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Friday, June 3, 2011

Capital "R" Realism

Much has been made over the years about the "death" of Abstract Expressionism. Perhaps a few words need to be devoted to it's opposite, Realism (with a capital "R"). Today the term is next to meaningless in that it is used as a shorthand expression for everything from photo-realism to the work of Kinkaid and Bob Ross. And while they all owe some degree of decendency from Realism, they are pretty far removed from what the original movement was and what it meant.       

The Stone Breakers, 1849, Gustave Courbet
Originally, Realism was a reactionary movement to counter rampant Rococo-ism and, Romanticism, Classicism, Academism, and any other "ism" that dealt with anything other than the plight of the everyday man in his colorless everyday life.  Today, all of these would probably be called realism (with a small "r"). But to the founders of this movement, Gustave Courbet and Honore' Daumier, Realism was not so much a style of painting as a philosophy (what was painted, rather than how). Their battle with the French art establishment was over subject matter rather than painting technique. As was the case with most artists who broke with the official Academic art, their work was shunned by juries and the public. Courbet's paintings, such as the Stone-Breakers of 1849, which featured the laboring, faceless figures of an old man and adolescent boy, was criticized severly by critics who preferred mythological or idealistic subjects.  Daumier's The Third-Class Wagon of 1862, depicting the common rail transportation of the era, received similar treatment.

The Third-Class Wagon, 1862, Honre' Daumier
Strangely, Courbet considered his work more "realistic" than the academic style because it dealt with "real" life.  In fact, stylistically, just the opposite was true. The Academic style was very near to what we would call photo-realism today, denying any surface texture, and concerned only with natural, illusionistic space, light, and appearances.  Courbet's painting technique involved rich, creamy applications of thick paint, often with a palette knife, in what was to forshadow stylistically the work of the Impressionists, even though his color choices were quite traditional, utilizing muted browns, greens, and blues. Yet ironically, perhaps because of his advanced age, Courbet was to have nothing to do with the young, upstart Impressionists, and in fact, hated the work of the real precursor of Impressionism, Edouard Manet.

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