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…

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