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

Note: this is the second part of a blog post I published a month ago, you can find it here ...

The Realist Movement

The artistic movement of Realism began in France in the 1850s. It was a counter-movement to Romanticism that was at its peak from around 1800 - 1850. While Romanticism was characterized by exaggerated emotions and fantastical subjects, often glorifying nature and creating a dreamed-of version of the past, the aim of the Realists was to portray real life and contemporary people as truthful and accurate as they could. Realism first and foremost referred to certain themes and how they are depicted and not so much to the technique that was used to create the painting. Romanticists may also painted 'realistically' in that they tried to create the illusion of their imagined settings being real (see the first part of this article and the problem of realism), but the content of their images had no footing in reality.


From left to right: Jean-François Millet's painting The Gleaners from 1857 depicts three peasant women gleaning a field of stray stalks of wheat after the harvest, while Honoré Daumier's The Third-Class Carriage from around 1862 shows the traveling conditions of a carriage for the lower classes. Both pictures depict common people and their conditions of working and living.

From left to right: Adolph Menzel's Eisenwalzwerk from around 1875 takes a look into the working conditions of an early-industrial age factory. Max Liebermann's Free Period in the Amsterdam Orphanage from around 1882 gives a glimpse into the daily routine of some of the weakest members of society. In fact Liebermann's picture caused so much uproar in Prussian society because of him showing such common people in a painting, that from there on he was known as 'The Painter Of The Ugly'. One might be surprised about this, when you look into the early Flemish and Dutch art and their representation of the peasant class. It seems that between the 17th - 19th century sensitivities had dramatically shifted towards the idealized.

From left to right two examples of Realim's predecessor the Romanticist movement: Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson's Ossian receiving the Ghosts of the French Heroes from around 1802 and Thomas Cole's Childhood from 1842. The former glorifies, idealizes and romanticizes the death of war heroes, the latter shows an idealized landscape to symbolize the innocent and pure past of childhood - too much false emotions for the Realists.

The Illusionistic Representation: Mimesis

We have seen that there are two ways to look at realism in painting. One is taking the subjects and themes of a painting and another is the technique, the way the elements in the painting are crafted and represented. Although the romanticists painted their subjects 'realistically', meaning they were painted in such a way to evoke the feeling within the viewer that what he sees could be real or even plausible, their themes were not. As we have seen with Margritte's famous pipe, there is no 'real' in a visual representation of any kind. There is only the illusion of real. Therefore the style of the technique of painting as-if-real, could be called an Illusionistic Representation or Mimesis, from the ancient Greek word for imitation, because it tries to imitate the properties of reality.
When Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston published their book on animation in 1981, they called it The Illusion Of Life, because their goal was to create animation that made the audience feel as if the fictional characters truly were alive. Similarly a painter who draws in a realistic style wants the viewer to feel like he is seeing something that is or could exist.

Back To The Future: Symbolism

Before the Realist movement, there was no clear distinction between art that represents or art that stylizes. Art always had to represent, whether it was something fictional or based on authenticity. Once the distinction between the ideal and the evident was created though, camps began to form around both. After the Realist movement came Symbolism which was a sort of counter-movement in that it picked up elements of Romanticism and merged it with some of the ideas of Realism. It also questioned Realism by asking if what is perceived and experienced is all there is or if there is truth and meaning beneath what can be seen. By purposefully falling back to the fantastical and using elements of mythology and dreams, the Symbolists ultimately paved the way for breaking up the dictate of the Illusionistic Representation and summoned new forms of expression into life.

From left to right: Pierre Puvis de Chavanne's Poor Fisherman from the 1880s includes a hidden meaning besides his subject, while Eugen Bracht's Shore Of Oblivion from 1889 (notice the skulls littered on the beach) and Arnold Böcklin's Island Of Death from 1883 take landscape and give it a mood that appeals to a feeling that there is more to what we are seeing. Odilon Redon's Cyclops  from 1898 is a messenger of things to come, when expression and subjective experience becomes more important than idealized visions.

In the upcoming part I will look deeper into the art movements of the second half of the 19th century that took their lessons from Romanticism, Realism and Symbolism and rejected all of them to create something revolutionary new and modern. Stay tuned and please leave a comment, I would like to know your thoughts on this!


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