Enemies of Realism

"The Realist Tradition: French Painting and Drawing 1830-1900" the St. Louis Art Museum, the Glasgow (Scotland) Art Gallery and Museum. November 1980-January 1982

an exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum,


One evening at a dinner party, a lady is supposed to have turned to Degas and asked him aggressively, “Monsieur Degas, why do you make the women in your paintings so ugly?” and he replied, “Because women are generally ugly, Madame.” The story may not have all the authority one might desire, but it illuminates an essential facet of French avant-garde Realism. Degas’s pictures are beautiful, but the beauty of the picture in no way embellishes what is portrayed: the dancers in Degas’s famous ballet pictures are made neither more nor less attractive by the painting. Flaubert’s prose, distinguished and beautiful in itself, does not disturb the banality of the contemporary life he represented. Pictures and novels thereby can lay a double claim, first to absolute truth undistracted by aesthetic preconceptions, and then to abstract beauty, uninfluenced by the world that is represented.

Art for art’s sake and Realism are not polar opposites in the nineteenth century, but two sides of the same coin. It was the avant-garde that succeeded in uniting them. Attempts to blur this have been made in recent revivals of the more academic Realists (as we pointed out in the first part of our review of the exhibition and catalogue called The Realist Tradition),1 but the avant-garde stands largely alone in this achievement. In the writing of Flaubert and Zola, the painting of Courbet, Manet, and the Impressionists, what is represented is aesthetically indifferent, although it has its moral and political importance—indeed, the moral importance of the scenes represented gets its full weight by appearing to be free from any artistic raison d’être.

At the same time, in avant-garde Realism there is an extreme insistence on the means of representation; the rhythm of the prose or the patterns of brush strokes are always obtrusively in evidence. We are always acutely conscious of the surface of the picture, the texture of the prose. Neither novel nor picture effaces itself modestly before the scene represented. A work of avant-garde Realism proclaims itself first as a solid, material art object, and only then allows us access to the contemporary world it portrays.

In avant-garde Realism, consequently, the beauty of the book or the picture always appears to be irrelevant to what is being represented. Stylistic forms that idealize had to be avoided at all cost. Flaubert’s practice and the theories he formulated in his letters to Louise Colet while writing Madame Bovary present (as we have tried to show earlier) the clearest and most powerful statement of the premises of Realism, in painting as well as literature. The way he was able to avoid idealization and yet achieve an extraordinary distinction in style has its parallels in most of the greatest Realist work of the nineteenth century.

Flaubert’s stylistic criteria are essentially negative—at least, the best way to approach his aesthetic is through what he rejected. In order to achieve “a prose that was really prose,” the techniques of verse were anathema to him: he carefully…

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