How the Art of Painting liberated itself from Photorealism - Part One

Originally I intended this article to go differently. My first thought of a headline for this blog post was the following:

"How Photography liberated the Art of Painting"

My main idea behind this was the premise that since Photography could make better reproductions of reality, the art of painting did not have to deliver to the demand of making a copy of reality. I thought about this approach for a while and came to the conclusion, that this actually was not true. When Photography started out, it was not technologically advanced for a very long time and therefore could not replace the sharpness and vividness of a good painting yet.

From left to right: this daguerreotype of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris from 1938/39 is one of the first photographs ever. One of Photography's first great usage were portraits like this re-discovered tintype from around 1880 showing Billy the kid. The quality of photographs only started to increase slowly. Color photography became possible as shown in this 1903 photo by Sarah Angelina Acland but was not widely practiced until the 1930s when Eastman Kodak mass produced the first color film.

Then it dawned on me: it was not the technology of Photography itself that changed the art of painting in the first hundred years since its invention, but it were the artists themselves that did so by starting to make use of photographic reference for their art on one hand and by adapting and foreseeing the development of things to come on the other. 

From left to right: a portrait of a young woman from the lid of a mummy casket from Egypt dating to to the first century. The merchant Georg Gisze in a painting by Hans Holbein the younger from 1532. Gustave Courbet paints Jo, the beautiful Irish girl in about 1865. All of these portraits are trying to depict the persons with a sense of realism, to show their likeness as true to nature as possible.

What is Realism and what is Stylization in the visual arts?

Before we go any further I would first and foremost like to get a good definition of what Realism is supposed to mean in the visual arts and where its limits and possibilities lie. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines Realism as the accurate, detailed, unembellished depiction of nature or of contemporary life. It also tries to avoid  the depiction of fictional subjects or supernatural elements.

This seems to be pretty self-explanatory: a painter or a drawer tries to reproduce that which he sees as it appears to him in reality, avoiding artistic conventions respectively without any Stylization or, as it is commonly spoken of, not in any kind of artistic Style. 

Stylization is the opposite of Realism or as Wikipedia defines it: Stylization refers to visual depictions that use simplified ways of representing objects or scenes that do not attempt a full, precise and accurate representation of their visual appearance, preferring an attractive or expressive overall depiction.

From left to right: The Uffington White Horse is a stylized representation of a real horse, the mask from Gabon in Africa stylizes the likeness of a human face, Homer Simpson is a stylized representation of a middle-aged bald man in a white polo-shirt eating a donut (though we would have to explore in how far a caricature deviates from style and makes up a category of its own).

The Problem with Realism:

Realism has the wonderful capacity of looking into the world in all its detail: whether a peasant wears old tatters, a mariner has a weathered storm-ridden face or a seamstress wields old wrinkly hands, it will all be shown in its harsh faithfulness and not brushed over by some generalization of form, line and color.

Ilya Repin's The Barge Haulers from around 1870 does not leave out any details of the condition the men are in: their clothes are in rags, sometimes torn or stitched together, their postures and their faces give us a sense of the hard labor they have to endure day in and out and the poverty they live in.

At the same time Realism in the visual arts in its claim to depict reality in its truest form runs into a huge problem: while reality and, what we call, real life plays out on a four dimensional stage of space and time, Realism tries to capture its essence in a two dimensional medium. No matter how hard an artist tries, his creation ultimately will not come alive and walk off the canvas, nor will it be able to capture all the properties of natural form, light, texture and color. Therefore any depiction of reality in a two dimensional medium will have to adhere to certain rules of representation of the particular medium that is being used. Realism in and of itself might be called a sort of Style, the Style of Realism or a stylized naturalness, whatever sounds more pleasing or appropriate.

The famous pipe by Surrealist painter René Margritte in his image called The Treachery of Images from 1929. The French text reads as "This is not a pipe", referring to the fundamental problem of picture making: The pipe shown here is not the object itself, but a depiction of that object, hence not-a-pipe.

Basically we have to say: all artistic endeavors to depict reality in any sort of medium are prone to fail, as every representations of reality ultimately will remain just that. But a work of art, like a painting, can be a resemblance of things in the real world and therefore by memory and reminding evoke feelings in the viewer that are real.

In the upcoming part I will look deeper into art movements of the second half of the 19th century and how they approached this problem of Realism. Stay tuned and please leave a comment, I would like to know your thoughts on this!