Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Zaryanko's Extreme Realism

Sergey Zaryanko 1818-1870, View of the Fieldmarshal's Hall in the Winter Palace,
Oil on canvas, 81 x 109 cm, c. 1836
Russian artist Sergey Zaryanko strove to paint exactly what was in front of him, with no compromises.

But by the middle of the 19th century, as photography became more familiar, critics objected to the extreme realism of his portraits and interior scenes, calling them “the frigid daguerreotyping of reality.”

Portrait of Prince Nikolai Yusupov, 1868
As a more painterly interpretation of realism came into favor, Zaryanko painted less, and focused more on teaching.

What do you think?
• Should a work of art assert itself as a painted surface as well as a window to nature?
• Can a painting be illusionistic without appearing photographic?
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Tretyakov Gallery Magazine
Sergey Zaryanko on Wikipedia

19 comments:

Kevin Mizner said...

Great question. I break Realism into two parts: Photo Realism and Visual Realism. Photo Realism carries the imperfections of the camera into the painting. The skewed perspectives and muted color of a photo. Visual Realism is what the eye sees, with proper perspective and color as close to nature as our tubes of paint can manage. I'm not saying one is more Art than the other, it is up to the artist and how they handle the subject and paint that makes a painting be considered art. Personally, I would take a Tom Lovell approach to realism over a Richard Estes

Mauricio said...

Thank you James for this very interesting post. In my humble view, art critics often take pleasure in imagining non-existent dichotomies. If a realistic painting is well-composed, well-balanced and well-executed then it will fullfill a whole set of formal or "abstract" requirements in spite of its representational aspirations. The brushstroke of a master will always be delightful to see and will provide a coherent texture to the canvas. A good painter always makes significant choices about light, color and design that go beyond the mere "illusionism". Those choices may be almost unconscious and instinctual, and they are inseparable from an artist's temperament and taste. Realistic representation does not need to be servile or derivative: it creates a unique combination between the visible reality and the artit's soul. Representation has abstract values and is in no way inferior to abstraction.

Karen Eade said...

For you first question, about whether a work of art should assert itself as a painted surface, I don’t think there are “shoulds” in rt, really. It is up to the artist, the work should be what s/he wants I guess. Paintings that do not look like paintings - I am thinking here of hyper-realistic paintings of food, for example - tend not to hold my interest for long, not much beyond “wow, look at the Incredible technique in that”. This is the problem, I guess: now we do have photos we don’t need this type of work to show us a stark reflection of reality.
For your second question, whether a painting can create an illusion without being like a photo, I wish I could attach a picture of “Zorro” by Richard Schmidt. It is wholly illusionistic but it is not photographic. One of my favourites! Any of his work is in this category. Anything by Velasquez, also. Anything by Rembrandt, also. Your work, too, James! I love your paintings of diners and gas stations and supermarkets. They are not photographic but I feel like I would recognise these places if ever I do get to visit the USA.

scottT said...

That is an incredibly observed and painted depiction of light and space in that interior considering he couldn't use photographic sources. Even with photographic portraits known by the time he painted the second example, it still had to have been a stunning sight to see the improved sharpness and color of the painting. But as far as capturing life, I'm afraid I have to agree with the critics. It's an illusive thing. Sometimes the more we try to make something perfect and so real looking, the less it it achieved.

On the other hand I remember seeing a Van Dyke portrait and noting how it looked more like a realistic depiction than a photograph could have captured. I think this was partly due to being painted over time, and thus is closer to the way we experience something, and not as an image frozen from a fraction of a second. This was especially seen in the fugure's gaze. I think a thousand pictures could have been taken and never capture that feeling of a soul looking back at you. Also selective focus and edge control is extremely important, and that is something a camera will never do as well as a good portrait painter.

James Gurney said...

Thanks to each of you for your thoughtful and articulate responses to my rhetorical questions. I wish I could see these paintings face to face to see what sort of presence they convey.

Scott, as you suggest, some of the pre-photographic old masters such as Van Dyck conveyed a powerfully compelling realism and a different sort of realism compared to photographic captures.

