Representation: A Continuum from the Real Object to Abstraction

Chart #1: A General Scheme
representational:
looks recognizably similar to something in the real world
------------------> 
       [abstraction]
increasingly moves away from the naturalistic image although it is still somewhat identifiable
non-representational: the origins of the composition and image are not in the real world; some abstraction (objective) does not appear to be representational but is

Some words which describe the relationship of visible content to degrees of representation:

representational, figurative
naturalistic: one of the most representational forms of art
realistic, realism: often less "real" than naturalism although still highly representational
real (some art uses real content and experiences; the art work, of course, is also real, even if the image in the painting is not)
non-representational, non-objective
abstract
idealized
stylized
 
Hans Holbein, the younger: Erasmus of Rotterdam, ca. 1523--note the amount of detail used in the carved column in the background, in the robe worn by Erasmus, and the book his hands rest on. This painting is representational and naturalistic.  Raphael: The Betrothal of the Virgin, 1504. The naturalism in this painting comes from the illusion of deep space leading back to the church; the figures are less naturalistic than the treatment of space or building. We probably would not call the painting realist since the scene is not taken from real life.
Courbet: Burial at Ornans, 1849.  This painting falls into the realist movement of the 19th century.  As a realist painting, it is also naturalistic but not to the same degree that the Holbein painting is.  The distinction between realism and naturalism is subtle--but the realist painting, unlike the naturalist painting, generally has some meaning that goes beyond the immediately visible content. Magritte: The Betrayal of Images, 1928-9.  Magritte's painting is a commentary about the relationship of the image in the painting to the real object, about the nature of the artistic illusion.  Calling it realist or naturalist is almost useless, given his message.
Hanson: Woman with a Dog, 1977.  The art work is not the photograph here but the woman and the dog.  When the object looks so real, we begin to confuse representation with reality.  That, of course, was the point that Magritte was making in his painting. Perhaps Hanson makes it even better with this sculpture. Rogier van der Weyden: Portrait of a Lady, ca1460.  Certainly this is naturalistic in the sense of flesh, the texture of the materials, the face and hair, but idealized is probably a better description, as the composition is carefully planned to give a message about this woman and ideals of women in Flemish society. 

The Naturalism/Realism/Abstraction Continuum: Chart #2

naturalistic: fully representaional realistic: may include subjective elements stylized, idealized or semi-abstract: continues to be representational but the subject is manipulated in some way objective abstraction: based on a subject although we might not recognize it or know it non-objective abstraction: artist begins without reference to an existing subject, making color and form his or her priority

 
Rosa Bonheur: The Horse Fair, 1853 (naturalism or realism -- there is a subjective quality to this, although the horses are very naturalistically painted) Franz Marc: Large Blue Horses, 1911 (semi-abstract, primarily because of the colors and some simplification of the horses' bodies)
Deborah Butterfield: Jerusalem Horse 5, 1980 (semi-abstract: we still recognize this as a horse but our attention is drawn to the materials and the contrast between them and the nature of a live horse) Theo van Doesburg: Study for Composition (The Cow), 1917 (objective abstraction, despite the difficulty in recognizing the cow which most people don't get unless they see the sequence of studies used by Doesburg)

Abstract, idealized, and stylized are sometimes used to mean the same thing: a process of simplifying or standardizing a real object in some way, such that the representation no longer looks naturalistic.  All three words do imply that the image began with a representation.  We should probably limit the use of abstraction to art work done in the 19th and 20th centuries, because that was the goal of the artists.  Earlier artists who stylized or idealized their art were often trying to capture a spiritual, religious, or iconic essence of their subject.  Sometimes stylization results from the materials used in the art work, because some textures or qualities of materials lend themselves to certain forms more easily than to others.  Sometimes it results from a conscious decision to emphasize one feature of an object more than another, often for symbolic reasons.  Stylization and idealization often refer to processes that emerge during certain cultures or periods. This means that a lot of art from a single period may be "stylized" in the same way (what we usually refer to as a "period style.").  Abstraction may characterize a period or movement as well but at the same time, it is a more individualized process, such that the degree and type of abstraction often serves as a clue to the artist's individual style.
 

Jackson Pollock: detail from No. 1A (1948): non-representational, unless we believe that Pollock is representing an idea about the unconscious; even then, the unconscious has no recognizable form or image
middle and late stages in Theo van Doesburg's sequence of abstraction of the image of the cow (this is not stylized or idealized; it is unlikely that any other painting of a cow would look like this one)
Virgin and Child, Auvergne region of France, ca 1200 (stylized in according to religious symbolism associated with Mary and according to the sculptural style of the French Romanesque period) Picasso: Portrait of Ambrose Vollard, 1909/10.  Objective abstraction: you can make out the man in the painting and there is a surprising resemblance to what he looked like. Gentileschi: Self-portrait (La Pittura), 1630. Idealized using the iconic symbol of Painting, always shown as a woman, but a woman in this case who also looks like Artemisia, which means this is also naturalistic.

In almost all cases, naturalism in art conforms to certain ideas about what things should look like and how to represent them.  In other words, almost all art is stylized (and therefore abstract) in some way, to some degree, and for some reason. Recall that one of the goals of the Fauves was the creation of a "new naturalism" on the assumption that naturalism was already stereotyped and not true to nature. Recognizing the degree of abstraction and the reasons for abstraction is probably the key to understanding the artist's goals and meaning.

Test yourself: where does Kandinsky fall on chart #2? Can you answer this question without choosing a particular painting -- is the answer the same for his paintings from his landscape period and from his period of compositions?