Realism in Art


I. Introduction

Realism in art - a very complex, difficult subject. For me as a painter, realism has been the style that best describes my artistic attitude since the late 1980s. With my personal experience on the one hand as a painter of realistic pictures (meanwhile there are about 500 of them) and on the other hand as an art teacher (as such I worked for almost 40 years) I should be able to give interested readers an idea and more concrete image of realism in art. Hopefully this idea will increase the pleasure and the gain of knowledge in the reception of this style or attitude.

II. Realism- One term, two meanings

1. Realism as an artistic attitude

This is the striving to represent sensually experienced reality as faithfully as possible by artistic means in all its manifestations, even if these are unpleasant and unattractive. However, this should not only be understood in the sense of an objectively perceived and faithfully reproduced reality, but also as an expression of the subjective view and personal mode of representation of the respective artist.

In all branches of art, such as literature, fine arts, music, are realistic approaches ever since people began to be artistically active. In the fine arts (painting, graphics, sculpture) are for example:

Altamira Bison, cave painting
1. Altamira Bison, 16.500-13.000 BC

The animal representations in the cave paintings, which due to the hunting magic the typical characteristics of the respective animals exactly capture.

Roman sculpture in Marvel from Emperor Nerva
2. Roman Emperor Nerva, 96-98 AC. From Tivoli.

The emperor portraits of the Roman empire (as coins or as sculptures), in which the individual physiognomy of the rulers is worked out.

Man in Prayer, Gothic period, Painting by Workshop of Robert Campin
3. Man in Prayer, 1430-1435 by Workshop of Robert Campin

The painterly representation of the individual in the Gothic period.

The Birth of Virgin, renaissance palace, painting,by Fra Carneavle
4. The Birth of the Virgin, 1467 by Fra Carnevale

In the Renaissance the perspective construction of space and ...

Painting of Bartolomeo Bonghi by Giovanni Battista
5. Bartolomeo Bonghi, ca. 1554 by Giovanni Battista Moroni

... the sensitive emphasis of materiality.

Baroque painting of Lucas van Uffel by Anthony Dyck
6. Lucas van Uffel, ca. 1622 by Anthony van Dyck

In the Baroque period the precise capture and representation of light effects and illumination.

Dutch genre painting, A couple playing cards, with a Serving Woman
7. A Couple Playing Cards, with a Serving Woman, ca. 1665-75 by Pieter de Hooch

And in the Dutch genre painting of the 17th century, the most important aspect is the detailed description of everyday life.

Characteristics of realism specifically in painting are:

  • Attention to form
  • color
  • space
  • light
  • materiality
  • attention to detail even in seemingly insignificant areas of the picture
  • avoidance of idealization, romanticization and symbolisms

2. Realism as an art style or epoch (1855 to ca. 1900)

Gustav Courbet (1819-1877) established the term "realism" in 1955. In that year, the Paris Salon, back then the world's most important exhibition of contemporary art, was held as part of the World's Fair. After some of his submitted works were juried out, he organized his own exhibition parallel to the Paris Salon. In this exhibition about 40 of his works were shown. He titled this exhibition "Le Réalisme."

Industrialization, iron rolling mill, painting by Adolf Menzel, Realism
8. Eisenwalzwerk, 1875 by Adolf von Menzel

Courbet and like-minded painters of the era, such as Honoré Daumier (1808-1877), Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875), Adolph von Menzel (1815-1905), Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900) and Ilya Repin (1844-1930), opposed the conventions of classicism and romanticism in the idealistic and academic art. They wanted to create living art.
In politically motivated works, these artists turned their attention to social reality in a socially critical way and also brought the lower class (mainly industrial workers and peasants) to the center of attention. It was their concern to show the public their hard everyday working life and precarious living conditions in a factual way, without idealizing them.

landscape painting by Gustave Courbet, View if Ornans, Realism
9. View of Ornans, probably mid-1850 by Gustave Courbet

In landscape painting, artists of the "School of Barbizon" especially Camille Corot (1796-1876), Charles-Francois Daubigny (1817-1878), Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875), Théodore Rousseau (1811-1867) and Constant Troyon (1810-1865) were important for this epoch in addition to Courbet. Their pictorial subjects were sections of nature, which they reproduced unidealized in accordance with their realistic basic attitude. These artists had found their retreat from the big city of Paris in the forest of Fontainebleau and devoted themselves there to open-air painting (plein air painting). Painting directly in nature was made easier for them by the fact that oil paints in tubes had become commercially available in the mid-19th century.
By painting outdoors, the artists were able to closely observe the light with its changes during the course of the day and depict it in a way that made them pioneers of Impressionism.