Karen, thanks for mentioning Schmid's work, which has a wonderful presence all its own. Since we've lived our entire lives with photography coexisting with painting, it's natural for us to regard realism in photographic terms.

But as Kevin suggests, there's a kind of photo realism and visual realism. The very different filters of human vision can be enlisted to guide a painter who wants to capture reality in a non-photographic way. The thing I wonder is how painting will change as we learn more about visual perception and as machine learning systems begin to generate a new type of realistic image, neither human nor photographic.

Cat165 said...

Fascinating discussion!
I think of realism falling into two camps: photo realism (e.g.Sergey Zaryanko, Richard Estes, Audrey Flack ) and expressive realism (Frida Kahlo, Lucian Freud, Eric Fischl).
The intention of the artist is paramount.
Then there is the elusive idea of soulfulness, which can't be quantified, but I believe is experienced by both the artist and the viewer, and is, I believe, highly subjective.

Unknown said...

To me if a painting is just a window than other methods of producing that window should be pursued with equal interest. So whether if its a camera lens or happens to be a painters hand , whatever gets to that true image of reality would be the goal.

I really love seeing interpretation in artwork. I think its what makes animation or comics so entertaining. The translation, the simplification, economy of statement, I enjoy looking at that and seeing the artist mind at work.

But I think ultra realism with paint has its place considering its unique position to do so with the short comings of photography.

Julien Weber-Acquaviva said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julien Weber-Acquaviva said...

I like this question too. Thanks everyone for each answer. I think I just can't see the goal of painting the exact copy of a photo. If the image exists already with the photographic media, there's no need to paint another picture of the same image, or to say "I have a good technic". Seems more to be a good practice, as an exercice. So for me the expression, the purpose of a picture is the leading part of what I call ART. Painting from photo has to bring something else, something more, or less, but changing, composing etc. Sorry my english is quite ugly, hope you understand, I'm best at reading/earing than writing it :D

James Gurney said...

Cat165, Yes, I agree that there can be an expressive or emotional realism that carries the emotional truth as well as the optical truth. As Unknown suggests, that's what makes animation so convincing. Maybe we can call that "believable" rather than "realistic."

Julien you expressed that thought beautifully. You say that painting from the photo has to bring something else, and that reminds me to mention something no one has mentioned yet, and that is the goal of painting imaginary scenes realistically, whether it's a scene from history of science or science fiction or fantasy. In those realms, competing with the camera is not an issue, since you're in a realm the camera cannot travel.

Julien Weber-Acquaviva said...

thanks James, yes, that's what I meant also - if making an anamorphic image (like odeith or a lot of street artists... ) or any detailed realistic painting from exaclty the same picture already done previously by a camera isn't interesting to me (Robin Eley's proposition seems to be more a photo than a painting for example...). Creating a new world by mixing several pictures, reality (from life observations) and intuition/feeling and bring one new personal image to life with a realistic technic, accurate by experience and photo as just one of many tools in the process, That is more powerful. Ron Mueck makes his realistic scultpures look like giants or gnomes, or puts wings on their backs :D

Julien Weber-Acquaviva said...

another example nowadays : I like to follow the pratice of George Pratt at the "illustration academy" from any pictures stolen from internet he makes sensitive paintings, he adds "expressionism".

GJ said...

Q 1:
The illusory disappearing surface comes and goes,I think. The question may be in part about texture [where Turner is relevant], or about the 2D/3D conundrum. In the latter case, Diebenkorn and Cezanne, Rothko, Pollock, and J. Johns point the way. In m own painting, which I think of as highly representational, friends criticize my for half-assed abstract expressionism. Needless, to say, I can't see it.

Q2: This goes to the heart of everything! Velazquez, Sargent show us the way, I believe.

GuzBoroda said...

I believe that in any case when artist takes camera or a brush we shouldn’t forget about what artist has to say and what he/she brings to the viewer as an author. We tend to think about art as something abstract and not personalized, when we should think about more as a message from an author. If an author thinks it’s better for him/her to draw with oils in hyper-realistic style we should accept this as the way he/she speaks. Leo Tolstoy once described a perfect from my point of view definition of Art as communication. For me it would be strange to say what an artist should or shouldn’t do. It’s like to say how you should pronounce vowels. As we learn to listen to people we should learn to see the Art

Julien Weber-Acquaviva said...

