In strict Art Historic terms Photorealism began in America in 1968-69 with artists such as Robert Bechtle, Charles Bell, Chuck Close, Robert Cottingham and Audrey Flack, all predominantly undertaking the challenges of presenting surfaces such as glass and steel and the complex reflections of light that these materials enduced. These challenges were undertaken with a strict realism, devoid of artistic interpretation or conceit, as true to the real object, or at least as true to the photographic image of that object that they could muster but with an increased depth of field that photography is (or was until 3D Photography) incapable of achieving. There is an excellent article discussing the socio-economic development of American Photorealism in the midst of their humiliating defeat in Vietnam and a loss of trust with their Government under Nixon on Deutsche Bank – ArtMag (http://db-artmag.com/en/54/feature/a-journey-back-to-the-heyday-of-photorealism/) so I will not dwell on further historic criteria particularly.
I will instead introduce a few more names that fly in the face of Meisel’s five Point Principle of photorealism, or at least the one principle that states to be a photorealist one must have exhibited photorealist work by 1972 (a late Modernist principle ensuring group identity and historical linearity). Firstly let us look back to what I think could be the first instance that preceded even the photograph by centuries, in fact over two millenia – perhaps here we should change the nomenclature of photorealism to Super-Realism or Hyper-Realism.
Pliny the elder tells us of two masterful painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasios, each at the pinnacle of his abilities, no one knew how to choose between them. They, however, decided to resolve the issue once and for all, with a competition held under strictly controlled conditions. They assigned themselves two areas of a wall, each invisible from the other so that they might work in private. Each artist was to paint a mural, a fresco of pigment in wet plaster. Then, a carefully assembled jury was to view both paintings and award one the prize, putting an end to this insoluble rivalry.
When it came time to judge the freshly completed paintings, the audience of select critics assembled, and, behind them, a large crowd of onlookers. Zeuxis was outwardly calm and confident. He had produced, he seemed to think, his best work for this crucial occasion. Behind the curtain was his life’s masterpiece.
The spokesman for the jury asked Zeuxis to draw the curtain. When he did, the crowd and jury gasped to see a bowl of fruit, plaintive and simple. The glint of light off the pale green surface of the pears made them seem moist and firm. You could practically taste the pomegranates.
After a long period of silence, a bird flew down from its vantage point on the top of the wall, straight into the painted bowl of fruit, from which it had hoped to steal a grape. Hitting the wall, the bird fell to the ground, a victim of illusion.
Without a doubt, this proved what the jury and audience could scarcely conclude: that the realism of the painting had made it escape its limits, as artificial; the real judge had been the bird, whom no one could accuse of favoritism. When the gasps of the crowd died away, Zeuxis was sure he had won, no matter what Parrhasios’s entry. For what better demonstration could he have hoped? Zeuxis’s confidence now caused him to arrogantly turn to his rival and say, “Now, let’s take a look at the undoubtedly excellent work of my esteemed colleague”
Parrhasios feigned a meek but genial tone. Slightly bowed, he did not speak but turned slightly towards the area where his mural was to be revealed. The crowd shuffled and murmured.
Now standing around Parrhasios’s wall, the crowd grew impatient. Zeuxis, not wishing to over-embarrass his rival, came forward after a longish interval and directly addressed the painter. “I think,” he said, “it is time to see what you may have done. Would you honour us by drawing the curtain?” To which, Parrhasios replied “It cannot be done”. The jury, audience, and Zeuxis thought that Parrhasios was at the breaking point, that he was emotionally crushed by the inevitability of defeat. “Surely,” Zeuxis put in, trying to soften the blow of the inevitable, “we would be very happy to see your work, but we’re getting a bit impatient standing in the hot sun. Just show us the painting.”
After a pause, Parrhasios replied, “You’re looking at it.” The onlookers focused more carefully on the wall, realising at last that they were looking at a painting of a curtain.
This idea of Hyper-Realism holds true simultaneously to the victory of the eye, or trompe de l’oeil but also on a deeper level to Thomas Aquinas’ famous proposition that truth can be verified by the conformity between a thing and the intellect, adequatio rei et intellectus, (where artistic expression is a manifestation of the intellect).
In the current exhibition and series of workshops at Brentwood Road Gallery, This Is (Still) Life), Photorealist Eleanor Darling, an artist based in Romford, takes the students and the public through the difficulties and complexities of the photorealistic practice. Producing pencil on paper work that investigates still life with a photorealist gaze, Darling’s work is incontestably refined – contemporary, anti-elitist objects are taken and offered to us with the most remarkable sense of light and shadow. The most difficult surface of glass is reproduced by Darling with an astounding competency and sensitivity to light. Pushing the student’s competency within this demanding discipline will no doubt have a beneficial effect on their development as exceptionally proficient artists and we look forward to more and more work from Eleanor.
The show runs until mid April 2015 and workshops are available for booking now. firstname.lastname@example.org