The Rise and Fall of the Abstract Art Boom

Abstraction was long seen as the future. But figurative painting has refused to die and the art world is rewriting its own story

Art Features
"Landscape near Murnau with Locomotive", 1909, by Vasily Kandinsky (credit: ARS/ADAGP)

One of the best art exhibitions of the year was Kenneth Clark: Looking for Civilisation at Tate Britain. But barely noticed was that there was just one abstract picture in the hundreds of drawings and paintings which filled six large rooms. Here was a major exhibition at Tate Britain, including two rooms full of modern masterpieces, and there was almost no abstract art at all.

Something has shifted in the art world recently, something so strange that it has almost gone unnoticed. Figurative art is back. Abstract art, in all its weird and wonderful forms, is on the way out.

This is the lesson of some of the most interesting and thought-provoking shows of the year. Some have been high-profile: the Clark show and Frank Auerbach at Tate Britain (with a major retrospective in 2015), Edward Hopper and Photography at the Whitney Museum in New York, and Constable: The Making of a Master at the V&A. But perhaps the most intriguing are shows like Malevich at the Tate Modern and Kandinsky at the Guggenheim in New York. Others are less high-profile but also interesting: Re-figuring the Fifties at the Ben Uri Gallery, London, this autumn and Scottish Figuration at the Flowers Gallery in Cork Street in August. Together, these exhibitions show how the balance between abstraction and figurative art is shifting; how important figurative art always was in Britain, whatever was happening in Paris or New York; and how we are starting to reconsider the place of figurative art in the past, not only in Britain but also in the work of great abstract masters like Malevich and Kandinsky.

This would seem perverse to anyone formed in the heyday of abstract art. That moment was perfectly summed up in Kathryn Hughes’s review in the Guardian of Alexandra Harris’s acclaimed book, Romantic Moderns (2010):

The modernism we know about, or think we do, was fierce and sharp-edged, all the better to scythe down the past and start all over again. During the interwar period, making things new became the mantra. History was a jumbled lumber-room of habits and beliefs that we would all do much better without: it had led, after all, to the carnage of the trenches. All those bits and pieces from previous centuries — the clutter, the junk, the sheer bulk of countless pointless objects — needed to be swept away. Homes, in the words of Le Corbusier, were to become “machines for living”, complete with kitchenettes and pull-down beds. And instead of watercolour landscapes and ancestral portraits on the walls, there would be an art composed of white circles etched upon white squares floating upon white paper. If there were to be any colour in this weightless world, it was to be found checked within Mondrian’s strict grids.

“Make it new” is, of course, the resonant phrase. Ezra Pound’s famous words, so aggressively modern, became a key phrase for a generation of artists, art critics and curators. It stands for the work of two generations of artists, from Delaunay’s Windows Open Simultaneously, Kandinsky’s Untitled (First Abstract Watercolour) and Malevich’s first Black Square, all painted within the decade leading up to 1915, to mid-20th-century figures like Miró, Mondrian, Rothko and Jackson Pollock.

It is no coincidence that these great works coincided with a new wave of art museums and collections: the Museum of Modern Art, America’s premier museum devoted exclusively to modern art, and the first in Manhattan to exhibit European modernism, founded in 1929; the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, founded in 1937, the first museum of its kind created in Europe; and the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which opened its rented quarters in Manhattan on East 54th Street in 1939, the first home to the Guggenheim collection. It is also no coincidence that these three museums were in Paris and New York, the two great centres of abstract art for almost half a century.

What do ambitious new art museums need? They need a story about modern art. In particular, they need a story about progress. The old was past and the new (abstract art in all its forms) was the future. The old conventions were gone. The new, “the shock of the new” in Robert Hughes’s phrase, was here to stay.

I spent the baking hot summer of 1976 in Paris, making perhaps a dozen visits to the Musée National d’Art Moderne and another dozen to the Jeu de Paume. The history of modern art could not have been more clearly laid out. There were the great Impressionists and Post-Impressionists at the Jeu de Paume. A brief walk away was the temple of high Modernism and abstraction, with all its many “isms”: Futurism, Constructivism, Suprematism, Dadaism, Surrealism and on and on. Of course, there were nods to figurative artists. But, a handful apart, they were marginalised, pushed to the side-roads of modern art, while the great story was about the rise of abstract art, at the heart of Modernism.

In his seminal 1961 article “Modernist Painting”, the influential American art critic Clement Greenberg wrote: “Modernism includes more than art and literature. By now it covers almost the whole of what is truly alive in our culture.” Abstract art wasn’t just one of many forms of artistic creativity. It became, in the mid-20th century, a byword for a form of sophistication and artistic fashion that figurative artists like Courbet, Chagall, Beckmann and Bomberg could never hope to be part of.

