Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Realism (pt. 7)

Courbet's Stone Breakers is also another of the artist's great works that receives a lot of attention from critics and scholars today—perhaps more so due to the intrigue of its history.  Actually, it is considered as one of the foremost important staples of Realist art and probably even the most definitive example of Realism.
It is a painting of two simple laborers, poor men, wearing rags.  We cannot see the face of either, but one is an older man, one a younger.  Interestingly enough, Courbet has placed them in order, like a timeline.  Perhaps the second image is the boy grown up, or the future generation, all one man.  This faceless worker is forecasted to continue laboring as a poor man for the rest of his life, breaking up stones for railway constructions or whatever purpose.  As viewers we never learn who these two figures are, and we never see them for anything but the labor they are performing.  On Courbet's canvas, these two heads will be turned away from us forever, keeping us from ever knowing them; and that, the artist wanted to observe, is the neglect tolerated by the lower class.  Courbet wanted to loudly observe this, so he painted this unattractive scene on a humongous canvas, 5' x 8'.  During World War II, this painting was destroyed by the Nazis.
It's important to observe the shifting focus onto the lower class at this time as stemming largely from political movements, not just artistic ideas.  Art is mimicking the world around it, not the other way around.  With the 1848 revolutions taking place all over Europe it was no wonder that Realists turned to the subject matter of the common people; their voices were being heard then for the first time in such a public manner.  And around this time the ideas of class systems were being published, most notably by Karl Marx in his Communist Manifesto, produced in 1848.  Courbet began painting this work, The Stone Breakers, just a year after it was published.

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