Unreal Nature

December 29, 2014

Demanding Novel Modes

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:47 am

… What is happening … is that a new and different set of phenomena, viewed in a new and different way, demanding novel modes of composition and notation, has become the occasion for picture making.

This is from Realism by Linda Nochlin (1971):

… it was not until the advent of the Romantic theorists of the early nineteenth century that being of one’s time was viewed not merely as a possible good but as a positive advantage, and, putting it even more strongly, some Romantics affirmed that not being of one’s time automatically guaranteed literary or artistic failure.

… for the Realists … — … confronting the concrete experiences and appearances of their own times with an earnest and serious attitude and a fresh, appropriate imagery — was the only valid approach to creating an art of and for their own epoch. They therefore rejected both the pompous rhetoric and the grandiose subjects of the past, neither of which, they felt, had any relevance to modern life, and turned to such novel or hitherto neglected areas of modern experience as the lot of the laboring poor, both rural and urban, the daily life of the middle classes, modern woman and especially the fallen woman, the railroad and industry, and the modern city itself, with its cafés, its theaters, its workers and strollers, its parks and boulevards, and the life that was led in them. Of all these themes of contemporary life, none was felt to be so much the very epitome of modern experience, or was treated with such concreteness and urgency by mid-century artists, not only in France but in England and throughout the Continent, as the theme of labor. [for example, Courbet and Millet]

[ … ]

… While it was in the world of the agricultural laborer or the urban proletariat that the Realist movement found its inspiration in the years immediately following the 1848 Revolution, it was in the very different milieu of the park and the picnic, of the suburban pleasureground, the seaside resort or racetrack — junctures of eternal nature and transitory worldly fashion — that the modernism of the 1960s and 70s in France evolved. This development of Realism (in the work of Manet, the young Batignolles painters and, later, the Impressionists) came about by the convergence of plein-air painting and contemporary themes — themes neither wholly urban nor wholly rural, and which were as far from raising any awkward issues of industrial poverty and exploitation as they were from extolling the solid virtues of those who are bound to the soil and to work with their hands.

… Baudelaire, as early as his 1846 Salon, had already asserted that Parisian life was ‘rich in poetic and marvellous subjects’ and, by the sixties, both Manet andDegas had set out, more or less systematically, to capture this new urban reality in their paintings. Yet at the same time, they rejected any implication that this reality was ‘poetic’ or ‘marvellous’ in the old romantic sense of these terms.

… it is perhaps Manet who was the city-dweller par excellence. ‘To enjoy the crowd is an art’ declared Baudelaire, and Manet seems to have developed the art to an extraordinary degree. It is with him that the city ceases to be picturesque or pathetic and becomes instead the fecund source of a pictorial viewpoint, a viewpoint towards contemporary reality itself. In Manet’s case, this has nothing to do with a specific and systematic depiction of the haute monde, nor is it related to the minute topographical accuracy which informed the urban scenes of eighteenth-century vedutisti.

… This sort of pictorial structure, which emphasizes the random and fortuitous and denies any literary meaning to the occasion of the work of art, this new way of presenting the phenomena of the times have led critics in the past to assert that Manet, Degas and the Impressionists generally were (unlike Daumier) quite uninterested in the human, emotive qualities of urban existence — were in fact not interested in subject matter at all but only in the purely formal, visual elements of art. The mere phrasing of such an assertion is of course entirely misleading — as though art must be, or can be, divided into the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective,’ the ‘expressive’ and the ‘visual,’ into ‘form’ and ‘content.’ What is happening with Manet, the Impressionists and later French Realism generally, is that a new and different set of phenomena, viewed in a new and different way, demanding novel modes of composition and notation, has become the occasion for picture making. The old categories of reality and the old ways of embodying them in art were rejected simultaneously by Realist artists, and in so doing they were obliged to create an entirely new structure for art as a whole.

My most recent previous post from Nochlin’s book is here.




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