Figurative art

Edgar Degas, ‘Little Dancer Aged Fourteen’ 1880–1, cast c.1922
Edgar Degas
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen 1880–1, cast c.1922

Figurative art is a term used to refer to art that retains strong references to the real world and particularly to the human form.

The twentieth century was a time of great experimentation in art when the traditional uses of the figure and approaches to realistic representation changed dramatically. Through a series of thematic displays this floor explores that history, demonstrating how figurative art has developed.

Loosely chronological, the displays trace the changing representation of the figure from the seemingly more academic traditions of the late nineteenth century to the erotic and brutal approaches explored through Surrealism and Post-War art, and conclude with more recent subjects and media such as identity politics, performance, film and photography.

The floor opens with an important late nineteenth century work by Edgar Degas. This work caused a sensation when it was first exhibited because of its then unprecedented realism: a depiction of an ordinary person rather than an idealised figure of classical tradition.

Degas’ work in the context of this floor summarises how each generation of artists since the late nineteenth century has sought new forms of representation to best express the current age.

Placing recent works alongside those of the twentieth century, the displays register the return, after a period of relative marginalisation in the 1970s and 1980s, to the figurative in contemporary art.

On the second floor a series of displays explore developments in non-representational or abstract art which ran in parallel to those within figurative art.