The world of reality has its limits; the world of imagination is boundless.
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Are Realism, Naturalism, Photorealism, or Hyperrealism more valid or “real” than other genres?
This debate keeps coming back, with new non- or less-realistic genres continuously popping up in rebellion. It is an endless game … of Whack-a-Mole.
As regards “realism” and “naturalism”, I am more on the abstract – semi-realism continuum. Not because I do not appreciate the joys and satisfaction of trying to make a painting look “real” like a photograph, but rather because I interpret perception as a combination of naturalism and subjectivity. Perhaps I just experience and observe painting subjects differently than others. As Picasso said: “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them.” However, I am always interested in the internet debates regarding comparative preferences for Naturalism versus Abstraction, in painting/Art — including everything from Impressionists, Fauvists, Abstract painters, and Expressionists to genres even I have not yet heard of. Many of the aforementioned having come about partly in rebellion against the very long and established traditions of the older classical traditions, and a few of the newer ones that were in vogue for shorter periods of time. This back and forth movement is quite apparent throughout modern Art History. What troubles me is how the camera and internet have solidified and limited subjective perception (and acceptance of it) in individuals today. What is photographed is not actually “real”, as it is a momentary interpretation and often (like naturalistic paintings) staged and glorified. Art has many functions, including making people feel good. “Feel-good Art” (in all its forms), is also valid. I consider much Impressionist Art to be feel-good art as well, My own focus in my Art is more confluence-psychological, in that I attempt to focus on a wide continuum of feelings, thought processes, and subjective questions, rather than to make beautiful paintings that strive to elevate positive self-perception or predominantly positive perceptions of the World. My approach is to explore different degrees of abstraction and naturalism in order to mate the recognizable with the subjective/psychological. This is perhaps somewhat akin to a stream of consciousness approach in literature.
That being said, while I do appreciate many naturalistic paintings, I prefer classical art photography to painting hyperrealism and photorealism. Photography somehow gives me a greater sense of freedom to interpret possible next moments after the image is photographed than a painting designed to mimic a photograph exactly (or even more so than the original image itself). I do not know why that is. Perhaps it is because paintings are for me more permanent and powerful, if not insisting, than photographs. When I look at photos it is generally for a few seconds at a time, but paintings I tend to study for many minutes … taking in the images more intensively, and allowing them to become ingrained and to impress themselves into my consciousness and perceptions of what Reality “really is”. Many of the Old Masters managed to create naturalistic paintings that allowed for greater degrees of Viewer interpretation and freedom than Photorealism and Hyperrealism do today.
I personally feel that Art (in all genres) is best when it balances the technical with the subjective. Technical mastery is important, but when it overtakes and overrules the subjective freedom of the Artist and the Viewer it becomes more of a technical feat and marvel than Art.
The perception of “Realism” being the only true art form was re-inforced by Gustave Courbet who commented: “Show me an angel, and I will paint one.” Well, many have painted angels and unicorns without having seen them in person, and paintings that personify mythical and Biblical creatures and events are also — in my eyes — valid Art. If you know what unicorns are, and how they generally are perceived to look, then they do actually exist for you. Like with realism, we perceive things as we know and interpret them in our minds. Or through a photographic image. So, we do not always solely paint what we see, and what we “see” is not really the totality of Reality. “Realism”, “Naturalism”, “Photorealism”, or “Hyperrealism” do not actually exist any more than more subjective interpretations (Abstract, Semi-realistic, Primitivism) and are, therefore — to me — not more valid or important on the larger scale of Art History.
And by the way, Gustave Courbet’s (a Realist) self-portrait — «Le désespéré», is one of my all-time favorite self-portraits. It combines incredible technical mastery with a subjectivity that makes the image jump right out of the painting.
Just my opinion, of course … as always.
NB. Balancing the technical with expression to maximize the “artistic” is achieved by planning and by lots of aesthetic decision-making; which leads to much more technical decision-making. These decisions and plans range from determining subject/theme/mood of the painting to picking the size and format of the canvas or board, to choosing colors that serve the theme/subject and/or mood, to decisions concerning overall composition, genre and style, to determining which tools to use (eg. brushes, palette knives, credit cards etc.), to deciding about brushstrokes (visible, or not; painted with broad, large brushes, or not; aggressive brushstrokes or caressed brushstrokes with small, medium-sized, large, flat, round or angled brushes or even fan brushes etc.); determining how much brush pressure to use, and how much paint is to be on the brush; deciding whether to paint impasto, or not; deciding upon degree of uniformity in the look and feel of the painting or eventually how to balance non-uniform sections in the artwork; the velocity of the painting process, and of the brushstrokes; to knowing how much detail is needed, and where; to knowing when to stop; and to deciding what cosmetic finishing tricks to use to make the decisions taken look intentional. Technical mastery is all-important. But it should not be divorced from the artistic vision. This holds true for all genres, styles, and complexities of compositional elements … as well as the level of detail. Every one of these decisions will affect your painting and the impressions it gives. Looking for the above mentioned is also how I view paintings in art museums and galleries, as well as technical accuracy and finish, the political, historical, social, and psychological aspects and effects of the painting’s theme and ideas presented, etc. My reactions to Art are based on my experiences of these technical decisions and skills in relation to larger artistic goals and expressions. And yes, I struggle with all of these technical decisions and skills in each painting, and in every genre and style.