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What Is, and Is Not, 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


The avant-garde is a historical construction rather like the French Revolution. The more one studies the French Revolution, the less one is sure exactly which events belong to it, who engaged in it, and for what motives: the events seem not to hang together with the continuity one had imagined, the people are difficult to classify, their motives disparate, purely personal, often mysterious. A report of a recent talk by one of the most distinguished authorities on the revolution, Richard Cobb, shows the state of the question:1

…we had Richard Cobb on July 24 arguing that the French Revolution should never have happened, possibly never did happen, and in any case had no effect one way or the other on most people’s lives. Revolutionary rhetoric, he said provocatively, is always meant to deceive—to conceal the “obscene truths” that constitute the revolution. His respectful audience—a mixed lot of tourists and academics—refused to be provoked, which led him, with some embarrassment, to qualify everything he had said, admitting to mischievous intent.

We cannot, clearly, rid history of the French Revolution (although we are no longer sure what it was), if only because people believed that it happened, and this continued belief represented an ideal of change, an image of hope and terror for centuries afterward.

The avant-garde embodies a similar ideal of historical change, an acknowledgement that the nature of art was radically altered from 1800 to 1950, and that this alteration, sometimes called the “modern tradition,” was achieved by a small group of artists and opposed, for the most part, by the government, the museums, the academy, and important sections of the press.

In painting, the radical change was the abandonment of the conception of space that had been dominant since the Renaissance—an infinite, continuous, homogeneous space prior to, and independent of, perception. The new spaces of avant-garde painting were often more subjective, or distorted by perception, deliberately flat as in Manet’s work, deformed by expressive violence in Edvard Munch. Space could be constituted by color as in Matisse, or fragmented and reordered as in cubism. The rejection of the familiar space of the Renaissance implied that perspective was no longer a simple and efficient system for projecting the three-dimensional world onto a canvas.

The avant-garde also gradually destroyed the hierarchy of genres by which different kinds of painting had been classified for three centuries. The distinction between the sublime (history and religious painting) and the familiar (landscape, still life, scenes of daily life) was effectively abolished. Most important of all, the avant-garde realized the program of the Romantic movement, as far as such a project was realizable, and made painting an independent art with a comprehensible language of its own that needed no literary or historical explanation. Painting was no longer an illustrative art: it no longer served to embody a moral or to present a historical narrative.

It is now widely recognized that the traditional version of how these changes came about needs some revision. The myth of the avant-garde artist is too good to be true: the creative spirit savagely attacked by critics, mocked by the public, and struggling to assert his original conceptions in the teeth of a moribund academic tradition, who lives and works unsung and unhonored while the pictures that he sells for derisory sums make a fortune for dealers after his death. The Avant-Garde Painter is only too useful for explaining the history of art: the arduous but certain and continuous victory of the future over the past. Seen in this light, the avant-garde is identified as the force of history itself—without it the art of centuries would remain either static or, at best, vegetate slowly, the mutations only visible from a long perspective. The misunderstood and the rejected suddenly and violently displace the established and official: the history of art becomes like old-fashioned military history with campaigns, great generals, and glorious victories. Best of all, the underdog always wins.

We now realize that most of the avant-garde artists attacked by the critics had powerful defenders as well, even early in their careers; many of them not only enjoyed private incomes but sold their pictures at prices which made them fairly comfortable. Some, like Courbet, Delacroix, and Puvis de Chavannes, even saw their pictures well placed in museums alongside the masterpieces of the worst academic hacks. It was, in fact, the most conservative painter who occasionally had trouble making a living and the avant-garde who sometimes sold easily—much of the “modern tradition” is based on landscape, always popular in the nineteenth century, while the official style emphasized the life-size painting of religious and historical scenes—and what collector would have wanted to hang on his wall a representation three yards wide of the decapitation of Saint Denis?

Who belonged to the avant-garde—or, rather, to the successive waves of avant-garde movements from the Romanticism of Delacroix to the Abstract Expressionism of Pollock and de Kooning—is a question to which the answers have recently become a little fuzzy around the edges. The opposition was not monolithic, and an artist as radical as Delacroix could turn late in life to a revival of the venerable tradition of historical and religious mural decorations.

But with all the inadequacy of the avant-garde as an all-embracing explanation of change (and it has many other faults too numerous to go into here), it remains indispensable to history; in fact, it helped to create history. The avant-garde is not simply a construction imposed post facto on an earlier reality; it was already constructed and embedded in that reality. It was believed in by artists and the public and helped to form the development of art, for better or worse. The avant-garde artist is a central Romantic hero, and the public of the 1820s and the 1870s expected of him the same excesses and much the same scandals as the public of the 1920s. In fact, the impossibility of rigidly defining the avant-garde is just what makes it useful: it is a mobile concept, which can be continually reshaped as we learn more about the period it covers. Recent attempts to get rid of it are as mischievous as Cobb’s witty deconstruction of the French Revolution.