III. Painting trends in realism in the 20th and 21st Century*

1. New Objectivity

The New Objectivity established itself in the German Empire between World War I and World War II. Important representatives of this direction include Christian Schad, Karl Hubbuch, Rudolf Schlichter, Karl Grossberg, Anton Räderscheidt, George Grosz, Otto Dix and Max Beckmann.
Often the consequences of the First World War are shown and processed with socially critical themes. With an explicitly objective style of representation, the artists distanced themselves from tendencies of abstraction, especially from Cubism on the one hand and from emotionally charged Expressionism on the other.

2. American Realism

American Realism developed at the beginning of the 20th century in the USA, when artists there (for example Edward Hopper, Charles Sheeler, Grant Wood, Andrew Wyeth, Philip Pearlstein and Alice Neel) explicitly distanced themselves from the European avantgarde with its abstracting tendencies. It is considered the first independent art movement in the USA. Typical of this current of realist painting is the description of the American lifestyle in everyday and socially critical pictorial content.

3. Socialist Realism

From 1930 in the then Soviet Union and then from 1949 in the then German Democratic Republic, Socialist Realism became the dominant art movement. It was prescribed by state order for all artists, and the state was the main commissioning body for artists.
It seems very questionable whether this style is accurately described by the term "realism". For the emphasis of this direction is not the unadorned reproduction of reality, but the glorification of the working class and the peasantry in a propagandistic manner.

4. Photorealism

Photorealism developed from the 1960s onwards, mainly in the USA and Europe. It became known to a wider audience through Dokumenta 5 in 1972.
The artists took slides, which they projected onto canvas, as a model and painted, often very large-format, images. They worked them out in such detail that the boundaries between photography and painting became blurred. They were not, as is often criticized, concerned only with technical perfection. In particular, they also tried to reveal the shortcomings (e.g. blurring due to movement or lack of depth of field and color cast) of the seemingly perfect medium of photography with their painting.
Since the painting style of the Photorealists shows little of their own handwriting, the artists tried to distinguish themselves from one another by specializing in certain themes. Artists who can be mentioned here are, for example: Chuck Close (oversized faces), Ralph Goings (fast food restaurants), Robert Cottingham (neon signs), Richard Estes (city views), Franz Gertsch (portraits and grasses).

5. Individual artist personalities with realistic attitude

Claudio Bravo (1936-2011)
Lucian Freud (1922-2011)
Johannes Grützke (1937-2017)
Antonio Lopez Garcia (b. 1936)
Erwin Pfrang (b. 1951)
Gerhard Richter (b. 1932)

In the case of these artists, I think it is still too early or it will not even be possible to classify them in art historical pigeonholes.
However, it is a personal concern of mine to mention them in this context, because they are of great importance to me and my art of painting.

IV. My own realism oil paintings on canvas

1.Studio Still Life Four Women, 120 x 100 cm, 1988

Still life painting, Four Women by Georg Wirnharter, Realism Art
Atelierstillleben Vier Frauen, 1988 by Georg Wirnharter

I painted this still life in front of the subject, which means that I actually had the subject of the painting in front of me. I put it together in my studio from two of my oil paintings that had been done shortly before, one of my "100 vase women", one of my tin sculptures and an African wooden figure.

Spatial effect

Even in the selection and positioning of the objects, I followed a spatial concept: the two paintings, flat objects in themselves, are arranged almost parallel to the picture, but nevertheless have a three-dimensional effect, and in different ways.
In the cut oil painting, the "picture within the picture", which hangs on the wall, the painted floor, the same as below in the still life itself, leads into the depth, in particular by the plate with the strongly shortened spoon placed on it. On the "picture within the picture", which is on the floor, the volume of the upper body of the woman depicted creates space through its plasticity.
The spatiality of the three figures standing on the floor is further enhanced by the curved, rounded forms of the vase woman and the African mother-child sculpture, as well as the flat, intricately angled planes of the sheet metal sculpture. The staggered and partially overlapping arrangement of the three figures creates additional spatial depth.

Painting and materiality

In the painting process, I attached great importance to the materials of the depicted objects, namely the wooden figure, the clay vase woman, the sheet metal sculpture, the linoleum and the carpet, appearing as realistically as possible in their characteristic materiality.

Lightning effect

It was also important to me for the realistic representation of the situation to observe light and shadow closely and to reproduce them in detail. Examples of this are:

  • the drop shadows on the lower left corner of the painting on the wall, which reveal that the stretcher is warped,
  • the drop shadow of the painting on the floor, which has arisen because the painting is leaning at a slight angle against the wall,
  • the drop shadow of the vase woman, which reveals that she is crooked because of the difference in height between the linoleum and the carpet.

