Pose Work for Plinths 3’ 1971
Bruce McLean
Pose Work for Plinths 3 1971
Tate
© Bruce McLean
Stuart Brisley, ‘Beneath Dignity’ 1977
Stuart Brisley
Beneath Dignity 1977
Tate
© Stuart Brisley

So far this resource has explored some of the different ways artists have used the human figure as a subject in their art. But some artists use their own – or other people's – bodies directly as the medium or material for their art. For performance artists the artwork is created through actions performed by the artist or other participants. These may be live or recorded, spontaneous or scripted. Other artists use themselves as human sculptures.

Erwin Wurm, ‘One Minute Sculptures’ 1997
Erwin Wurm
One Minute Sculptures 1997
Tate
© Erwin Wurm
Erwin Wurm, ‘One Minute Sculptures’ 1997
Erwin Wurm
One Minute Sculptures 1997
Tate
© Erwin Wurm
Erwin Wurm, ‘One Minute Sculptures’ 1997
Erwin Wurm
One Minute Sculptures 1997
Tate
© Erwin Wurm
Erwin Wurm, ‘One Minute Sculptures’ 1997
Erwin Wurm
One Minute Sculptures 1997
Tate
© Erwin Wurm
Erwin Wurm, ‘One Minute Sculpture’ 1997
Erwin Wurm
One Minute Sculpture 1997
Tate
© Erwin Wurm

Erwin Wurm makes art from anything that is to hand. His One Minute Sculptures were created on the spot using whatever objects, participants, and backgrounds were available. He then photographed or filmed these creations to document them. The improvised nature of the images, which show ordinary people and everyday objects, reflect the fun, playfulness and spontaneity that must have gone into the making of work. But in spite of their playfulness and humour there is also perhaps a darker suggestion of bullying, assault or ritual violence.

Francesca Woodman, ‘From Angel Series, Roma, September 1977’ 1977
Francesca Woodman
From Angel Series, Roma, September 1977 1977
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© Courtesy of Charles Woodman
Francesca Woodman, ‘Untitled’ 1975–80
Francesca Woodman
Untitled 1975–80
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland
© Courtesy of Charles Woodman

Francesca Woodman often photographed herself half-obscured by various props – sometimes standing behind them and sometimes balancing them on top of her. Although she almost always present she is never quite visible or ‘fixed’.

When asked why she always appears in her own photographs, she responded:

It’s a matter of convenience, I’m always available.

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