As the history of art has changed, so too has the depiction of the figure. From the Woman of Willendorf (formally referred to as the Venus of Willendorf), a sculpture carved over 30,000 years ago, to line drawings of figures found in caves and on rock formations around the world; Greek and Roman statuary; painted, sculpted and photographed portraits, the figure has been both a central and enduring theme in artistic practices.
In North America, figures were often included in early topographical drawings, prints and watercolours to animate a landscape, as well as provide a sense of scale or information about period dress, cultural activity or the social status of the person who commissioned the work. In landscape work included in Go Figure, the scene often takes priority over the figure with the landscape referencing the “sublime” that expresses humanity’s awe in the face of nature’s majesty—indeed, the often diminutive size of the figure serves to enhance the setting in which it is placed. Later, the figure would once again become more central to the artist during the rise of genre painting in the nineteenth century.
Working directly from the model is standard practice in the training of artists. An artist, however, might work not only from the nude figure, but also from photographs, skeletons and anatomical subjects, as well as draped figures. The depiction of, primarily, female nudes in the history of Western art brings numerous issues to the fore including the male gaze and objectification, as well as feminism and cultural politics.
A portrait not only represents the physical aspect of the subject, but also their essence. From formal, historical portraits of the upper class, to the graphite sketch that quickly gives not only the physical characteristics, but a sense of the sitter’s personality, the portrait can portray both a sense of “occasion,” as well as an intimate connection between artist and subject.
The work presented in Go Figure is from the permanent collection of The Robert McLaughlin Gallery. The collection is comprised of over 4500 paintings, prints, drawings, photographs, sculpture, and installations that originated with the generous donation of 37 works from the collection of artist Alexandra Luke. The RMG holdings include both historic and contemporary images of the figure, from quick studies on paper to highly finished canvases. The collection is continuously evolving, and Go Figure includes recent acquisitions that exemplify the RMG’s dedication to sharing, exploring and engaging with our communities through the continuing story of modern and contemporary Canadian art.