Obelisk Art History
Themes in Art

Abstract Figures
Hinting at the human form

Abstract Figures, Themes in ArtLight, loneliness

As modernism sent artwork veering into the abstract, many artists abandoned all representation of people, places and things—resulting in the purely abstract art that is popular to this day. These are the Jackson Pollocks and Helen Frankenthalers of the world, whose work explores color and the nuaces and textures of paint itself.

But abstraction can be applied to other genres with strange, beautiful results. Austrialian indiginous artists like Emily Kngwarreye are known for compositions that appear abstract, but encode the trails and landmarks of their ancestral landscapes. And few subjects can sustain more distortion and abstraction than the human form. Just as chess pieces represent knights and bishops, a neolithic menhir suggests a standing figure. Abstract figures, sometimes called personages, appear throughout history but absolutely took over during the brief vogue for Surrealism. Georgio Di Chirico used mannequins as stand-ins for people in his haunted metaphysical landscapes, and Salvadore Dali distorted flesh into hideous topiary—but few artists abstracted the human form as creatively as Yves Tanguy.

Reed Enger, "Abstract Figures, Hinting at the human form," in Obelisk Art History, Published June 04, 2020; last modified August 06, 2022, http://arthistoryproject.com/subjects/abstract-figures/.

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