Monday, January 13, 2014

Realism (pt. 1)

In the mid-19th century, Royal Academies in Paris and London held yearly exhibitions to encourage interest in the contemporary arts.  Academy members could showcase their art during these exhibitions, or salons, as they were called.  Salons were important social events where reputations were acquired.  Scientific inventions, art, new fashion design, and other creative works could gain worldwide notoriety through being featured in these exhibitions.  It was a kind of world's fair, and artists who were good enough to enter into the salons held the possibility of making a great amount of money in selling their paintings to patrons and visitors.  Contemporary European art now had its own quasi-exclusive club that acted like a stable home for its consistent production, development, and growth.
In 1834, the British House of Parliament building was destroyed in a fire and was consequently under reconstruction over the next four decades.  As you can imagine, it was quite a historic event.  To commemorate this event, the burning of Parliament, J. M. W. Turner exhibited paintings of the scene which he made from memory (Turner was an eye-witness to Parliament's destruction).  He chose to paint the scene in a blurred mass of sketchy brushstrokes, done stylistically in order to produce the effect of the smoky air on that day.  His painting did not contain much detail or photorealism, and it was in turn highly criticized by the Royal Academy.  And so now we begin to see how many famous artists started out as Royal Academy salon rejects.
It's easy to critique paintings like Turner's Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons because it looks unrealistically and hastily fashioned.  Critics of the day would argue that this artist, because of his style, lacked the kind of higher-scale talent required to enter into the prestigious Royal Academy salons, but let us not forget that these painters were all Classically trained.  We have looked at this painting as well as Turner's Snow Storm image of a Steamboat off a Harbor's Mouth and perhaps have thought the artist's style unique enough, but a look at his earlier work will remove all doubt that he was not perfectly able to create photorealistic images on his canvas.  In paintings such as this, his first exhibited artwork, we see just how masterfully the artist's brushstrokes and color palate could envision a stunningly lifelike image of nature as it really appears.  Artists like J. M. W. Turner chose to paint in other styles for different reasons—to experiment with new ideas or to express inner emotions—not because they weren't able to paint Classically realistic forms.

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