Figure painting was the pinnacle of fine art until the late 19th century. Since then, figurative art has diminished in popularity and prestige, and, according to visiting lecturer Michael Amy, today it is downright marginalized.
On Thursday afternoon Amy presented his lecture, "Making Sense of Chaos," about the position of traditional figure painting in contemporary art.
According to Visiting Assistant Professor of Art Amer Kobaslija, the Visual Arts department brought Amy "because of his expertise in both Old Masters and the contemporary art scene."
Amy, the foremost expert on Michelangelo's commission of Apostle statues for the Cathedral of Florence, as well as a contributor on contemporary art for publications such as The New York Times, had the broad perspective needed to explain why an artistic canon once considered the norm has been relegated to the doghouse.
According to Amy, there are multiple reasons why figurative painting has receded a bit into the shadows.
Firstly, it has been unseated by the progressive abstraction of modern art. Described by Amy to be "idealized realism," figurative painting does not conform to the values of the abstract movement.
Figurative painting has also been unseated by photography, which fills the niches of portraiture and historical depiction that figurative painting once dominated. According to Amy, figurative artists have ceased to tackle traditional religious, mythological and historical topics in compelling ways, thereby eliminating a crucial function of figurative painting that defined how the public related to this art.
Additionally, Amy attributed the stigma of figurative painting in the contemporary art world to a negative political connotation. Detested 20th-century dictators such as Stalin, Mao and Hitler tainted the figurative movement by embracing figuration, a new form of "social realism." These dictators' "anti-modern" rejection of abstract art made their pet movement, figuration, seem backward as well.
Surviving strains of figurative art are associated with figuration, and are therefore rejected.
Amy, originally from Antwerp, where the bitter taste of Hitler's rise still lingers, presented multiple slides of modern figurative painting with identifiable artistic references to dictators of the 20th century.
Stating, "the past is never quite the past," he pointed to the influence of Mao's Cultural Revolution in a sensual depiction of Asian women.
Switching slides, he drew attention to contemporary portraits of sitters in ambiguous attire, looking as if they belonged to the age of Stalin rather than the 21st century, and to a symbol of Belgian nationalism painted into the sweater of a young girl.
Amy raised many questions about the art. For example, why are Picasso's distortions of the human body now accepted, while distortions in figurative painting are considered troubling? What constitutes fiction and what constitutes reality? What should be the balance between depicting a less than perfect reality and providing solace during troubling times?
According to Amy, artists are attracted to political engagement, yet the public is repulsed by a sculpture made from oil by-products produced in the factories that made Napalm during the Vietnam War. Art which the public sees as "impure" may just be another way for the artist to "make sense of chaos," Amy said.
Amy's lecture—surprising and insightful—lived up to Professor Kobaslija's hope that it would be both "thought-provoking and beneficial to the Bowdoin art community."
Amy spoke with senior art majors while on campus and visited a Sculpture I class taught by Lecturer of Art Nestor Gil.