I recently saw the following comment on a popular art blog, made by someone who obviously paints in the “impressionist” style (and who likes to rant a lot). I won’t identify him by name here but shall grant that he is a pretty good impressionist painter in my humble opinion.
He said: “Set us free from the stodge of photographic realism that seems to be making a comeback today. The impressionists gave life to painting and they were masters at conveying feeling and sense of place rather than just a visual record of what was before them.”
Really? Is this statement about the superiority of impressionism over realism (and make no mistake, that is what he is implying) based on some sort of factual information analyzed by some indisputable authority on this subject? Says who?
Both the words “stodge” (his spelling) and “photographic” are intended to be insulting, and I have to ask what level of arrogance and pomposity entitles an artist to insult publicly other artists and art collectors who choose a style different from his personal preference? It reminds me of the Smothers brothers joke where one asks the other what all 1,700 religions in the world have in common. The answer was not belief in a Supreme Power – the answer was that they each believe they are the only ones that have it right.
Because the camera had not been invented in his time, nobody told Michelangelo his paintings looked like photographs, but undoubtedly people were impressed with how realistic they looked. I resent people calling my paintings “photographic” even though I realize they are being complimentary with that expression. What they really mean is that my images are realistically rendered and I wish they would drop the comparison with photographs. Photography today produces everything from complete abstract through impressionism to hyper-realism so calling a particular painting style “photographic” is virtually meaningless anyway.
What really gets my back up, however, is this guy’s statement that “Impressionists gave life to painting and they were masters at conveying feeling and a sense of place rather than just a visual record of what was before them.” That is as absurd as saying that a person standing on my 11th floor balcony overlooking English Bay watching a spectacular sunset behind the mountains can’t really experience the “life” or derive any “feeling or sense of place” from the scene because their eyes are taking in every detail of “what was before them”. According to this guy the only way to get that “feeling” is to have the scene reduced to its most basic elements by an impressionist before it can be fully appreciated. What a complete load of crap! When people are awed by a scene in real life, they are taking in every little detail because that’s how the human eye works, and all that detail is what combines to create their own impression about what they are seeing. A painting that appears to replicate that detail allows the viewer to experience his or her own feelings about the scene, and an added bonus to the viewer is the awe they feel about the skill of the artist that was able to capture the scene so realistically. If the viewer is blown away by the painting, then the artist has successfully connected with that viewer, and in the end isn’t that the whole purpose of the exercise? To imply that realistic paintings lack emotion or feeling is an insult to everyone that creates and appreciates them.
By my calculation Impressionism as a painting style has been around now for about 140 years. The dictionary defines “stodgy” with words such as “old-fashioned, dull, and boring”. By any definition any style that has been around for 140 years surely qualifies as old-fashioned, hands down. In an increasingly artificial world of virtual reality, fast food, and instant this, that, and everything else, perhaps people are yearning to be awed by what the human hand can create when time, skill, care, passion, and attention to detail are employed to make something that doesn’t look like it was slapped together in a few minutes. Perhaps the proliferation of impressionistic paintings everywhere we’ve looked for such a long time has made that style dull and boring and the population is ready for a change. Perhaps that is why, as this impressionist laments, realism is making a comeback. It’s ironic that the disdain about realism expressed in his rant is very similar to the attitude the original impressionists faced in the 1870’s when they introduced their concept of painting. And before any realism painters that might be reading this get too hopeful, I emphasize that I have no way of knowing if realism is making some sort of comeback. I’m just suggesting why that might be the case if there is any truth to the increasing rumours I’m hearing. Got my fingers crossed, though!