The term “figure” denotes a form or shape, often that of the human body in particular. Indeed, one may distinguish figure painting from still life or landscape painting in order to stress its human subject. Though a figure may be something tangible, it may also be a represented form, that is, an image or likeness produced by the hand of an artist. This second meaning is reflected in the etymology of the word: the Latin verb fingere, meaning “to mould” or “to fashion” (Crane). A figure of speech may be understood as a likeness created through language rather than visual art, such as metaphor, metonymy, or simile, all of which liken one thing to another. A figure may also be a form given to an abstract concept that typifies that concept, as `when we call someone a “figure of perfection.” A figure further approaches the symbolic realm when it signifies a written character, such as a letter of the alphabet, a musical note, or a numerical notation (OED). In perceptual theory, the figure is opposed to the ground: the visual system organizes the data it receives by separating objects (figures) from their background (ground) based on contrasting value and color. This binary applies not only to human perception of the real world, but of visual art as well, a fact that is exploited in optical art (Fig 1).

The adjectives “figurative” and “figural” derive from the above noun, though the former often expresses the more tangible connotations of the word while the latter expresses the symbolic ones. A figurative representation may be entirely pictorial and plastic, such as a hieroglyphic language in which the shapes of the characters are derived from recognizable objects. Similarly, in visual art the word figurative is used to describe an image with a recognizable source in the real world, though it need not be entirely faithful to its referent: “‘Figurative’ is a comparatively new word in the critical vocabulary of contemporary art. It implies a kind of painting that is not abstract and…not necessarily representational” (1960 Guardian 2 Feb. 7/4). In terms of language, figurative is opposed to literal, as it describes the presence of figures of speech. In both art and language, figural denotes representation by means of an emblem, that is, something that is typical, ideal, or general, rather than literal and particular. For example, the Bible employs typological, or figural, means to communicate ideas. It is argued that medieval art is figural because “every particular signified precisely ‘something other'” (1959 Encounter Nov. 78/2). (OED).

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” embodies the tension within the term “figure”: the imitative versus the emblematic connotations. He commences his dialogue, “And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened” (Plato, VII, 513a). Here Plato emphasizes the fact that an allegory is a figure of speech: it is an extended metaphor in which the properties of the apparent subject, in this case the cave, are meant to be imbued on a different, suggested subject, in this case reality itself. It would seem, then, that Plato approves of the figurative as an aid in thought and learning. However, the subject of his dialogue suggests otherwise: he advocates turning away from the visible world, the world of figures and shadows, the world of becoming, and instead aspiring towards the intelligible world, the world of forms, the world of being. The figure is simply an imitation of the form; it is deceptive and does not help us reach the latter. Indeed, Plato denounces the arts of painting and music, contending that the only useful art is that of arithmetic because it engages the mind instead of the senses (VII, 522c). Plato, then, understands figures as representations that embody nothing of the truth, while he employs the figure as an emblem that conveys his own truth: his method curiously conflates figure and form. A similar conflation can be found in the medium of classical sculpture, which is both naturalistic and idealistic. Indeed, John Boardman describes the work of Polyclitus (Fig 2), a sculptor who canonized the male athletic body in classical period art, as “ideally realistic” (Boardman, 157). Thus, both Plato and the artists of his time expose the dual nature of the figure: real and representative on the one hand (figurative) and ideal and emblematic on the other (figural).

