Realism in 19th Century France

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Gustave Courbet, Stonebreakers, 1849

During the 19th century, the prevailing theme in art was history or mythology. The French Academy of Arts originally was a staunch proponent of neoclassicism, and in the 19th century Romantic styles of painting gained ground in the academy. However, the themes and subject matter were still restricted mostly to history and mythology. Other themes were regarded as inferior. The favorites of the Academy and the Salon were heroic portrayal of history or mythological events.

In reaction to this standard, a new trend in art arose in 1850s France. Their philosophy of painting came to be called Realism. Their works were characterized by the rejection of academic ideals of heroic and dramatic scenes, instead trying to capture the ordinary lives that the artist saw. Their works most often depicted working-class laborers or farmers. They did not avoid including the unpleasant parts of life. Their subjects were often faceless and in repetitive and tiring labor. Because the realists painted during a time of change, notably the Industrial Revolution, often their paintings showed the victims and the beneficiaries of the new world. 

The painter Gustave Courbet was arguably the most influential of the realists. His paintings that challenged the academic standards became very controversial. The Stonebreakers(1849) depicted two workers hacking stones in a barren grey landscape. The monotonous and tiresome nature of the work is accentuated by the lack of vibrance, while their expressionless faces and torn clothes are painted without hesitation. Another Realist painter Jean-Honoré Daumier painted the cramped interior of a third-class carriage, depicting ordinary people holding babies, carrying bread, talking among themselves and looking out the window. In a way, the Realists practiced the earliest form of visual journalism.

The ideology of the Realists had a considerable impact in the art world. Their practice of painting what they see, became one of the influences that led to the rise of the Impressionists. Groups with similar beliefs formed throughout Europe, and exchanged ideas and influence. The Realism movement would later on become a precedent for the American Realists later in the early 20th century.

Social Realism in 20th Century America

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Grant Wood, The American Gothic, 1930

Early 20th century witnessed the booming of the avant-garde. Centuries-old tradition of figurative painting gave way to abstract art of the modern era. Art increasingly sought  its original aesthetic, instead of addressing social issues or political perspectives. Meanwhile, the early 20th century was a turbulent time. Amidst global economic depression, rise of communism and fascism, world wars and increasing sociopolitical awareness, artists felt that the mainstream art was insufficient in addressing social issues and making a change.

In the 1930s, a new tendency in American art arose in reaction to this status-quo. The new movement of social realism portrayed workers, farmers and ordinary people, focusing on the human condition in the new industrial, capitalist world. These artists built upon the ideals of French Realists like Courbet, and were influenced by socialist and marxist ideologies. The movement was also founded upon American developments in art, such as American scene painting and regionalism. Many artists whose works show social realist themes are also associated with regionalism and the Ashcan School.

Grand Wood’s the American Gothic(1930) is one of the most famous artworks interpreted with social realist themes. After the Great Depression, the staunch expressions of the distinctly American characters were thought to represent the American steadfastness in face of crisis. Works of painters like Ben Shahn show more evident social realist ideologies, exploring urban life, labor and injustice. Social Realists became a major influence of American art before the focus shifted to more avant-garde movements like abstract expressionism.

Socialist Realism in the Soviet Union

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Isaak Brodsky, Day of the Constitution, 1930

Socialist realism is a style of art that came to prominence roughly the same time as the American social realism. In the beginning, the foundations and ideologies for the two styles are not so different. The two styles belonged to different regions, but shared common influences and ideas. Socialist realism depicted common proletariat, their labor and struggle, and promoted communist values, and used realistic figurative imagery. The difference was that socialist realism was standardized and endorsed by the communist party. Although American social realists received some government funding as a part of the New Deal, the extent of such relations were limited.

Later, the style of socialist realism became the approved style of the Soviet Union. Its position was somewhat like that of the French Academic Romanticism. The heroic figures of French History was replaced by the heroic proletariat, but the lack of reality and adherence to a strict rule of idealism were became common features. In fact, soviet socialist realism is sometimes called revolutionary romanticism. The purpose of this style was to propagate a optimistic and positive image of the soviet ideals, and motivate the proletariat. Realistic depiction of the society was not allowed, and all artworks were filled with joy, smiles, hard-working spirit and thriving industry and agriculture.

