Narrative Art put simply tells a story, where the artist tells a story in the piece of artwork. Traditionally the Narrative Artist would make the assumption that the audience is familiar with the story he is telling, either from religion, myths or legends. In modern times, narrative art will tell a story or depict a scene from everyday life.

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

Narrative Presentation from Helen Jones

Francis Bacon

The use of narrative by Francis Bacon can be described as a contradiction in terms. Although his work tells a story, he avoids the boredom by focusing on the narrative as an activity or process rather than the narrative as a product which Bacon appears to be opposed to.

“I do not want to avoid telling a story, but I want very, very much to do the thing that Valery said – to give the sensation without the boredom of its conveyance. And the moment the story enters, the boredom comes upon you.” – Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon is deeply suspicious of narrative. For him, narrative seems to be the natural enemy of vision; it blinds. Narrative is boring because it precludes the direct actualisation of a painting via the viewer’s perception. Story-tellers are seducers, diverting the audience’s attention from what there is to see.

Bacon seems to propose an opposition between narrative as a product that can be endlessly reproduced, as re-presentation – the ‘boredom’ is inspired by the deja vu of repetition – and narrative as process, as sensation. Conveying a story implies that a pre-existing story, fictional or not, is transferred to an addressee. Narrative is then reduced to a kind of transferable message. Opposed to this ‘conveying of story’, ‘telling a story’ focuses on the activity or process of narrative. This process is not repeatable; it cannot be iterative because it takes place, it happens, whenever ‘story’ happens… Bacon’s hostility toward narrative is directed against narrative as product, as re-presentation, not against narrative as process.

Although Bacon’s paintings display many signs which traditionally signify narrativity, the same token any attempt to postulate narratives based on the paintings is countered.

Alphen, E. (1993). Francis Bacon and the loss of self. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


Tracey Emin: My Bed

My Bed made by Tracey Emin in 1998 can be described as a piece of Narrative Art, describing the scene where she lay for days after a relationship breakup.

Tracey Emin’s art is one of disclosure, using her life events as inspiration for works ranging from painting, drawing, video and installation, to photography, needlework and sculpture. Emin reveals her hopes, humiliations, failures and successes in candid and, at times, excoriating work that is frequently both tragic and humorous.emin-my-bed

Emin’s work has an immediacy and often sexually provocative attitude that firmly locates her oeuvre within the tradition of feminist discourse. By re-appropriating conventional handicraft techniques – or ‘women’s work’ – for radical intentions, Emin’s work resonates with the feminist tenets of the ‘personal as political’. In Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With, Emin used the process of appliqué to inscribe the names of lovers, friends and family within a small tent, into which the viewer had to crawl inside, becoming both voyeur and confidante. Her interest in the work of Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele particularly inform Emin’s paintings, monoprints and drawings, which explore complex personal states and ideas of self-representation through manifestly expressionist styles and themes.

Neo Rauch

Although Rauch’s paintings appear to be narrative, they can also have contradictions throughout them that can leave the audience questioning the real intent of the artwork.

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.

Rauch studied art under Arno Rink at the Art Academy in Leipzig, becoming a master-class student under Bernhard Heisig from 1986 until 1990. Following German reunification he was Heisig’s assistant at the Academy from 1993 to 1998. In 1997 Neo Rauch was awarded the art prize of the Leipziger Volkszeitung newspaper. As the euphoria surrounding the Young British Artists (championed by Charles Saatchi) abated, the international art market in the late 1990s began courting the artists of the ‘Leipzig School’. Since that time Neo Rauch has become an extremely successful German export, above all to the United States.

John Currin

The works of John Currin typically are figurative with a satirical element that highlights provocative or social themes.

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, Currin 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.


Charles Avery

A Scottish artist, born in Oban who lives in London and dedicates his work to an imaginary island.

There are few artists brave enough to play God, but Charles Avery has no problems on that score. Over the last 10 years he has been building an island and painstakingly documenting its inhabitants, landscape and cosmology in text, paint and sculpture. The premise could be straight out of Tolkien, except that Avery is much more sophisticated than that. His world is populated with mythical beasts that haunt the inhabitants’ psyche, decrying their very nature and usurping their sense of reason.

