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South Asian Art: Figurative Vs. Abstract Art – The Eternal Debate


Figurative vs. Abstract Art – The Eternal Debate


For years there has been a chasm that has developed between artists who do figurative and abstract work. Each group stands on its own side considering themselves to be the superior artists. The figurative artists believe it takes a good eye, technical skill and precision to duplicate life with all its anomalies and variances on canvas. The abstractionists beg to differ and claim that abstract work is the true mark of imagination and intelligence of the artist.


If we were to define the two, figurative work would be simply said to be art that can be easily identified, for instance even if someone has never heard of the Mona Lisa, by far one of the most venerated figurative works in history, one could still say that it was the painting of a woman. In contrast, abstract work looks like nothing in real life; it could be the artist’s interpretation of an object or even amorphous shapes and colours which have essentially no meaning at all.


In the Indian context, figurative art has always dominated. The more famous figurative artists like Raja Ravi Verma and M F Hussain have given us art that is delightful as well as thought provoking. The Calcutta school of art produces artists who have a typical leaning towards figurative works. Centuries of creation involving temples and statues of Gods and Goddesses has left its imprint on the Indian psyche which continues to prefer art that does not have negative connotations. Themes like violence find reluctant buyers, who would probably purchase those for the signature on the canvas, as an investment, and never really display the works.


Abstract art has its takers and its champions like Laxman Shrestha, Raza and Ravi Mandlik. In fact there are buyers who perceive a convoluted ‘snob’ value in abstract art. When abstract art is considered to be ‘intelligent’ the buyer derives pleasure in knowing that he/she has art that essentially no one understands. Though in deference to genuine art lovers, this may be a small microcosm of the art buying fraternity.


Figurative artists have had to struggle to prove their worth in comparison to abstract artists. It is said that after the invention of the camera, figurative art became redundant. Some would even say that the camera liberated artists and gave them the freedom to look within expressing what they felt rather than what they saw. When a devise could so accurately capture every element of the composition, where was the need for an artist? However, a gifted figurative artist can bring out underlying nuances, emotions and even find room for his own personal comment on the situation that a camera cannot.


Today, there is once again a greater leaning towards figurative art. In the recently concluded exhibition organized by bCA Galleries in Galleria 919, Pakistan, of the 18 works sold just 1 was abstract. The artist Jumali is famous in the US for his figurative works.

Of course there are some artists who prefer to tread the middle path and create semi-figurative or semi-abstract works. There will always be multiple permutations and combinations in art, one should not need to draw boundaries and borders disallowing one form to bleed into the other. The essential thing to consider while appreciating purchasing art is whether you like and understand it, at least art should be kept pure from the latest ‘fads’. As for the superiority of figurative over abstract or vice-versa – the debate continues!


~ Razvin Namdarian

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