The illusion of realism

There was a time when painting from photos was radical, or denounced as cheating. Now it’s taken for granted, while styles like expressionism are out of fashion. It’s as if the ubiquity of the photographic image, fuelled by digital media, promotes blandly sterile art geared to impress superficially rather than evoke deep feeling – which negates at least one good reason for working in a tactile medium.

What a paradox that, despite its fidelity and speed, modern technology can’t beat painting straight from life for immediacy. The artist must submit to the limits imposed by using a sitter who tires, twitches and shifts unpredictably. And during the process, an atmosphere, a mood, develops in the studio, whether or not artist and model chat and/or hold eye contact – an unavoidable intimacy that makes the stakes higher (as with plein-air painting, through exposure to weather, insects etc.).

A painter friend of mine sometimes used to pay me to model for him. I appreciated the cash in hand, but a typical pose would mean standing, perhaps with an arm raised or most of my weight on one leg for hours, the time between breaks diminishing as blood drained from my limbs, one side of me covered in gooseflesh, the other seared by the kerosene heater. My friend – I’ll call him R – was dedicated to realism, seeking verisimilitude in the smallest details.

And yet, an elusive strangeness distinguished his paintings. The ambiguous relationship of the figures to the settings – some looked displaced, others like actors in an obscure ritual – partly explained the surreal effect. And inevitably, some unfortunate distortion – of a hand or a mouth or a leg’s foreshortening – would shoot any illusion of realism in the foot.

I never knew whether R couldn’t afford the time (or the money) to fix these flaws, whether he couldn’t actually see them, or whether he just didn’t care. But no dealer would represent him. In all the years of our friendship I never saw his work hung in a gallery, only on or stacked against the walls of his front room-cum-studio. The odds of success were stacked against R.

Originality rarely commands gallery space, except in retrospect. It alienates investors shopping for a sure bet. But contacts count. And R, the defiant cuss, would get drunk and shoot his mouth off at openings. His mentor, an art-world darling (and a more docile drunk), did his best. Yet R made wealthy middle-class art collectors uncomfortable.

So what? I loved R’s paintings. Even those that didn’t work emanated mystery, not least by defamiliarising recognisable places. Carting a stretched canvas, R would bike to local sites like the stairs below Sydney Harbour Bridge, where he’d set up and paint, despite stares and questions from passers-by. His enigmatic compositions of places and figures couldn’t be called landscapes or portraits, though some would fit the ‘genre’ definition: scenes from everyday life, of ordinary people at work or play, depicted in a generally realistic way. And a fair few, flaws and all, deserved to be Sulman Prize finalists, the criteria for eligibility being confusingly broad. In fact, one did get hung, once (before I knew R, so I never saw it).

Does genre mean something different in the context of fiction? Its typically formulaic plots have little to do with the quotidian. Which leaves literary fiction to do the heavy lifting of depicting everyday life (even if ordinary folk watch TV more than they read) – much like the work of realist painters who, however highly skilled, lack the mystical vision that gripped R between stints at his day job as builder. According to novelist Amitav Ghosh: ‘the very gestures with which [the “realist” novel] conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real’. And media theorist McKenzie Wark more or less agrees: ‘The bourgeois novel is a genre of fantasy fiction smeared with naturalistic details – filler – to make it appear otherwise.’

As for the visual arts equivalent, viewers of last year’s leading local portrait exhibitions could be forgiven for thinking that most painters today are realists, seeking verisimilitude in the smallest details. Yet nothing strange distinguishes their paintings. Attempts to duplicate the 2D photographic image, with or without false sentiment, the best being hard to distinguish from an enlarged colour print, all tend to look somewhat similar, even if hyperrealist. Flaunting every blemish, hair, pore, vein and wrinkle, the latter are smeared with naturalistic details, to quote Wark again. Filler.

Yet most portrait subjects today, whether public figures, family or friends, lack the time and/or the will to sit still for hours on end, so photos assist the painter to achieve a recognisable likeness and, often, a slicker product than if the subject were present. Realist painting became redundant, though, with the invention of the camera. Freed from the task of recording, painters followed their visions inwards or out to the further reaches of abstraction; defied the conventions of representation. Art, as the Nazis recognised, hence their violent suppression of it, once had the power to shape culture. But is that true now? That so many contemporary artists aspire only to mimic what technology already does better points to a kind of mindlessness, a loss of imagination.

One of the 20th century’s most original artists, Francis Bacon, leaned heavily on photographic sources, yet transformed them. In contrast, the artists favoured by most art prize judges today trade in cliché: the illustrated idea of their subject rather than a direct experience. These artists, whose skill is often outshone by that of top magazine illustrators, could more aptly be termed craftspeople. Demonstrating technical control, if not mastery, they might even achieve a striking likeness. Yet Bacon understood that for a work to be truly good, he had to risk some loss of control. Writes Gilles Deleuze in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, ‘Narration is the correlate of illustration.’ Bacon resisted both. Narration, illustration – both serve the purpose of mediation. Narration leads, distracts, diverts, hypnotises, manipulates, shepherding the reader’s/viewer’s/listener’s attention. Illustrations interpret. They instruct. They entertain. In children’s books, they direct (and contain) the young reader’s imagination. Most advertising relies on narration and illustration.

Bacon sought a more direct expression. He lived dangerously. But an artist like Bacon couldn’t exist, or at least couldn’t succeed, today. Our fetishisation of technology (and attendant dissociation from nature, both inner and outer) has increasingly inclined us to seek virtual thrills and actual safety. Meanwhile, technology dwarfs our capacity for memory, the faculty we humans use to produce what we call reality. And it’s as if, in the process, we’ve forgotten what makes us truly human – messy emotion, immediacy, vulnerability, openness to the unknown…

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One Response to The illusion of realism

  1. Annette maie says:

    Yes and the mistakes that come from releasing total control…may direct the painting or writing elsewhere…along another path

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