Old Masters Academy

Realism and Contemporary Art

Despite the many styles and movements in 20th century art, from Minimalism to Dada to Abstract Expressionism, the realistic portrayal of the subject always seemed to be hovering in the shadows, an ever-present constant in the history of art. And as the 21th century begins, Realism is set to move to the forefront once again. It is representational art that brings the world around us onto the canvas; it is a language that even those who are ignorant of art can appreciate.

If you follow the history of Western art, you will see that, in its larger trends, it has alternated between representational and non-representational phases, beginning with semi-abstract work, such as the prehistoric cave paintings of Spain and France, then blossoming into the fully realistic sculpture and murals of Rome and Greece. It then returns to stylized, symbolic imagery in the Middle Ages, followed by a return to naturalism during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. This emphasis on realism lasted until the advent of photography in the 19th century, which helped to usher in Impressionism, Pointillism and others. The culmination of this trend was Abstract Expressionism and other modernist movements which emphasized the total abstraction of the subject.

Although I have done works in more modern styles, I have found traditional realism to be the best vehicle for my goals as an artist. And it is a fortunate thing too, as realism and figurative work is regaining prominence in mainstream western art. Of course, it never really vanished, as the painters Lucian Freud and David Hockney have demonstrated in their careers. It was also evident, in different ways, in the work of artists usually associated with other movements, such as the Surrealist Salvador Dali.

The general trend in modern times has been the simplification of the visual elements that make up the subject. This began with the Impressionists and continued through the Abstract Impressionists. But how far can you simplify the subject? To a blank canvas? To no canvas at all? There is a point at which the modern artist has to rediscover the inherent aesthetic value of reality.

A cow suspended in a tank of formaldehyde or elephant dung splattered on the Virgin Mary are worn out “artistic statements.” They pose the same question that the artist Marcel Duchamp did when he painted a urinal, turned it upside down and called it art. Duchamp’s act was significant at the onset of the twentieth century; it forced us to question what constitutes art. Now it is simply redundant.

There have always been certain characteristics that human beings associate with beauty. We admire the Roman murals found in Pompeii, the woodcut prints of the Japanese and the Mona Lisa, even though they are centuries old. We can relate to these masterpieces, I think, because we can more readily see ourselves in these images. Will future generations find these qualities in the Holy Mother smeared in animal excrement? Or Yoko Ono’s tiny black dot on a large white wall? There should be skill in art, and lasting value that can be appreciated throughout time.

Andrew Wyeth has created work in a realistic style throughout his career, and his paintings have resonated with critics and the public irrespective of current trends in art. Although Wyeth paints in a realistic manner, he is considered one of the great American artists of the twentieth century.

In any field, not just art, we admire work that demonstrates that the person responsible for it put time, thought, effort and skill into its creation. The best paintings of the Abstract Expressionists display great thought and insight into the principles of design, and should be admired for this. But to compare the amount of effort and technical skill put into it, with that involved with a work by Rembrandt or Rubens is pointless.

The key to a great painting is it’s visual quality—think about that statement. This is so obvious to the non-artist, yet many modern artists have become so lost in conceptual thinking that they’ve forgotten the most important thing about a work of visual art: it should be interesting to look at!

I know an artist who was obsessed with creating a work that would move contemporary art in an entirely new direction. He covered a canvas with a uniform layer of colored dots of paint, creating a confetti-like appearance. No shapes or patterns emerged from these dots; the overall effect was bland and nondescript. The artist said a work like this could only be done once; I would go further and say that a work like that could only be viewed once! There was no long-term value to it, no complexity or depth, no reason for the viewer to return to explore the work further.

Don’t misunderstand me–I am a great fan of much of modern art. But there is a limit to how far an artist can effectively simplify a subject to its essence and still interest the viewer; at some point, the only way to go is backward, returning to a more representational approach.

Yes, I champion realism over abstraction; it always draws us back eventually. And I believe that realism will soon regain a commanding position in Western art; then it will likely return to some degree of abstraction, in a continuation of the cycle we have witnessed since prehistory. Realism and abstraction are really two sides of the same coin; an abstract work is just a simplified version of a realistic one, and a realistic work is simply a more developed version of an abstract one. But Realism has always been the foundation, and undoubtedly will soon return to dominate the visual arts once again.

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