Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What is Realism?

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Recently someone on Facebook posed the question "What is Realism?" That kind of a question usually provokes fighting among commentors and is a thread I would ignore precisely because of that circumstance.  However, a quick scan of the comments happily revealed that they  were all civil, thoughtful, and intelligent replies, though the opinions expressed varied greatly. So I stuck with the thread for a while, fascinated by what I read.

That prompted me to consider the question to see how I defined realism. 

One of the issues that faces our society is the deconstruction of language. It used to be that words had specific, agreed upon definitions. We all knew what we meant, and we understood the meaning of statements we heard or read. Not so today. Language is much more fluid and individuals and groups routinely re-define words to suit social, political, religious, artistic, and a myriad of other agendas.  Controlling the language, controlling the narrative and re-defining words has become a major battle ground in our public, academic and civic life. A deconstructed language instead of a shared language is something that divides us rather than unites us. It makes communication difficult and often deliberately serves to deceive people by using familiar words in newly defined ways people may not yet understand. So if defining an artistic movement was tricky business 50 or 75 years ago it's much, much harder today.

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So why should you care? Well, there is really no pressing reason why you should care what *I* think realism is, other than perhaps you're curious. Since different people and groups within the art world will define realism in different ways two things are needed by the artist. First, to have a general working knowledge of the most common ways realism is defined by art historians (and don't think for a moment you're going to find consensus there!). Second, the artist needs to define realism for his or her self. This is important because it will help you understand your own work and whether it aligns with any of the definitions of realism or pushes against it. Understanding your own work is always the artist's first priority and has more to do with creative growth, unique, authentic expression and artistic excellence than anything else an artist does.

Wikipedia is always a good place to start.....

Realism in the visual arts and literature is the general attempt to depict subjects as they are considered to exist in third person objective reality, without embellishment or interpretation and "in accordance with secular, empirical rules."  As Ian Watt states, modern realism "begins from the position that truth can be discovered by the individual through the senses" and as such "it has its origins in Descartes and Locke, and received its first full formulation by Thomas Reid in the middle of the eighteenth century."

This from  ArtHistory.net

Realism emerged in the art world in the 19th century in Europe. Artists moved away from the Age of Reason of the 18th century to a new need for creating art with historical and realistic accuracy. According to Honour and Fleming, the moderate painters of France were known as the juste milieu, or the happy medium. They painted in a style that “demanded detaillocal color in a literary as well as in an artistic sense – and detail rendered with illusionistic veracity; the button-hole of a cloak, the pommel of a dagger.”

From the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History at The Met, (perhaps a bit more authoritative than Wiki ! )
The Realist movement in French art flourished from about 1840 until the late nineteenth century, and sought to convey a truthful and objective vision of contemporary life. Realism emerged in the aftermath of the Revolution of 1848 that overturned the monarchy of Louis-Philippe and developed during the period of the Second Empire under Napoleon III. As French society fought for democratic reform, the Realists democratized art by depicting modern subjects drawn from the everyday lives of the working class. Rejecting the idealized classicism of academic art and the exotic themes of Romanticism, Realism was based on direct observation of the modern world. In keeping with Gustave Courbet's statement in 1861 that "painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist in the representation of real and existing things," Realists recorded in often gritty detail the present-day existence of humble people, paralleling related trends in the naturalist literature of Émile Zola, HonorĂ© de Balzac, and Gustave Flaubert. The elevation of the working class into the realms of high art and literature coincided with Pierre Proudhon's socialist philosophies and Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto, published in 1848, which urged a proletarian uprising. 

So What does this All Mean for Defining realism?  

First, I think it's important to remember that realism developed in a specific time in reaction to specific circumstances. Like all art movements and "isms", realism is art from and for a certain time. Technically, none of us can be a realist painter in the strictest sense because we don't live in the right time period. A broader definition of realism that identifies characteristics of realism is more helpful in that way. 

I highlighted in red above some of the defining characteristics of realism.


depicts it subject objectively without embellishment or interpretation 
it follows secular, empirical rules
Truth is discovered through the senses
realism demands detail 
uses local color
detailed rendering
illusionistic veracity
depicts modern subjects, everyday life, working class people
rejects classical idealization
rejects romantic themes
can only represent real and existing things

According to those criteria above I'm not really a painter of realism. My work always contains interpretation of the subject, it follows spiritual rules not secular rules, things I may see with my mind's eye or spirit not only what I see with my physical eyes. I often simplify and generalize rather than describe in detail, my color can be interpretive or symbolic, my rendering is usually simplified not detailed, I may seek to convey and illusion of truth but that may not always be my highest priority, my subjects tend to be universal and timeless rather than modern, I only occasionally depict everyday life and rarely figures, while I'm not prone to classical idealization I wholeheartedly embrace Romantic themes, and I represent the, spiritual, emotional, and intuitive realities behind the surface of real and existing things. 

So how has this little exercise helped me? I understand more clearly that my own art is something other than what is historically considered realism. In my own definition, which is very broad, I am a realist painter. By that I simply mean that I am not an abstract painter, and that the subject matter I choose as a vehicle for expression is recognizable to my viewer.  More importantly, when I consider the list above I know that the realism described above is not a direction that I want to move towards, and that I need to look to other schools of art and other "isms" for inspiration. 

This also helps me clarify where my work is going and how my art practice is going to develop. There are today a number of painters that I admire very much. They are committed to working from life, outdoors, meticulously observing and painting exactly what they see, especially as that relates to value, color and size/proportion. 
However, I don't see myself going in that direction. Once more I will be revisiting the impressionists, and especially the American take on the impressionism that came over from France in the late 19th century. The Pennsylvania School, Rockport, Cape Anne, Edgar Payne and some of the western and California Impressionists too, will be sources of inspiration for me. 


Rettakat said...

Fascinating post! You've broken down a complicated topic and explained it so well... I really appreciate that. I feel like I gained several new insights. Also, it adds quite a new spin to what I've read over at James Gurney's blog. He calls his art approach "imaginative realism". http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/2009/09/why-i-wrote-imaginative-realism.html

Thank you!
PS: Whatever you call your "style", I love it.

Jan Blencowe said...

Hi Rettakat, Thanks for joining in and leaving a comment. Yes indeed, what do you call a paintings style that depicts unreal things (like dinosaurs, or faeries, or zombies) in such a way as to make them seem as if they are real and could exist in our world? James Gurney has a good answer "imaginative realism". I guess my point of this blog post was that the academic definition of "realism" is tied to a certain time and circumstances in history. And since time marches on and more history both geo-political and artistic has happened since the birth of "realism", the definition will necessarily need to expand. Since the challenge to realist painters from the modern art community usually goes along the lines of "that's been done before,it's passe, it's derivative, it's just technical skill, it' not original enough, who needs it now that we have cameras, it doesn't allow room for personal expression, realism isn't relevant, too plebeian, not deep enough etc. etc" I'm wondering what can define realism in the 21st century, how will living artists grab hold of the realist tradition and make it new for the present and the future, and what defense can be made for the importance of the continuation of realism in art against the criticisms I listed above. If an artist paints realism in any form I think they should think through these issues and have a sound understanding of the kind of art the4y make and why it it valid.