There are two ways to address realism and arguably each of the two could still be relevant and relatable to the contemporary state of the art. In more general terms, realism is a matter of technique, as it aims to represent the subject matter in an accurate (realistic) manner, in a visual language devoid of stylization, abstraction or caricature. However, from today’s point of view, realism is greatly associated with a 19th-century art movement conceived in France, which came to oppose Romanticism after the February Revolution. The movement had changed and enhanced the connotation of realism, being more concerned with the content of the painting than the absolute, detailed truthfulness of visual representation.
Depicting humans, objects, and landscapes in a realistic manner is something we’ve been seeing in art made in the 15th century and onwards, however, the subject of these paintings, quite often associated with particular religions, was not always taken from real life. These painting masters were using the same skills to depict religious motives, angels, or unlikely situations, meaning that the narratives behind the paintings were not as realistic as the image was. Humans use imagery from real life to imagine things they did not actually see, and realists' technique takes this as a point of departure. Another name for this style in art is naturalism, since it relies on the visual premises set and defined by nature.
The agenda of French realists from the 19th century was different, although the endeavor to portray the subject honestly was more or less the same. The main difference was that French Realists intended to depict situations from real life, without an exception, placing their focus on real people, especially working people, laborers, ordinary people and their everyday lives; dismissing anything that has roots in the artificial or the supernatural, supposedly even the artist’s own sentiment. Idealizing did not exist at any level, and therefore the members of all social classes were depicted in a similar manner (which of course reflected on the political environment in France at the time).
The difference between these two realisms is one of the early examples of change in human thought, which accelerated gradually from the desire to imitate nature, to a more advanced desire to use art as a medium of higher communication. First of all, after French realism came a series of other realisms, such as Socialist Realism and American Realism. But what is more interesting, in an unprecedented way, French realism was a stepping stone to Impressionism, which was the beginning of an end of realistic representation. This is because the emphasis was not put on the reality of the image, as a set of physical qualities, but on the thematic concern, which places the artist in the position of a thinker, rather than a craftsman. And as you know, it was precisely this idea that had moved the Modern thought toward a revolution.
To say that there is no realistic imagery in the milieu of today's art would be utterly wrong, especially since the technique is supported by the development of photography which helps create photo-realistic imagery and even hyper-real paintings which show traits that human eyes never care to notice. The question is, though, how many of these artworks exist within the constraints of contemporary art, which does not have clearly defined boundaries but it could be harshly dismissive of traditional techniques. Moreover, painting is an endangered category to begin with, and for art to go beyond fascination with someone’s ability to imitate reality, it takes something other than training.
If we take the truthfulness of representation as a parameter for identifying realism in contemporary art, we will find a certain number of draughtsmen who have these extraordinary skills for creating paintings reminiscent of photographic imagery. For them to be regarded as contemporary artists, nonetheless, craft is not enough. Therefore, most of these artists combine realistic representation with the content that seems to be unexpected, using contemporary art’s latent disinterest in traditional techniques to confront it with the subjects that it could care about, such as the hip hop culture in portraits by Kehinde Wiley, or augmented objects in the works of Vija Celmins, or James Neil Hollingsworth. On the other hand, if we take the unspoken manifesto of Courbet-derived realism as a point of reference, we can as well consider a group of authors who deliberately choose to depict the common scenes from today’s everyday life, using the technique of naturalist painting. The difference is that nature is not the same, and what once were curves and crops and trees, are today’s metal surfaces, tampons and raves. If you'd like to survey the genre, try with Terry Rodgers, Rachel Rickert, even David Hockney at some points.
It seems, however, that the urge to use realistic representation has changed. Which is completely normal, hence all the technological advancements that allow us to not need to represent reality in order to document it anymore. More than it is dead, as some believed it would become, painting, and particularly realistic painting, is simply fundamentally different. It is still here, but it does not represent reality for the same cause. If it does portray reality at all, it is only to take on the uncanny feeling of seeing the familiar, in an unfamiliar context, which realistic painting is to contemporary society. And that endeavor is by all means contemporary.
Another way to approach the subject is to take a step back and observe realism not through its representative medium, which is painting, but through the idea of representing reality as such, in a factual manner. This could involve a much greater selection of artworks, beginning with semi-documentary photography based on an intuitive, spontaneous approach, which does not aim to represent anything spectacular or surreal, but is rather based on the chronicles of everyday life (like that of Martin Parr, Massimo Vitali, or even Ed Ruscha). We can even go further and talk about performances which aim to demonstrate the true state of human condition (critical realism), such as Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 or Ukeles’ maintenance art. Come to think of it, what better way to depict reality than to actually involve it in the process of artmaking? Of course, we cannot say that these forms of art belong to realism, but they could be said to demonstrate the remnants of its ideology. No class differences, no idealization - just life as it is, right in front of you.
Editors’ Tip: Realism (Movements in Modern Art)
It is perhaps best that you see for yourself if Realism finds echoes in today's world, by getting to know the movement in more detail. The author of the book reflects on various movements and definitions of realism, including the so-called "socialist realism" of Stalin's Soviet Union and the condemnation in Germany of artists not conforming to Nazi academic-realist demands. He describes French and Italian painting between the wars and the political intentions of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, and he also speaks about the British realists, among them Stanley Spencer, Lucian Freud and David Hockney. He even mentions two legends of Pop Art, Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton.
Featured image: Martin Parr - Hong Kong, 2013. Pigment print, 101.6 x 152.4 cm. All images used for illustrative purposes only.