Realism is Dead! Long Live Realism!

Why can’t we just get along? You know, the realist painters and the contemporary art world. The zombie-formalists and the zombie romanticists. The former clad in the armor of ironic cynicism and the latter wielding the shield of authentic emotion, both resurrected from a by-gone era.


Zombie Formalism – Leslie Wayne

I’ve been wondering that lately. Why is the art world so divided? I’m speaking of the local art world. The world where pretty babbaling brook paintings run up against abstract  de Kooning-esque angst-filled oils for consideration in the same show. How do they compare?  Inevitably the judge of the show is in one camp or the other and his or her camp naturally wins. When people speak candidly about the “other camp” it’s not very polite. Let’s take a look at what happened.

First a disclaimer

I’m no art historian. I’m a realist painter born in the age of irony. I went to art school and found my home in the illustration department because realism was frowned upon in the fine art department. During my years at Pratt Institute Andrew Wyeth had a retrospective show at the Metropolitan Museum. This was an outrage and all the fine artists I knew boycotted the museum. I saw the show but kept my nose at a slight tilt so that if anyone saw me looking they would know it was with distain. I didn’t want to look naive.

Let’s go back in time to 1839.

A baby was just born in the South of France to an affluent family. A family that could afford to have a portrait done with the new amazing technology of the day. A photograph! By that time Daguerreotypes were all the rage of the up and coming middle class. Artists were already using the photograph as a tool, but only on the sly! One artist caught using a photo ended up in a lawsuit.By the time that baby was a young man perhaps the idea of creating a likeness in paint seemed a bit redundant. Photographs were beautiful in-and-of themselves and any silly could copy a photograph. What was the value of a painting beyond a likeness? Texture, color, composition….these were avenues worth exploring.

So that baby, Paul Cezanne, did that and changed the art world forever.  I recently read a quote of his from a much loved art newsletter by Robert Glenn, “Everything we see falls apart, vanishes. Nature is always the same, but nothing in her that appears to us, lasts. Our art must render the thrill of her permanence along with her elements, the appearance of all her changes. It must give us the taste of her eternity.” (Paul Cezanne) This is certainly a bigger challenge than rendering an accurate portrait, don’t you think? I just have to add that Cezanne used photography as reference too!


Paul Cezanne

Of course the world was changing in vast ways at that time so we can’t pin the modernist movement in art solely on the introduction of the photograph. Cities were growing, the industrial revolution was changing daily life and World War One had people reexamining their beliefs.


George Bellows

Meanwhile realists still worked on depicting the new life: George Bellows, Robert Henri, John Sloan, Grant Wood and the ever popular Edward Hopper. But the world’s attention was mainly on those deeply influenced by Cezanne: Matisse, Picasso, Mondrian, Giacometti, Morandi and many many more.



It’s interesting to me to read a quote by Bonnard about Cezanne: “The painter who was most powerfully armed in front of nature, the strongest, the most sincere.”

What is interesting about this is soon the Post Modernest’s response was a blatant dislike of anything sincere. As I understand it, “Skeptics reject sincerity because ….blind belief can led to evils like the Klu Klux Klan.” Does sincerity lead to a lack of critical awareness? Does it lead to sentimentality? James Bauldwin said, “Sentimentality is the mask of cruelty, as it is dishonest.”

Meanwhile realists were still out there…or were they? Well, we did have Andrew Wyeth just dripping with that evil sentimentality, but in a sincere way I think.(Am I being ironic?)

Much of the realism that has been done over the past 20- 50 years is illustration or commercial painting for home decor. Of course, some of it is very beautifully and insightfully painted and some of it is pretty trite. For instance the ubiquitous  naked woman draped across the couch or worse still, the naked woman draped across the Victorian era couch. (You know the era when we could marginalize and sexually objectify women and get away with it.)  One of my students asked why painters paint the same few things over and over again. Good question! One answer is because many buyers want to be comfortable with the paintings he or she buys. They want to have already seen it. And the gallery wants the artist to paint something similar to what they sold last week, because that is what they have marketed. And of course the artist needs to eat so she paints the same pear for the 54th time. (If you know me you know what I’m talking about!)

