Art In History Art Blog
It is arguable that, as artists, one of our primary goals is to produce a reflection of what we understand as reality. If we are artists working in the Western Tradition, or simply raised in it, we are heirs to 600 years of realism. Though much Western art in the last 100 years has rejected this tradition, it is still a very powerful force. Whether it is a photorealist like Tennett, or the pervasive legacy of the impressionists, art dedicated to reflecting the real world is everywhere. But there are lots of choices, because there is no single definition of what is real.
The strongest thread since Renaissance times had been to define reality as the world as it appears to us from a certain viewpoint. With the invention of mechanical perspective and foreshortening, Renaissance artists were able to to create a convincing illusion of the world as it appears to our eyes a stunning leap forward from previous depictions of the world. Within a century, Caravaggio had upped the stakes by forcing that reality out from behind the picture plane, invading our space and demanding an immediate and visceral reaction. The power of these images is that we as viewers are necessarily involved whether passively as spectators or actively as participants, because the image is shown to us through our own eyes. Art based on the camera is the logical extension of this definition, because the camera is a surrogate eye, our eye.
It is hard for us to remember how many other definitions of reality there can are. We can see them in the choices artists have made throughout art history; but we no longer think of them as "realistic". Students being exposed to past artistic traditions often assume that artists have been "trying to be realistic" but failing, when they were in fact practicing a kind of realism we no longer understand.
Before the advent of Renaissance naturalism, the most pervasive approach to representation was what has been called "essential realism". This is what we see in painting and relief sculpture form Egypt and Assyria to the far east. There is no notion of limiting the image to the depiction of a single viewpoint; instead, the most essential elements of the subject are combined to create its "most real" totality. The Egyptian depiction of Torus is a good example: it combines the most characteristic shapes of the foot, the leg, the torso, the shoulders and the head, some which we would see in a side view, others in a frontal view. The "head on" eye in a profile face is a perfect paradigm of the approach: the canine head can only be "really" described in profile; the eye is only most real from the front. It is interesting to see Picasso revisiting this approach by putting two fullface eyes in a profile head.
Another challenge to our concept of the real is found in the approach seen in ethnic art from around the world, notably in African Masks. This approach has sometimes been called "magical realism". The artist is not content to "represent" his subject, he wants to embody it, to give it a vessel or a home. The mask "is" the spirit it depicts, much as the bread and wine of the Eucharist are the body and blood of Christ. Of course, since this goes beyond what science can understand or verify, it is labelled superstition and dismissed...but the power of the masks are undeniable. I find an echo in works by artists like Klee.
But the Western tradition itself is by no means monolithic in its definition of reality. For Plato, who can be seen as the father of all our philosphy, the visible world is far from real; it is like shadows projected on the wall of a cave. Each physical instance of an object like a tree, or a person, is just an imperfect approximation of the reality, the essential tree or man. This "idealism", which values the paradigm above the individual instance, led to the strong classical core which runs through western art.
In the Renaissance itself we see the conflict between the individual or ideosyncratic, represented by the art of the north, and the ideal, championed by Italian art. Both traditions are infected with the new fascination with observed reality, but in the north this fascination raises the love of the particular to a level not acceptable to Italian artists like Leonardo, who thought they were wonderful in detail, but had not concept of what was important and what was trivial.
In the 19th century was see other competing definitions of the real arise to challenge the established tradition. One is "social realism", which basis its challenge less on artistic approach than on subject matter. To a social realist like Courbet, the most "realistic" depictions by David or Ingres are simply out of touch with "the real world". If you are depicting gods and heroes, then you have no right to call your work realistic.
The impressionists, notably Monet, came up with yet another radical challenge to the realistic tradition, based on the new understanding of perception, of the mechanics of vision. To an impressionist, our first unspoiled perception is the truest, before it becomes contaminated by interpretation based on habit and experience. It may not be "Reality" with a capital "R", but it is as close as we can come with our eyes. The visible world is impulses of color and light; we only "think" it is a tree. In fact, we think it INTO a tree, in our mind.
At this same time the camera came into its own, coloring the way we see, and leading ultimately to the emergence of photorealism. It certainly confirmed the underlying assumption of the world seen from a point of view; the camera, like the eye itself, is by definition tied to a point of view. But as we use this wonderful tool, lets try not to forget all the other definitions of reality which wait for our attention.