Art as Realistic
This week we talked about pictorial realism in both painting and photography.
The word 'realism' is used in many different ways. Sometimes it refers to a specific movement in art, particularly the nineteenth century movement exemplified by Gustave Courbet (described, for example in Lina Nochlin's book Realism); at other times it is used to describe images which are especially convincing as depcitions of real places or things (even when those things aren't real) - in other words, it can used to refer to a general style (or group of styles) of depiction.
Some features shared by many so-called 'realistic' styles of depiction in painting include
- Inclusion of incidental (and apparently unchosen detail)
- Apparent verisimilitude (even to the point of trompe l'oeil - there are some great examples of trompe l'oeil painting here - most of which work partly because of viewer expectations)
- Fine detail
- Imitiation of photographic cropping etc. (in painting
Photography is often taken as a touchstone of realism. Yet a number of writers have argued that photographic realism gets its force from more than its attention to detail and inclusion of the incidental. Photographic realism is often thought of as the product of automatism, which is alleged to make it more objective (the lack of complex intentional control over the picture-making process - in the sense that photography is subtractive where painting additive) combined with the distinctive optico-chemical (or, these days, optico-digital) causal link back to subject matter, the fact that photographs aren't just pictures, but are simultaneously traces, and as such can yield special kinds of evidence if enough about the circumstances in which the images were taken is known (we can decide a 1oo metre sprint using a photofinish - no painter, however quick with the brush, could purport to give such objective evidence about who crossed the line first). Even if a photograph is blurred an indistinct, it is more 'realistic' than a painting because it is (in C.S. Peirce's terms) an indexical sign, as well as an iconic one, for its subject matter. (For more on C.S. Peirce's division of signs into Index, Icon, and Symbol, see these notes). A death mask or hand print might achieve this sort of direct link with reality, but most paintings cannot.
Some writers have gone even further. The contemporary analytic philosopher Kendall Walton has even gone so far as to claim - counterintuitively - that we can quite literally see through photographs - they are transparent. We see through glass, or via mirror reflections, and would see if we looked at miniature cameras as a kind of prosthetic eye, why then not say that we see via the direct causal chain that links a photograph with its object. I look at a photograph of my now dead grandfather, on this view, and quite literally see him. Photographs allow us, on Walton's view, to see into the past. And that is what gives them their distinctive quality as a type of picture. (There are plenty of philsoophers who disagree with this view...).
The relation of a photograph to the reality it apparently depicts may be less than obvious. We considered a range of cases including the photograph 'Corridor' by Thomas Demand. Listen to an 18 minute podcast discussion of Demand's work from a Tate Modern symposium on photography 'Agency and Automation' where I address the question of whether you make a photograph of an absence.
Another, photograph we discussed, was 'Top Withens' by Bill Brandt, an image that turns out to have been made from several negatives, a technique that David Hockney attacked as 'Stalinism'. My essay 'Brandt's Pictorialism' includes a discussion of this image and Hockney's criticism of Brandt's manipulation.
In the gallery we spent looked at paintings in the 'Realisms' room, considering features of the paintings that might justify the claim that they are 'realistic' in some respect (as opposed to simply being products of a group of painters who called themselves 'realists')...
Next week, the penultimate session of this course: Art as Political...