Similar state-sponsored styles of art appeared in various countries, including Nazi Germany. However, none had the longevity of the soviet socialist realism. The style would become the predominant artistic style in the soviet union until its dissolution, and would serve as an example to other communist nations like China. Many artworks in the style of socialist realism can still be seen in modern-day Russia, especially large-scale sculptures and architectural decorations.

Surrealism in Inter-war Europe

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Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory, 1931

The surrealists have received consistent love from the world. Their quirky and bizarre imaginations have attracted the curiosity of the public since their conception. Surrealism officially began when the writer Andre Breton published the surrealist manifesto in 1924. The Surrealists were a prominent influence since the war-ravaged 1920s, questioning the optimism and progress of the modern society. Though they claimed distinction from Dadaism, they still shared similar sentiments towards modern bourgeois ideals and rationalism. Most Surrealists were, in fact, former members of the Dada.

The goal of the surrealists were to liberate the boundaries of the real and imaginary. The movement originally focused on literature, but soon spread onto visual arts. They utilized techniques such as automatism, dreams or hallucinations, and were influenced by Psychoanalytic views on consciousness. The group rejected the traditional rational approach that caused wars and destruction, and sought to create its own visual language untainted by the old methods. Ideas and inspiration were actively embraced from the past, including Hieronymus Bosch and Symbolism.

Surrealism had an immense impact in the art world. The odd universe and personality of Salvador Dali was not only a sensation but also a breakthrough. As did the nuanced portraits of René Magritte and the horrific figures of Francis Bacon. There are disputes as to when the movement ended, but their influence is still well alive. The introduction of surreal imagination and expression opened unprecedented possibilities for visual arts.

Photorealism and Hyperrealism

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Ralph Goings, Golden Dodge, 1971

Photorealism is perhaps the culmination of pure realism. In the 60s United States, Photorealism first appeared as the antithesis of the mainstream contemporary art like Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. Photorealists created a painting out of studying a photograph and reproducing it to the finest detail. They did not limit themselves to traditional media, but utilized tools like airbrushes and projectors to recreate the scene.

The selection of subject matter was not of much significance. Certain scenes were selected often because of their technical aspects, not the content. Most subjects had no particular point of interest, often scenes of neighborhoods or still life that conveyed no messages. Instead, subjects with metallic or shiny surfaces like cars, cans, ice, glass, marble and water became the favorites of Photorealists due to their relative ease in achieving photorealistic effects. Ralph Goings’ The Golden Dodge is a archetypical example of a Photorealist painting. The primary goal of the photorealists was to reproduce a scene with the greatest realism. Emotions, narratives or messages were not an essential part. Photorealism was, in a way, an struggle of irony between the waves of contemporary abstract art and impeccable mechanical reproduction.

Influenced by the precedent of the Photorealists, is the more recent movement of Hyperrealism. The term hyperrealism was originally used to denote photorealism in Europe, and the two names are sometimes used interchangeably. In a narrow sense, however, it is the name for a similar new style with a different direction. Hyperrealist share the goal of making realistic reproductions, but in their presentation and placement often show a departure from the literality of its predecessor. Messages are not excluded from Hyperrealism, and the photorealistic reproduction is strategically placed to create an idea. This is not restricted to paintings. Sculptures are an important part of hyperrealism. It is not unusual to find Hyperrealist art odd, or even surreal. 

Cynical Realism in Contemporary China

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Yue Minjun, The Sun, 2000, 2000

Cynical Realism is a relatively recent development in post-1990 China. The movement is most notably associated with the artists Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang and Fang Lijun. The name itself was coined by the art critique Li Xianting in 1992. Several events actively lead to the rise of these artists. The increasing desire for democratization that was put down in the Tian’anmen incident of 1989, and the forced closure of unendorsed art exhibitions gave momentum to cynical realism. 

The cynical realists address socio-political issues and history in modern China, from the memories of the Cultural Revolution, censorship, modernization and industrialization. Artists often use images and themes of socialist realism. Wide smiles, exaggerated movements and bright, optimistic coloring are commonly used in a cynical manner. The styles of each artists differ, but irony and parody are devices that are most frequently used.