The fact that these three "slants" that reveal the drop shadows were not removed before painting is, to me, as much a part of realism as the dirty studio floor.
There are two things I particularly like about the painting that I would like to point out:

  1. how the shadows of the vase woman and the African statue connect the floor, the wall and the painting hanging above, and
  2. how a correspondence is created between the bowl on the head of the vase woman and the plate on the painting on the wall.

2. Double portrait in front of shop window, 110 x 160 cm, 1995

Painting Portait in front of Shop window by Georg Wirnharter, Realism Art
Doppelportrait vor Schaufenster, 1995 by Georg Wirnharter

I painted this picture after a photo I had taken in the city center of Augsburg, when just two people walked past a fashion store. The scene is full of contrasts:

  • In the store window are four fashion mannequins on display, all blond, young, and elegantly and modernly dressed in black and white. The two persons are an older, gray-haired couple wearing plain blue clothes.
  • The couple moves from left to right, three of the fashion mannequins have their heads turned to the left.

There is no communication or interaction between the six figures in the picture. Merely as a random constellation of the moment, there is an optical connection between the two people and the fashion mannequin, whose head is facing forward. The viewer's gaze is led diagonally into the depths of the room from the older woman in front via her attendant to the doll.
For the rest, stepped planes parallel to the picture prevail towards the back: The lettering on the window pane at the bottom left, the row of four mannequins, the yellow background of the left and the white background of the right part of the window. On the window pane the facades of the opposite stores and the couple with their shopping bag are reflected.

In the painting with the everyday street scene I proceeded in the manner of the photorealists: I projected a slide onto the canvas and drew the contours in pencil. The painting is built up in many thin, glazing layers of paint to achieve the desired depth of color. Soft hair brushes enabled me to bring out the color transitions so subtly that the effect of the different lighting from the spotlights in the store on the one hand and the cold daylight on the street on the other stood out clearly.
The delicate glazes also allowed me to reproduce " photorealistically" the reflections on the shop window (for example, the mirrored writing in the upper right corner and the reflection of the couple on the border between the white and the yellow background of the minimalist window dressing).
This method of painting, which does not reveal any brushstrokes and no artistic handwriting, is well suited to depict smooth material very realistically, such as that from which the mannequins are made. The vividness of the couple's skin and hair, on the other hand, I could only bring out by applying the colors more impasto. The difficulty here was not to impair the uniform painterly overall impression of the painting.

3. Painter and model, oil on canvas, 160 x 110 cm, 2013

Nude in front of a mirror with painter
Maler und Modell, 2013 by Georg Wirnharter

In this painting, the viewer encounters three figures:

  1. In the foreground the model in back view
  2. behind it, slightly overlapped, the model from the front and
  3. me while painting, separated by the canvas.

Through the gold-framed mirror it comes to this triple constellation on the painting, which is painted directly in front of the model.

I stand very close behind the model and have to lower my gaze to be able to see all the way to the floor. This is how the shifts in the proportions of the model occur. Her head seems large while her body gets increasingly smaller going down to the feet. In the mirror image not much of this close-up view is to be recognized any more, since there the distance to the eye of the painter is larger.

The position of my, i.e. the painter's eye determines the entire picture space. It is the vanishing point of the painting.

As a painter who is committed to realism, I try to paint what I see as accurately as possible. This includes, in particular, the distortion of the forms, the lighting and the consideration of details:

  • The rectangular shapes of the mirror and the canvas are no longer rectangular in the painting, but they become irregular squares. This gives them a spatial orientation and creates depth of space in the painting.
  • I also try to reproduce exactly the light direction, which also creates space: The model stands under the skylight of the studio. Therefore, the upwardly curved forms of the body are unusually brightly illuminated. I, on the other hand, am standing under a dormer window, have only partial grazing light from above, and am incidentally backlit by the windows behind me, which in turn produce clear reflections on the wooden floor.
  • Details, which I see in reality, are for me an important component of my painting, which strives for an authentic reproduction of my view of the world. Such details are for example:
    The folds of my clothes, the skin-colored cloth centered on the left edge of the picture, the paintings stacked to the left of the mirror in the studio, and the marks for the painting position located on the floor in front of the model's feet.

V. Image Sources

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York:

*For copyright reasons, it was unfortunately not possible for me to include suitable image examples in Chapter III. However, all the artists mentioned can easily be found on the Internet.