The term “representative art” refers to artwork that depicts something that most people can recognize from the real world. From prehistoric to modern times, realistic art has dominated the history of visual arts for the most part. Non-representational art is the polar opposite of representational art, as it lacks a realistic, recognizable subject.
The Mona Lisa Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo’s sculpture David are examples of representational art. The artists were careful to capture the specific details of the human face and figure in these works, which are fairly true-to-life. Pablo Picasso’s work was mostly representational, despite being abstract. Many of Picasso’s paintings have eyes and noses that are on the wrong side of the face, but the human figure is still recognizable.
Beginning with cave paintings and small figurines created prehistoric humans, art with recognizable subject matter has always been the preferred form. Representational art was created in Egypt, and it reached its pinnacle in ancient Greece, when human figure sculptures were prized for their realism. The Greek tradition of realistic art was carried on the Romans.
Art was still representational during the Middle Ages, but it was more abstract. Following that, with the Renaissance period, realism rose to prominence once more. During the Renaissance, painting began to mature as an art form, and one of the most significant achievements was the theory of linear perspective, which is a system of rendering objects in space based on how the human eye sees. Straight lines converge in the distance in linear perspective, and objects in the distance are smaller than objects in the foreground. Renaissance artists were able to depict buildings with a high degree of accuracy thanks to the use of perspective.
The historical dominance of art with recognized subject matter has one notable exception. Some Islamic calligraphy, or decorative writing, from the 15th century resembles non-representational art from today. A comparison of these calligraphic works to the paintings of Piet Mondrian, a 20th century artist, reveals some striking similarities.
Non-representational art became popular in the twentieth century thanks to Modernism, and it peaked with the Abstract Expressionist movement in the United States in the late 1940s. The Abstract Expressionists were only interested in line, shape, and color, and not in depicting anything from reality. Jackson Pollock’s work is perhaps the most famous example of this type of art. He’d lay his canvases out on the studio floor and drip layer after layer of paint on them. Pollock’s paintings were devoid of not only recognizable subject matter, but also of a focal point.