Themes in Art

Abstract Figures
Hinting at the human form

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 nuances and textures of paint itself.

But abstraction can be applied to other genres with strange, beautiful results. Australian 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. 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 De 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 November 23, 2022,

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Anonymous Figure, Antonia Eiriz

Anonymous Figure Antonia Eiriz, 1967

Black Monolith, II: Homage To Ralph Ellison The Invisible Man, Jack Whitten

Black Monolith, II: Homage To Ralph Ellison The Invisible Man Jack Whitten, 1994

Dutch Interior (I), Joan Miró

Dutch Interior (I) Joan Miró, 1928

Epitalamio, Carlos Mérida

Epitalamio Carlos Mérida, 1968

Face, Chaïbia Talal

Face Chaïbia Talal, 1970

Light, loneliness, Yves Tanguy

Light, loneliness Yves Tanguy, 1940

Madre Terra, (Mother Earth), Carlos Mérida

Madre Terra, (Mother Earth) Carlos Mérida, 1970

Person Throwing a Stone at a Bird, Joan Miró

Person Throwing a Stone at a Bird Joan Miró, 1926

The Furniture of Time, Yves Tanguy

The Furniture of Time Yves Tanguy, 1939

The Hunter (Catalan Landscape), Joan Miró

The Hunter (Catalan Landscape) Joan Miró, 1923 – 1924

The Satin Tuning Fork, Yves Tanguy

The Satin Tuning Fork Yves Tanguy, 1940

Time and Again, Yves Tanguy

Time and Again Yves Tanguy, 1942

Torso, Antoine Pevsner

Torso Antoine Pevsner, 1924 – 1926

Untitled (Baghdadiyat), Faeq Hassan

Untitled (Baghdadiyat) Faeq Hassan, 1964

Untitled (Surrealist Composition), Pavel Tchelitchew

Untitled (Surrealist Composition) Pavel Tchelitchew, 1920

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