The Bible displays a Platonic mistrust of images: the fourth commandment prohibits the creation of “any likeness of any thing” (Exodus: 20). Images are not only deceptive, but sinful; they are removed from Truth, or more accurately, from God as the only truth. Just as Plato denounces representation and then uses a type of representation, a figure of speech, to make his argument, so too did the Medieval Church denounce the creation of images while still allowing them to proliferate. How, then, is Medieval art justified? A reconciliation lies in the 1959 article in the Encounter, which defines this period of art as figural in that it uses images to denote concepts. Medieval imagery, like Plato’s figure of the cave, instruct by referring to a higher idea. Indeed, Michael Camille counterpoises the “physical body” with its “spiritual figura” and explains that “…the sacred image could be seen as a figura or ‘figure’ pointing to a signifier beyond in a higher realm” (Camille, 23). Camille finds a similar tension within Medieval secular imagery (Fig 3), one example of which is an illustration of the following verse from the Carmina Burana, “A flower in a picture is not a flower, / just a figure; / whoever paints a flower, paints not the / fragrance of a flower” (25). Camille argues that while the figure of a flower may seem illusory, the flower’s desirability depends on this illusion. Similarly, the soul’s “thirst for God,” as St. Bernard names the devotional emotion, is dependent upon His unattainability, on the fact that we may only reach Him through our figurative illusions; the highest truth maintains its position only insofar as we are unable to reach it. Medieval thought and art, then, upholds the tension between the artificial and the exemplary within the figure, and suggests a dynamic between these two sides: the former is the only way to attempt reaching the latter, which upholds its status purely because it cannot be so tangibly grasped.

Gilles Deleuze, in “Plato and the Simulacrum,” furthers the inherent dichotomy within the figure both in his reading of Plato and in his understanding of its relevance in modern philosophy. In this essay, he seeks to perform what Nietzsche defines as the task of the philosophy of the future: to reverse Platonism. He argues that the Hegelian attempt to destroy both the world of essences and appearances does not succeed at this task. To truly reverse Platonism, one must discern its core motivation, which Deleuze identifies as the effort to “bring about the triumph of icons over simulacra” (Deleuze, 259). This is because icon-copies resemble something by resembling the idea of it, while simulacra-phantasms resemble something by resembling its surface appearance. Deleuze, then, implicitly reconciles the tension between Plato’s method and message: the icon is a suitable form of representation because it represents a concept rather than an image, just as the figure does in Plato’s use of it. Though the figure here is still understood as a copy of the form, it is further defined as functioning within the intelligible world that Plato advocates. What Plato denounces is not the figure, but a different type of representation that Deleuze introduces, the simulacrum. (Similarly, Medieval artists in some way understand graven images as simulacra and their own creations as Deleuzian icons, which may be conflated with the metaphorical side of the figure.) Deleuze asserts that: “In the reversal of Platonism, resemblance is said of internalized difference” (262). The implication is that Sameness is an illusion; even if we posit two things as the same, the fact that we are comparing two things in the first place implies that they are distinct and contained. As a result, the figure or icon, which operates by means of an internal similarity, has no place in modernity for Deleuze. He invokes, for this new age, the positive energy of the simulacrum, which “denies the original and the copy” (262). Indeed, he conceives of Pop Art as a moment in the history of art when a copy of a copy “changes its nature and is reversed into the simulacrum” (265). Artists such as James Rosenquist, Andy Warhol (Fig 4), and Tom Wesselmann incorporate and appropriate images from mass media into their art, altering and even emptying their meaning, thus evoking the nature of the simulacrum. Deleuze’ binary between the icon and the simulacrum parallels that between the figural and the figurative, for in both cases the former is engaged with ideas and the later with appearances. This distinction allows him to nullify the seeming hypocrisy in Plato and Medieval art, and to bring the term “figure” to bear on modern art, where value judgments have shifted: the material, rather than symbolic, connotation is celebrated.

Michael Fried also suggests the relation of the figure to art in the modern age and, in so doing, defines what is conventionally seen as the antithesis of the figural: the literal. Fried invokes this understanding when he explains that literalist, or minimalist, art (Fig 5) requires that the shape and the materials of the whole work must not allude to anything: “they are what they are and nothing more” (Fried, 22). In this way, the literal is clearly shown as opposed to metaphor. Literalist art also seeks to undermine anthropomorphism, which is established by the relation of parts, by instead creating a unity through the singleness of shape (15). Thus, literal may be seen as opposing to the figurative as well. Since shape is an element of objects, literalist art proclaims its objecthood (15). Literalist art, then, is almost non-art in that it denies the representational nature of art that is called attention to in the term figure. However, a literalist work’s status as an object emphasizes the viewer’s relationship to the artwork in space, in a situation (16). That literalist art depends on its inclusion of real persons suggests a hidden anthropomorphism (19). Indeed, the interest in symmetry and order is rooted in nature and the apparent hollowness suggests an inside, a secret life, both of which further the latent naturalism (19). In this way, Fried calls attention to the dichotomy between the literal on the one hand, and the figural and figurative on the other, while also suggesting the way in which this dichotomy dissolves in a modern art movement. Even when artists try to break free of the figurative, they fail.