The mischief is made largely by scholars, dealers, and museum curators who have no taste for the modern tradition and deplore the way successive avant-gardes have transformed painting beyond recognition for more than a century and a half. There is, of course, a great deal of art in the nineteenth century that lies outside the modern tradition, and some of it has attractions for almost anyone today; but most of this art lies on the margins of history. It contributed only in the most insignificant way to major changes in style. The history of art is not made up of everything that artists have done—it is hard even to imagine such a history.

In addition, the avant-garde has so influenced and shaped contemporary aesthetics—we all take for granted the public’s desire to be shocked, the artist’s search for originality—that most of the revival of official art takes the form of a provocative taste for kitsch. Most lovers of art with a sense of the modern only think that their legs are being pulled when, as a serious alternative to the work of Delacroix and Cézanne, they are offered the journalistic battle pictures of Horace Vernet or the once-famous portrayals of the executions of the English aristocracy which were the specialty of Paul Delaroche. Salvador Dali’s championship of Meissonier as the greatest painter of the nineteenth century still seems (in spite of Meissonier’s evident skill and his once formidable reputation) like one of Dali’s publicity-seeking pranks, along with his jumping through a department store window; and Dali’s evident sincerity, explicable by the Surrealist movement’s interest in kitsch and nineteenth-century nostalgia, has not been able to return Meissonier to his former status as a major figure.

The historians who detest modern art (and their name is, if not legion, at least platoon or squadron) have lately tried another strategy. They now claim that the simplistic division of nineteenth-century art into “avant-garde” and “official” is untenable, that the avant-garde itself was incoherent and inconsistent, and that the so-called “modern tradition” has no continuity.

Some recent exhibitions have been devoted to this revisionist thesis. The most important were “The Post-Impressionists” in London in 1979 and, most recently, “The Realist Tradition” shown in Cleveland, Brooklyn, St. Louis, and Glasgow in 1981, and recorded in the catalogue under review. The incoherence of both exhibitions was obviously considered a positive value and the organizers had a touching faith that progress in historiography was bound to take place if one could just forget what previous historians had written. The revisionists hoped to create a healthy and fruitful confusion—for Post-Impressionism, by putting in almost every kind of painting done between 1885 and 1910; for Realism, by including any manner of portraying contemporary life from 1830 to 1900.

In both shows, every appearance of selection was avoided. Nineteenth-century painting, it was implied, had a chaotic richness, teeming with life and variety, until art historians came along and imposed their rigid Manichaean categories of “avant-garde” versus “official” art.

The attack on the modern tradition should have succeeded, if anywhere, with the reconsideration of nineteenth-century Realism. Here, surely, was a movement which attempted to tie painting firmly to history and to life, which had apparently little interest in the modern tradition’s development of art as an autonomous language, independent of all other forms of expression. The signal failure of “The Realist Tradition” is perhaps more surprising than any of the other recent manifestations of antimodernist taste.

A Realist picture in this exhibition, organized by Gabriel Weisberg, is any work that deals with contemporary life, generally of a humble kind and preferably with humanitarian concerns. Other than this criterion of subject matter, there seems at first sight to be very little reason why some pictures are included and others not. The year 1830 was a poor choice for an opening date. One might ask why such an exhibition did not start with Géricault: his stark, direct representations of contemporary life would surely qualify as Realist works. Jacques-Louis David himself, in fact, had a powerful sense of contemporary reality, and was it not he who insisted on working from the model in reaction to his predecessors?

On the other hand, why did “The Realist Tradition” include Octave Tassaert, a Romantic painter whose charming and sentimental Studio Corner (1845), reproduced on the dust jacket of the catalogue, would be considered by most people as much less “Realist” than Delacroix’s wonderfully unaffected painting of the same subject dating some fifteen years earlier? Why is James Tissot absent? At least he thought of himself as a Realist.

The real problem of the show was a confusion between “realistic” and “Realist.” Realistic portrayal has existed in art for thousands of years, but nineteenth-century Realism was a very much more narrow affair; at least, so it was to the nineteenth century itself. The realistic rendition of a saint’s vestments had nothing to do with it, nor did effects of trompe l’oeil.

  1. 1

    The report is by Judith Chernaik, a scholar of English Romantic literature, in the Times Literary Supplement of August 7, 1981, page 919.

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