Many of the natives are addicted to the local delicacy, pickled eggs, which enslaves them to the island. Hunters in tweed jackets and shotguns search out a Kantian dichotomy while hawkers in the local flea market sell pictures of nude women for the price of peace of mind.

Lindsay Seers

Lindsay Seers who was unable to talk as a child, uses video installations and film projections to create a magical world of stories and narrative.

British artist Lindsay Seers endows her work with a touch of magic. Her video installations transport the viewer to a cacophonous wonderland inhabited by shamans, fortune-tellers, transgender ventriloquists, and people with strange medical conditions, where multiple narrative voices and film projections dissolve all sense of anchorage. In her 2012 work Nowhere Less Now, a historical photograph of Seers’s seafaring great-great-uncle George triggers an odyssey across generations and geographies, featuring blood sacrifice, Zanzibari slave trade, and Victorian secret societies, interwoven with themes of identity, memory, and veracity.

“It’s as if a whole universe could unfold from a photograph,” says Seers in her North London studio. “It was this idea of the mythology of a photograph.”

David Salle

Print Maker, Stage Designer and Painter.

While there has always been a narrative thread in my work, as there is in almost all painting–even abstract painting–I’ve generally tried to keep it autonomous to and within the painting. I’ve wanted to illuminate a pathway rather than illustrate a story. In the past, if I were to use an image of a glass of water, for instance, I would try to make a new connection to some not water images.

When I was young, I didn’t want to be understood too quickly, though I realized that sometimes you just end up concealing rather than revealing yourself. Now those kinds of more literal, narrative connections wouldn’t faze me. I might even find them reassuring. Still, this is the first time I’ve consciously kept a family of images tied together, like spokes in a wheel. The challenge here was to develop a correspondence among the emotional, narrative, and thematic lines of the subject matter and the formal considerations that generally occupy me–how to, for example, connect images of Hurricane Katrina from the New York Times to the Michelangelo scenes. It was interesting to see that doing this didn’t kill the painting; it didn’t kill the art. We live in a moment that is so crisis-laden that biblical or apocalyptic metaphors seem appropriate–and the scale seems right–whereas in another time they might have felt preposterous.

David Salle


Nathanial Mellors

Douglas Gordon


«24 Hour Psycho»
Realistically, no one can watch the whole of 24 Hour Psycho, which consists of Alfred Hitchcock’s film «Psycho» (1960) slowed down so that a single, continuous viewing lasts for twenty-four hours. While we can experience narrative elements in it (largely through familiarity with the original), the crushing slowness of their unfolding constantly undercuts our expectations, even as it ratchets up the idea of suspense to a level approaching absurdity.
(source: Russell Ferguson, «Trust Me,» in: Douglas Gordon, Cambridge/MA, 2001, p. 16.)


Bill Viola


The Crossing undermines our notion of video as fast-paced, easily understood, and narrative. To describe the video is not just to spoil the “plot”—it really has none—but, more importantly, to trivialize the experience.

Suffice it to say that Viola uses slow motion and sound to confront and challenge viewers to reconsider instances of metaphysical transformation. In short, Viola employs this new age medium of figuration and sound to investigate the question of human mortality and resilience—issues that have preoccupied artists through the ages.

Matthew Barney

Kara Walker

Darkytown Rebellion, 2001

Installation view at Brent Sikkema, New York
Projection, cut paper and adhesive on wall, 14 x 37 1/2 feet

Light Projections

Charles Chetwynd

Neo Narratives Essay

For many neo-narrationists, analysis of their own narration is clearly a major concern. At its simplest level, the re-purposing of narrative vehicles necessitates at least some critical comparison with the original’s intended function, whether undertaken explicitly by the artist or those engaging in the work itself.

Other Narrative Artists

The following narrative artists were also discussed as part of our seminar with Helen.

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