The figural and the literal are also counterpoised in the medium of language, as suggested by the OED definition cited above. Norman Bryson complicates these two terms: the figural is connected to perception, while the literal is understood in terms of its connection to letters and language (Bryson, 6). Bryson claims that images are the meeting point of these two contrary qualities, the visual and the discursive, in the sense of discourse and reasoning (6). Bryson parallels this dichotomy with Ferdinand de Saussure’s distinction between the signifier, which is a sound-image, and the signified, which is a concept (Saussure, 66). For Bryson, the signifier is necessarily sensory and may either be purely discursive, in the case of a hieroglyph or pictogram, or purely figural, in the case of the “painterly trace,” which is most asemantic in the case of abstract expressionism (Bryson, 27). He argues that medieval art suppressed the power of the image to generate meaning, subordinating it always to the text, to the Word. The Renaissance initiated an opposite relationship, which it understood as bringing art closer to reality (7). However, Bryson defines realism as the correspondence of an image to what a society assumes as real (8). Bryson thus argues, “the poles between which the image moves are not from Text to Life, but from the textual to the painterly” (27-8). Bryson thus upholds the distinction between the visible and the intelligible and emphasizes that they are constantly at war within the figure as image.

The definitions of “figure,” “figurative,” and “figural” in the Oxford English Dictionary call attention to conflicts these terms raise within discussions of artistic and linguistic media. Something figurative is a representation, an imitation, and a pretender even. Something figural is an emblem and an ideal, that is, something that embodies an abstract concept. A figure may be both. Plato’s thought embodies this contradiction, for he sees all figures as imitations of forms, while he explicitly employs a figure of speech in order to make this claim. In this way, a figure for Plato is both a degraded copy and a potential tool through which to reach the ultimate truth. The Medieval position is in line with that of Plato: the goal is to avoid mere imitations and reach the higher truth while still using a type of representation to do so. Deleuze reconciles this paradox by distinguishing between two kinds of representation, one that imitates appearance, and one that imitates ideas, the latter of which Plato and the Church would be more comfortable with, thus justifying their use of figures. Deleuze also explains the shift of the term figurative within the realm of modern philosophy and art: the goal is to celebrate the simulacrum, which resembles without any internal similarity or any reference to a higher idea, rendering the figure as metaphor useless in modern art. Similarly, Michael Fried’s discussion on minimalism shows that both the figural and figurative are denounced in the modern age. However, he finds a latent figurative quality in literalist art that suggests that quality is inescapable. The figure, then, skirts the boundary between copy and essence and, as suggested by Medieval thought, can be seen as reconciliation of the fact that we cannot live with or without images.

Fig 1. Figure Ground Reversal.

Fig 2. Polyclitus, Doryphoros, 440 BC,
Roman copy of Greek original bronze.

Fig 3. Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, illumination in Le Roman de la Rose, 1230-1280. In this allegory of courtly love, the actual act of falling in love takes place at the fountain of Narcissus (above), where the object of desire is seen only in reflection: the suggested un-attainability of the beloved resonates with the Carmina Burana passage.

Fig 4. Andy Warhol, 16 Jackies, 1964.

Fig 5. Donald Judd, 1969.

Antonia Pocock


Boardman, John. Greek Art, Fourth Edition. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1996.

Bryson, Norman. Word and Image. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

Camille, Michael. The Medieval Art of Love. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Crane, Gregory R., ed. Perseus Digital Library Project. Tufts University. 2006. .

Deleuze, Gilles. “Plato and the Simulacrum” in The Logic of Sense. Trans. Mark Lester. New York: Columbia University Press.

“Figure,” “Figurative,” and “Figural.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford. 2006.

Fried, Michael. Art and Objecthood : Essays and Reviews. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Plato. The Republic. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959.