The human body has remained a compelling subject for artists in most cultures and across the ages. In the middle and late twentieth century abstraction vied with figuration, with painters combining aspects of both.
In the United States, Willem de Kooning’s use of the female form was based on art-historical traditions of the nude. The thick impasto of Woman V retains the violent marks of his brush. His Untitled work from 1983, by contrast, shows how he adopted a white ground and treated his canvases so the paint would glide over the surface. Despite the overtly abstract nature of the painting, vestiges of the figure remain: an ‘eye’ at upper left and the ‘mouth’ at centre seem to float in the space, surrounded by ‘ribbons’ of colour.
In Great Britain Lucian Freud worked with models throughout his life. His carefully-observed, richly-textured portraits and figure paintings take on aspects of a psychological examination. Francis Bacon’s equally compelling paintings, on the other hand, were produced using different means. He preferred to work from memory and with photographs, especially those by Eadweard Muybridge from the 1880s showing humans and animals in motion.