The Fine Art World has no concerns about sales. It has always been a dialogue of responses  to itself. Over the years it has become more and more difficult for me to understand though. If you read about contemporary art you must be verse in that incomprehensible “artspeak” language. Sometimes it seems that the art world has become a case of the Emperor’s Clothes. It appears to me to be spiraling with nowhere to go but self destruction, evisceration. Perhaps in the post-apocalyptic art world there will be the possibility again for sincerity without shame, where we can all live in harmony with whatever expression a person decides to pursue. Where Traditional Realists, Photo-Realists, Avant-garde, Conceptual, Digital, Environmental, Installation, Interactive, Video, Performance, Pop, Post-whatever, Neo whatever, Commercial,  and even those damn nudes on couches can coexist without malice, because all have been produced honestly and with (God forbid) sincerity.


Jeremy Lipking

Thank you to John Seed who has a rock’n contemporary realist art blog, to Matt Asby and Brendan Carroll for the NY Times article on Irony in Art and to my friends at Wikipedia who are always a big help.



About Lorena Pugh

I'm a Rhode Island artist sharing some work on these blogs

6 responses to “Realism is Dead! Long Live Realism!

  1. Michael Garr

    Lorena, I plan to continue in my old fashioned ideas that art will reflect the artist enveloped in the world as he/she sees it. I like realism, and as you know, will continue to strive for betterism, not perfection! I love our group of painters with the same purpose, more or less! Never did understand all the modern new art, still have found it fascinating. But, zombieism inadvertently reared its heedless way into my work when I drew the plaster bust and the headless body of Jon in the study we did last night! (lol)

    Nice blog!



  2. margieb

    “To thine own self be true”. There are many who struggle with the same issues, but if we are authentic, which you know you are, you are on the right path. And, you are not alone….Though some may try to convince you that you are.
    Not sure that always helps, but it is encouraging to me.


  3. Ha! Realism was never dead, it was just tied up, blind-folded, and left to rot in the basement. So many things led to this abuse, the camera, as you mentioned, and the war/s. So many people were killed off for no good purpose in crazy men’s wars that the ones who were left became quite cynical.

    I believe the reason the two art camps, as you put it can’t really get along is because they’ve both been oppressed by whoever happened to be on top at the moment. First it was the acadamie ruling people’s art lives and then it was the other way around. One good oppression deserves another.

    I’ve often used the Emperor’s New Clothes to describe the phenomenon that enveloped the modern art world. There’s no better way to describe it. But, I’ve enjoyed a lot of the work of the artists you mentioned. Realism isn’t the be all and end all of art. Not by a long shot. Just don’t try to tell me a scribble, or a drip of paint has more meaning than a painting of a pear, because one is a pear and one is a drip of paint. Each painted by an artist at a particular moment in time in response to a particular thing. They are both recordings of a movement of an arm attached to a particular body in a particular point in space and time. That’s all. Unless, you want to throw the whole provenance of the work into the mix. Then you can sell a drip of paint or a pear for an exorbitant amount of money, most of which will never make it to the artist, but that’s another issue.

    Anyway, with regard to portraiture, your comment about the Cezanne quote and how everything falls apart and vanishes and it is the job of the artist to preserve moments on canvas, made me want to point out that we, people, fall apart and vanish, too. Just as everything else in the universe does. Nature is all. So, a portrait is as valid a preservation of our world as is a painting of an apple. One just rots faster than the other, for the most part.

    Thanks for the great post!


    • Hi Kimber,
      So true about the artists responding to the moment with his or her brain in his or her body from his or her experience. All valid! (And with his or her technical ability I should add.)
      Our paintings will decay too eventually. The ones I don’t burn first! (I’ve taken to purging from time to time.)
      Thanks for the comment!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: