Modern Abstraction Vs Classical Realism and beyond.
The rise of the camera and the effect on realism and abstraction and their re-birth as abstract realism.
For well over a hundred years we have lived in a world where the camera has allowed us to record pictures of the real world in such detail that it still fills us with awe. What did this do to the traditionalist painters still producing portraits, landscapes and still life images of the real world in magnificent detail. Well in 1826 when the camera first appeared, painting still held strong in the face of those early grainy sepia tone photographs. But it soon became clear that the modern world was moving into a new era. The artists working in the classical style would soon be superseded by the technological camera and those with a wider concept of what it meant to be an artist.
It was great artists like Britain’s J W Turner in 1832, creating paintings that we can see have strong abstract elements. It is the light he is painting and not the landscapes, and this gives us one of the first glimpses at what will one day become abstraction. The impressionist painters in France in the1860’s also moved art away from the classical style. Artists like Monet, Manet, Pissarro and others, bravely all helped break out of the classical tradition , allowing us to see that art could be more than we had come to accept. In their time these paintings were seen as revolutionary. The classical art establishment for a long time refused to hang their works. It was only though determination and the patronage of Napoleon III setting up the Salon des Refuses (exhibition of rejects) that allowed their work to be seen by the world. Their art and the art of those that followed them has Lead to art movements in pointillism, post-impressionism, cubism, expressionism and modernist movements.
By the end of the 19th and beginning of the early 20th century the camera was now so common that almost anyone could afford to have a photograph taken and more and more people owned their own camera’s. So it was that the ideas of abstraction and a move away from realism started to grow in the art world, no longer did the artist need to depict things from the natural world. They could use colour and form to show images that were far less representational.
Cubist and futurist artwork tried to depict objects in ways that showed their intrinsic qualities, and many of the artists credited with abstraction started out with more representational paintings. It is not entirely clear who started the abstract modernist movement, it could have been any number of painters from Robert Delaunay and Piet Mondrian to Kadinsky or Balla. What is clear however is that a spontaneous change had happened, and it came at the beginning of the 20th century. This seems to have caused such a shock to the world that even after over 100 years, many still cannot deal with it or understand this “new” form of art. However it’s roots go far further back than 100 years, to the time of our ancient ancestors, those who created decorative artworks on pots, mosaics and walls. This Modernism is just a re-awakening of an older understanding of art.
But what of today in the 21st century. Abstract art is often still misunderstood as the art “anyone could make” and it’s value seems to have be eroded by just this. We now see what is called Abstract art sold in major retail stores for little more than the canvas and paint. The artist virtually removed and replaced by a production line worker, painting the same “abstract” over and over again. These mass produced wall hangings may have devalued abstract art in the eyes of the many people. But even these fast food versions of abstract art, can never ruin the true wonder of an abstract painting created by true artist with vision and passion.
Of course Realism has never gone away. There is some built in desire to have images created by human hand that show an eye for the real world. It is easy to understand what makes a good realist piece. If the apple looks like an apple, it must be a good painting. And this basic human desire to marvel at the amazing skill and dedication of the artist at recreating the real world must go very deep. While Photography can instantly recreate our world, the skill to actually paint it seems for many the greater. So while photography has evolved and we now all own cameras that came free with our phone. This easy access to realism, it would seem, can never take that away from the artist, who can paint it or draw it.
So what of the future of abstraction and realism? Well I’m sure they will both continue. However many artist are now working in what is a mixture of the two, what I call abstract realism. This abstract realism is a form of art that sits between realistic depiction of the world and a non representational abstraction. No longer are the two separate and opposed, but come together to strengthen each other and form an alloy. The artist who can make realistic images, but takes that skill and creates a more abstract painting that is greater than sum of them both. This movement includes not just painters but also photographers and even digital artists. I see it as the new way forward in art. The Abstract realist touches something in us all that. Our desire for the comfort and skill of the real and our need of those abstract aesthetics.