Today in the art world the word realism is often used interchangeably for two very different meanings. The more obvious, and more common, usage of the world ‘realism’ is to describe a painting which closely resembles the subject which is portrays. This meaning is relatively new however, since before the birth of expressionism at the beginning of the twentieth century, no other kind of painting existed.
We can see this usage in the term Socialist Realism, which mandated that all painting in the USSR had to be of this type. Abstraction in art was banned outright as it was associated with the moral degradation of capitalism. Mitrovan Grekov’s The Trumpeter and the Standard Bearer painted around 1930 is one of the better examples of the genre.
The second, more complex, and perhaps more interesting usage, which spans other forms of art than just painting, is the sense in which Gustave Courbet used the word in the mid-nineteenth century. Realism for Courbet meant artworks which portrayed everyday life and the normal world as experienced by the majority of people. Before Courbet, much of art had focused on classical or religious subjects, which, he claimed, were detached from people’s real lives. His painting The Grain Sifters, painted in 1854 and shown below, is a good example of his new subject.
Gustave Courbet: The Grain Sifters
Courbet is perhaps most famous for his painting The Origin of the World, which shows a woman’s naked lower half. Again, this painting shows his philosophy of realism perfectly. It is a frank departure from romanticism’s portrayals of women as nymphs, virgins and goddesses.
Corbet’s influence spread to England where it manifested as Social Realism, popular in Victorian society, where painters took scenes of poverty and depravation as their subject. Stanhope Forbes, the leader of the Newlyn School, was a master of this genre,a s shown in his painting The Seine Boat, as seen below.
Stanhope Forbe: The Seine Boat
The mantra of ‘realism’ in Courbet’s sense probably reached its zenith in the Russian realism of Ilya Repin and The Wanderers movement, which was bound closely to the literary Russian Realism of its day. While Repin’s subjects are often the serfs, convicts, and everyday people, the theme of many of these paintings is evidently moral and even political. His painting, A Religious Procession in Kursk Province, shown below, while portraying a tradition of the working class, also has a clear revolutionary message of the march of the united working classes, while critiquing the orthodox church and the military (behind the main altarpiece a cavalry man can be seen whipping the crowd).
Ilya Repin: A Religious Procession in Kursk Province
Today, we see Courbet's philosophy of realism largely overlooked in favour of the term meaning the literal, accurate depiction of a subject, any subject. The Art Renewal Centre’s ‘Imaginative Realism’ category (within its annual Salon) commends works portraying fantastical or impossible worlds in great detail and accuracy. Indeed, the term ‘imaginative realism’ under Courbet’s definition would almost be oxymoronic.
So why has Courbet’s definition become somewhat lost? Perhaps it is partly because Courbet’s realism was originally an antidote to the romantic, moral, classical tradition, which has itself largely disappeared. Its decline has been simultaneous with the decline of Christianity and classical studies. In a sense, we are all 'realists' now, so the perceived need for the term has gone.
However, the legacy of Courbet lives on in contemporary art. The hugely influential Spanish painter Antonio Lopez Garcia, a cityscape of whose is shown below, is a good example of the evolution of Courbet’s idea of realism; the everyday stripped down and laid bare, with no hint of sentimentality.
Antonio Lopez Garcia: Madrid seen from Torres Blancas
However, if we take our contemporary realism, with its proud lack of sentiment, for granted, we may be being complacent. After all, Courbet said in his realist manifesto; “My intention [was not] to attain the trivial goal of "art for art's sake". No! I simply wanted to draw forth, from a complete acquaintance with tradition, the reasoned and independent consciousness of my own individuality. To know in order to do, that was my idea…” Indeed, Courbet’s political life showed that he was in no way himself a detached observer and he was eventually imprisoned and then exiled for political dissidence (he counted Proudhon, the founder of anarchism, amongst his friends).
Perhaps Courbet's true legacy is the lesson to question, always, the word 'realism'.
This label is claimed by many as a means of gaining some sort of popular credibility, but often it is really no more than a disguise for a subjective worldview. We see this today in the evolution of postmodern realism. Of course, Courbet himself was wise enough to reject the term realism, claiming it had been ‘thrust upon’ him, adding; “Titles have never given a true idea of things: if it were otherwise, the works would be unnecessary.”