A Revival of the Narrative in Contemporary Art

Nicholas Forrest
Nov 17, 2012 5:38PM

It is interesting to hear what different people with different tastes in art think about the role of narrative in fine art.  For various reasons, the word "narrative" has become a sort of dirty word within the contemporary art scene.

The development of the contemporary art scene has seen the narrative become obsolete in the eyes of many artists, collectors and investors.  One of the reasons for this is that people have come to view the narrative as being indicative and representative of an indulgent and decorative approach to fine art that is somehow not "intelligent" enough and not in keeping with the complex visual language that contemporary artists seem to be obsessed with.

What has in the past been seen as a remnant of the Victorian era has, however, experienced a slow revival over the last few decades as artists once again begin to explore the role of the narrative, and as collectors and investors revisit the wonderful narrative artists of the past - in particular the Pre-Raphaelite artists who are known for their dramatic, emotionally charged and challenging approach to the narrative.

Neo Rauch is one of the great contemporary narrative painters who uses complexity and ambiguity to offer a fresh and challenging interpretation of the visual narrative. 

In Rauch's off-kilter landscape Der Rückzug (The Retreat), 2006, the affectless faces of the men, women, and children reflect a Cold War sense of imminent danger which was inspired by the memory of the artist's youth in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.John Currin is another great contemporary artist who uses the narrative to great effect in his work. 

In his masterpiece Thanksgiving, 2003, Currin presents a wonderfully humorous story of three women work together to prepare a Thanksgiving meal.Far from the innocent and purposeful imagery of the traditional narrative, Cullin uses various different artistic devices to present a rather uncomfortable and challenging interpretation of an event that is of great importance and significance to the American people.

What the work of Rauch and Currin shows is that the narrative still has a place in contemporary art as long as artists are not afraid to explore and challenge traditional perceptions.

Nicholas Forrest
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019