Abstract art wasn’t just in museums. It was everywhere in the culture, on book covers, record covers and in films. Take some of the most iconic record covers of the Sixties and Seventies: The White Album by the Beatles (1968), Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield and The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd (both 1973). Or the cover of the 1966 edition of Al Alvarez’s poetry anthology, The New Poetry. It featured a Jackson Pollock painting because that’s what “the new” meant. Or take the cover of the original Faber edition of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath in 1966. This cover became an icon of modern design. If something was serious and highbrow it had to have an abstract cover, whether it was the Fontana Modern Masters covers of the 1970s or Perry Anderson’s books on Western Marxism with their covers from abstract paintings by Robert Natkin.

All Woody Allen’s best films of the Seventies feature abstract art. In Play It Again, Sam (1972), Allen plays a film critic trying to get over his wife’s leaving him by dating again. In one scene, he tries to pick up a woman in front of an early Jackson Pollock work. “What does it say to you?” he asks her. Five years later, in Annie Hall (1977), when the Diane Keaton character goes to see her analyst, he inevitably has an abstract painting on the wall. In Manhattan (1979), Allen’s character, Isaac, bumps into his friend Yale and his mistress (Diane Keaton again) and the three argue over photography and the “negative capability” of a steel cube installation’s texture. When we get a glimpse of Isaac’s apartment near the end of the film, a Mark Rothko painting hangs on the wall.

In the 1960s and ’70s, whether you were reading the most fashionable contemporary poets and thinkers in London or were going to an analyst or an art museum in New York, abstract art was on the cover or hung on the wall. Even today, if you want to suggest wealth and sophistication, set designers will reach for abstract paintings. In BBC Two’s recent series, The Honourable Woman, the outstanding TV drama of the year, there is a huge Miró painting on the wall in the town house of the Stein Foundation. It tells you that the Steins are not just wealthy but also sophisticated, cultured and cosmopolitan; a Constable or a Monet would convey a very different message. The cluster of images is significant: modern poetry, the New Left, psychoanalysis and, always in the background, abstract art.

However, while Isaac was hanging the Rothko reproduction on his apartment wall in Manhattan, artistic fashion was starting to shift. If you look at the most popular 20 shows at the Tate Galleries in the last 40 years they have almost all been figurative artists. Damien Hirst, Hopper, Gauguin, Cézanne, Turner/Whistler/Monet, Frida Kahlo, Lichtenstein and Constable make up the top ten with this summer’s Matisse cut-outs at number one. The only out-and-out abstract artist in the top ten is Rothko at the Tate Modern in 2008. Miró and Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction are the only other exhibitions of exclusively abstract artists in the top 20.

The Royal Academy and the Tate galleries know that if they want a blockbuster they can’t go wrong with Gainsborough, Constable, van Gogh or the Pre-Raphaelites. David Hockney’s A Bigger Picture at the Royal Academy attracted 7,512 visitors every day in 2012. You couldn’t get near van Gogh’s paintings at the RA in 2010: there were queues around the block. You may expect the same at Rembrandt: The Late Works at the National Gallery or Constable: The Making of a Master at the V&A this autumn.

Further down the hierarchy, there are other signs of the revival of figurative art. There is the renewed interest in Eric Ravilious (11 books about his work published since 2002), the discovery of important female figurative artists like Eva Frankfurther, Paula Rego and Dora Holzhandler, and a series of international exhibitions of Chagall last year in Britain, Paris and New York, and of Edward Hopper, on both sides of the Atlantic, over the last decade.

Figurative art has always spoken to a wider audience, and this has spread through British culture in recent years. The last 20 years have seen a number of plays about figurative artists: Pam Gems’s Stanley (1996), about Stanley Spencer, Nicholas Wright’s Vincent in Brixton (2003), about van Gogh, and Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters (2007). However, the most popular play about modern art in recent years was Yasmina Reza’s Art, a satire about the pretentious appeal of abstract art. It was the emperor’s new clothes updated for today’s theatre audiences and it ran in the West End for eight years.

What about elsewhere in the culture? Last year, the famous abstract cover of The Bell Jar was replaced for the 50th-anniversary edition with a figurative image: a young woman fixing her makeup. More Mad Men than Plath, critics said. How vulgar to have a realistic image of a woman instead of a sophisticated abstract one. But the shift from abstract to realism was telling.

In 2008 the Threadneedle Prize, which aims to showcase the best in new figurative and representational art, was founded. The prize is worth £20,000, and the shortlist for 2014 has just been announced. The shortlisted works will be exhibited at London’s Mall Galleries this autumn, next door to the ICA, once one of the temples of abstract art, co-founded by Herbert Read, who championed abstraction in a famous debate with Kenneth Clark in 1935.

