New realism

By 1962, the term New Realism was being used in the United States and France (where it was called Nouveau Realisme) as a name for Pop Art. That use never caught on in the United States, and then the term began to signify instead, a new breed of Realism.

Today’s realists are signaling a return to values rejected by te abstract, minimalist and conceptual art movements that have dominated most of our century. They’re bringing back the art of fine draftsmanship and showing new respect of shape, color and proportion. In the process, they are using such classic genres as landscapes, still lives and portraits to pose important questions about contemporary art.

By contrast, New realism (although an extreme withdrawal from the Abstract Expressionism that dominated the 1950’s) incorporated the flattened space, large scale, and simplified color of Modernist painting. Some New realist artists, such as Alfred Leslie, switched from abstract to representational painting.

New Realism is too broad a term to have much meaning except a shorthand for a Figurative alternative to the abstraction of Abstract Expressionism, or Minimalist. It has taken many forms from serene landscapes (Fairfield Porter) to slyly psychological portraits (Alice Neel), and from the abstracted nudes (Philip Pearlstein) to the cerebral self-portraits by William Beckman.

The term also tends to imply a “nongestural or nonexpressionistic handling of paint that suggests fidelity to appearances”. The belief that New Realists are primarily motivated by an interest in the way things look is believed by the psychic probing of Lucian Freud’s work or the radially more simplified stylizations of Edouard Vuillard – two artists associated with New Realism.

Lucian Freud’s main characteristic in painting was a strict linear style of thin, carefully laid-on colors. He abandoned this style after the 1950’s. He began to paint in an impasto manner – a new, strong, plastic coloration which requires stiff paintbrushes and great physical activity and participation. It began to loosen and the paint left imprints and traces in the color on the canvas – the effect of raw tissue. This has a liberating effect on Freud and leads him to further development.
During the 1960’s and 1970’s and right up till the present, Lucian Freud has painted both male and female nudes which have had quite a shocking effect on the viewer. Many of his images make one almost feel like an intruder of the intimate lives of others. Freud says that precisely this feeling of embarrassment and discomfort is his ally, because a picture should disturb and shock, and thereby involve the viewer.

Freud thinks nudes should be understood as extended portraits – for example, “Lying by the Rags”. The model is frequently shown in uncomfortable positions in the sharp light, on abed, couch or studio floor. Sometimes the background, as here, is a mysterious pile of rags used by Freud to wipe his paintbrushes. The painter is looking down at the model from his raised position at his easel, and registers each pore, each strand of hair, every unevenness in the skin. Freud builds the body plastically with the help of thick layers of paint, modeling it in such a way that the painting process almost becomes an act of creation. “I want my portraits to be of the people, not like them. Not having a look of the sitter, being them… As far as I’m concerned, the look is the person. I want it to work for me just as flesh does”.

This self-exposure suggests a willingness and strong inner motivation on the part of the world, as well as the mutual trust and confidence. Freud points out that they are representations of both seeing and being seen. They are in each other’s physical presence and in this way, influence one another. There does not seem to be anything autobiographical or biographical in the paintings, they are extential images.

In “Painter and Model” (shown below) – contrary to tradition – it is the woman, fully clothed, who is the painter, while the nude man is the model. The man’s nakedness, his defenseless body, exposed, is emphasized by the woman’s cocoon-like clothing, stiff with splotches of paint. She seems to be her own palette – totally self-sufficient. There is no eye contact between the two figures – they are living people, while at the same time, completely passive. The only apparent action in the picture is the green paint being squeezed out of the tube by the woman’s foot and the disturbing tension created by the paintbrush pointed at the man. She looks straight ahead, while his gaze is the glossy stare of a model who has been posing for hours on end. In this picture, it is the image and the paint’s reality which brings out the feeling of alienation, isolation and melancholy. This is emphasized by the pale greyish sickly color of the man’s skin, the seemingly frozen foot, the ragged sofa, peeling walls, drawn curtain and the dark, closed cupboard behind the figures, as if they are each in their own closed world.

In ‘Girl With White Dog’, Freud paints his first wife Kathleen, and an English bull terrier on a stripped sofa. He painted in pale and muted tones, the scene is quite simple and somewhat bleak. Both the woman and the dog stare at the viewer with a clam yet intense gaze, and there is almost a sense of complicity between the two. Freud is known for his masterly and near obsessive portrayal of human flesh, with all its flaws boldly displayed. This painting is no exception – the subtle paint tones he has used to create the detailed, ivory quality of the woman’s skin.

People exposed to Freud’s searching gaze appear to be more like themselves than they have ever been or ever will be. It seems as though the artist assimilates the person’s life information into the life of the picture – (Freud’s grandfather, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, helped people to get to know themselves in order to be themselves – his grandchild, Lucian’s tools, were a brush and palette).

Edouard Vuillard had a reputation, which for a long time, was private rather than public. In his early works, Vuillard used broken paint with small brush strokes. ‘Woman in Blue with Child’ (shown below) consists of his wife, Misia, who is depicted in the painting, playing with her niece. They are in the Parisian apartment of Thadee Natanson. Vuillard probably used his own photograph of the room, whilst painting this picture. The interior is typical of the century, with flowered wallpaper, figured upholstery and decorative objects. Vuillard made the interior a dazzling surface pattern of muted blues, reds and yellows, compared to a Parisian painting in its harmonious richness. The forms of the woman and child are flattened, to be virtually distinguished from the surrounding patterns.

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