I just ask again in another words: if an artist gets his image/message with a camera, why painting the exact same image in oil or anither medium? I just understand « see my technique and the price of my ‘unique’ piece. » and I mainly lost the image in that reflexion, personaly, to me that’s a shame...

James Gurney said...

Great discussion. Of course there's no right or wrong here, no "shoulds" or "shouldn't." I put the rhetorical questions in that way just to spark our thoughts.

Julien, I think there is a place in the great world of art for paintings that look like photographs: Estes, for example. Just knowing the image has been painstakingly made by hand can be remarkable. And of course photography is full of artistic choices. But it is just one choice of many.

As Guz says, it's hard to escape the fact that all art transmits something of the consciousness of the artist. If you feel something about your subject, regardless of your methods, your viewer will probably feel that too.

GJ: Good reminder to keep in sight those artists who show us the way, then be prepared to break new trail.

Peter Drubetskoy said...

One thing I did not see mentioned in the comments: for me, one of the determinants of an impact of an art piece is what might be called the "element of surprise" - how we lay our eyes on something and just go "wow" because we did not expect what we'd be seeing. And one of the things that makes me go "wow" is when a completely convincing picture is achieved with unexpected means (hence the surprise). It's kind of a no-brainer that meticulously and competently copying what's in front of us would create a convincing representation. But when a live face is looking at us from an amalgamation of seemingly random brushstrokes or paint splotches, it is really nothing short of magic (I like to paraphrase Arthur Clarke and proclaim "Any sufficiently advanced art is indistinguishable from magic") To lay my hands on some of this magic is one of the biggest enjoyments for me in my art journey. Therefore, "all else equal", I would take a "painterly" piece over a "photographic" one, just because the element of "how the hell does this work" is greater in the former.

David J Teter said...

Ironically there is more acceptance of the photographer whose photos move into a more "painterly" or expressionistic depiction than for the painter or draughtsman (drawing mediums) whose painting/drawings are "photo-realistic". Why don't we say it can be done (better) in paint so there is no need to do it in photography.
I don't denounce the photo-realists because I know better. As student we had an assignment to do a photo-realistic graphite drawing as part of a 4 panel interpretation of one idea. We learned all the artistic choices that actually have to be made, as James pointed out, that were no different than those made in a non photo-realistic painting/drawing and those choices went beyond mere hand technique or copying.

To short change a photo realist work as mere copying is a mistake since it takes far more than decision making than just a transfer from photo to paint. A good photo realist has some kind of idea imbedded in the image but too often we (not me) miss it because we stop really looking at it since all we see is a photo.
If you actually do JUST copy a photo it will look just like that, devoid of anything and amateur looking. Try it.
Should we dismiss hyper-realism too? Does it still count if the artist worked from life but arrived at a "photo" looking painting?
Regardless of medium, which may be what the questions really boil down to there are great photographers, painters, draughtsman etc and they will blur the lines between these mediums and do so in thought provoking ways like this discussion shows and now, again as James pointed out, we have machines in the mix.

nmsgwatercolors said...

For me, there are some very realistic paintings that cross over from being interesting (satisfyingly familiar or strange and pondering the the choice to paint this part of this subject in this light solving translation problems using this technique) into uncomfortable to look at in a visceral, uncanny valley sort of way.

And then there is the type of real. There are paintings of cats that are not like the cat that I see with my eyes but exactly like the cat that I feel with my hands. Which is more real?

I think that ai paintings will probably change our taste in art because our sense of "good taste" is upsettingly plastic. Just look at fashions in clothes. So far ai "good taste" has been a function of algorithms and data base, and therefore an echo of the programmers, but now that computers are fast enough to rip through the internet and the algorithms are more sophisticated (or simpler), that is no longer true. I think ai taste in art is going to be based on a huge amount of data, not just a few highbrow western world examples. Maybe? I can argue this many ways grin. It will indeed be interesting to see what happens.