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Art Movements in Art History - Realism

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Introduction to Realism*

Modernity has come to mean the search for a personal rather than a collective style. In this respect, Realism, in mid-19th century France, can be seen as the origin of Modernism, the concept which has informed 20th century art up to the 1970s. "The enduring ethic of modern artists since Courbet," notes Elsen, has been "fidelity to one's own experience, and constant empirical search for equivalents in art to the life of the senses, intellect and feeling".

With the advent of Realism, art questioned its own character, objectives, means and processes, materials and relationship to life. Modernity - and by definition, modern artists - has sought to define a personal rather than a collective style. Once this core premise of Modernism is comprehended, it helps to explain the arguments against "style" as the key characteristic defining late 19th and 20th century art movements. The radical questioning evident in the work of all major artists after about 1850, and the overt proclamation of individualism in art, mean that neat definitions of art movements such as Realism, Impressionism and Postimpressionism must be read with great suspicion.

Realism was never a formal movement as such, but rather an attitude to life and art. Its most flamboyant exponent was the extrovert Gustave Courbet whose disregard for convention defined his life style and his painting. Courbet was concerned with the appearance of the real, external world, with concrete information and facts that could be verified empirically.

Courbet painted the world as he saw it; in according a primary role to visual perception rather than to the imaginative manipulation of forms, he forced artists and spectators to question the functions, subject matter and themes of art, and methods employed in visual representation. This in itself does not sound innovatory today, but it must be seen in the context of the 19th century when Classicism and Romanticism comprised the two mainstream styles and theories. Although these two philosophies were directly opposed on many issues, each looked to themes from the past for subjects of major figure paintings. Visual facts in both were at the service of accepted modes of depiction of form and were consciously organised to convey allegorical, moral, literary or historical messages.

Any consideration of Realism demands some terminological clarification, for realism and Realism carry different implications. Pre-nineteenth century realists painted scenes of country people and the lower classes without idealisation; they depicted real life in a naturalistic manner. "Realism" of the 19th century differs from the realism of Vermeer, de Hoogh or Caravaggio inconographically, iconologically and stylistically. "Realism" of the 19th century was concerned with philosophic and social issues, not just with rendering a percept.

Classifying art into styles and art movements is fraught with difficulties. But if we accept that, as Elsen suggests, "the search for a personal rather than a collective style" is the hallmark of Modernism, then it is possible to accommodate such individual artists as Courbet, Daumier (1808-1879) and Manet (1832-1883) in the category of Realists. Within the broad classification, it has to be noted that Daumier produced work which is romantic in theme and that Manet created paintings which are Impressionist in technique. Even Courbet, who regarded himself as the leader of the Realist school of painting, developed from the Romantic tradition and painted many works which are naturalistic, not Realist studies. And then there is the problem of where to place Millet (1814-1875). Should he be called a Realist, or a member of the Barbizon School?

The thrust of this argument is that definitions of art must be framed with due regard to the premises of logic. Classification according to "style", for example, might not correlate with the iconography or the technique. In addition, when modern art (or post-1850 art) is studied, one must concede that the tempo of life is increasing - information is more readily accessible to more people more quickly than ever before, society is in flux politically and economically, and art styles and movements overlap and coexist. All this complicates the web of influences and cross-currents of ideas which prevail in society and fertilise art statements.

Realism originated with a challenge to the artistic status quo. Courbet's painting, Burial at Ornans (1849-1850) depicts a rural funeral. More than 45 citizens of Ornans, including the artist's relatives, are depicted in a sombrely coloured painting. In what way can this genre scene challenge convention or offend middle-class society? At the Salon of 1850 to 1851 it did both. The work is 314 by 663 centimetres in scale and the figures are rendered life-size. This is no trivial event or sentimental scene of death and mourners. The rural lower bourgeoisie are given stature and status, and the facts of life and death are neither idealised nor glamorised. The dignity, not of mankind in general, but of ordinary people in particular is to be acknowledged. The painting occupies the whole field of vision. It generated heated critical discussion because it could not be ignored physically, and because of its social implications at a time when the limited franchise in France was being debated: to some middle-class sensibilities the painting was a socialist document stating the rights of the lower classes. The social implications of the paintings Courbet executed at this period (1850)
manifest a characteristic which assumes importance in a working definition of Realism. As
differentiated from realism, Realism possesses a component of social criticism generated by
looking at real life.

Courbet defined himself as a Realist in 1850, when he said:

"I am not only a socialist but also a democrat and a republican; in brief I support the
entire revolution, and above all else I am altogether a Realist because to be Realist
means to be the sincere friend of actual truth."

Courbet used the term again in 1855, in the catalogue to his rebellious private exhibition. He claimed that the term had been thrust upon him, but he obviously found it useful; it confirmed his belief that "... painting can consist only in the representation of objects visible and tangible to the artist".

Realist painting was provocative because it dealt with issues pertinent to society at the time the artworks were created. Courbet painted life in mid-century France, not scenes of peasant life which could be witnessed in any country at any time in history. Both Courbet and Manet believed it was essential that an artist be of his own time. This did not imply a denial of history or tradition; but it did charge the artist to look critically at the society, norms and conventions of the present.

Courbet took cognisance of mid-19th century France, unstable politically, in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, and experiencing untrammelled urban growth. Like his older contemporary, Daumier, he sought subject matter which would make spectators question society and the aspirations of humankind. Like his younger contemporary, Manet, but to a far lesser extent, Courbet sought pictorial means that would cause the spectator to question the identity of painting itself and, through this very enquiry, the relationship of art to life.

Next: Realist Art in Context >>

* Drawn from notes compiled by M. Arnold for the University of South Africa | Contact Us | List Your Art | List Your Art Gallery | Site Map

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