Perhaps the greatest change, however, has been in recent exhibitions. These have asked interesting and original questions about the place of figurative art in the 20th century. In the Clark show at Tate Britain, the paintings and drawings by John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore and Paul Nash were a revelation. The exhibition confirmed that these were major artists. There have been few bodies of work which have more movingly represented the devastation caused by the Second World War. British landscapes, buildings ruined by the Blitz, scenes of urban devastation, refugees and figures sheltering in the London Underground from German bombs, beautifully depicted in paintings like Coventry Cathedral and Somerset Place by John Piper, Nash’s Battle of Britain, the landscapes of William Coldstream and Graham Bell, the industrial paintings of Graham Sutherland, such as A Foundry and the pictures of refugees by Mary Kessell.

These works raise many questions about the place of abstract art in art history. Abstract art may have been at the forefront of modern art in Paris, very briefly in revolutionary Moscow and in post-war New York, it was always less true in wartime Britain. This isn’t a matter of parochialism or nationalism. The exchange between Clark and Herbert Read over abstract art and Surrealism in the Listener in 1935 or the writings of John Berger in the New Statesman in the early 1950s show that this was always contested in the very heyday of abstract art.

The forthcoming exhibition at the Ben Uri Gallery, Re-figuring the Fifties, shows that the 1950s, like the war years, are open to new interpretations. It includes work by such different figurative artists as L.S. Lowry, Joan Eardley, Sheila Fell, Eva Frankfurther and (here I should declare my personal interest) my father, Josef Herman. What is striking is the range of artists: Jewish refugees like Frankfurther and Herman, northern artists like Lowry and Sheila Fell, the daughter of a coalminer from Cumberland, and Eardley who moved to Glasgow in 1939 and worked in Scotland through the 1940s and ’50s. It is rare to see an exhibition where three of the five featured artists  are women. There is also the diversity of subjects: mothers and children, Jewish refugees, coal miners and working men.

Re-figuring the Fifties not only puts figurative art centre-stage, it also reminds us of what a political decade the long 1950s were, from the Labour landslide in 1945 to Aldermaston and the New Left, how regional British culture was then and how interested it was in realism and humanism, before the Pop Art revolution of the late 1950s and early ’60s. What the great Paris and New York museums represented as the heyday of abstraction was a much more complicated story.

Two other new exhibitions show how true this was even in the careers of the great abstract masters. Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art is at Tate Modern until October 26. Malevich is best known as one of the great abstract artists, famous in particular for his Black Square (1915), a black square surrounded by a margin of white. He declared Black Square to be the “zero of form”, an end to old conventions and the beginnings of a new pictorial language. However, what is most striking about the exhibition is the later figurative work by Malevich, from the late 1920s through the ’30s. In a fascinating review in the New York Review of Books, Robert Chandler writes how Malevich’s last portraits “are remarkable for their humanity”. He goes on: “They are fully realized embodiments, at a time of state terror, of clear-eyed love.” Then there are Malevich’s drawings of the “Second Peasant Cycle”, which Chandler describes as “a profound response [. . .] to the horrors of Stalin’s collectivisation of agriculture . . . with their black or red crosses, their crucified figures, and their dead children”. These terrifying blank faces, painted at the height of Stalin’s campaign of terror, are breathtaking. Malevich’s paintings of peasants, not his abstract works, black and white rectangles and squares, blocks of primary colours, painted during the First World War, are what seem exciting and original. 

At the same time, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, there is a new exhibition which opened in June and runs until next spring, Kandinsky Before Abstraction, 1901-1911. This is a fascinating reminder of Kandinsky’s early work, especially in Munich. Curators, it seems, are starting to look more closely at the other aspects of the work of the great abstract artists. In the careers of Malevich and Kandinsky, there is a more complicated story to be told.

Chandler’s review of the Malevich exhibition raises an important point about why figurative art might be making a comeback. From the Middle East to the failed states of central Africa, these are dark times. What kind of art speaks to the growing feeling of foreboding today? Is it the bright decorative paintings of Miró and the work of Delaunay? Or is it the outstanding figurative art at these new exhibitions: Malevich’s 1930s peasants, the wartime paintings of urban destruction at the Clark exhibition, Chagall’s astonishing images of pogroms and the Holocaust shown at New York’s Jewish Museum last year or Anselm Kiefer’s meditations on Nazism which can be seen at the Royal Academy this autumn? These powerful and original exhibitions don’t just show that figurative art is back and the story of modern art is being retold to make room for it. They tell us something about how figurative art speaks to us today in a way which abstract art no longer does. It says something powerful about the dark history of the 20th century, something which strikes a chord today. Figurative art is back because it matters.