TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 1973

books

Realism

Linda Nochlin, Realism (London: Pelican Books, 1971), 283 pages, 134 black-and-white illustrations.

"ALL THAT WAS SOLID and established crumbles away, all that was holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to look with open eyes upon his conditions of life and true social relations,” wrote Marx in the Communist Manifesto.1 How this new consciousness, a product of the revolution of 1848, became a substantive part of artistic self-expression is the subject of Linda Nochlin’s Realism. Like Nochlin’s other writings, but unlike most art-historical studies, Realism is distinguished by the author’s conception of her subject as a cluster of still vital social and artistic issues. Equally unusual is the extent to which she brings alive the content of 19th-century art—Realist and realistic—as it was conditioned by the historical experience of 19th-century society.

To this end, Realist artists are consistently treated as socially aware individuals in search of images and a pictorial language that would authentically convey their experience of the modern world. The text of Realism is accordingly organized around the themes and issues that preoccupied them—city streets and cafés, urban and rural types, workers of all classes, the social rituals and leisure activities of the middle classes, family relationships, modern courtship, and courtesans—rather than the chronological development of artistic styles or personal careers. Throughout, the content of visual works and the intentions behind them are illuminated by discussions of 19th-century letters, theoretical, social, and historical writings and, above all, prose literature, whose aims were so close to Realist painting and sculpture. In this richly detailed context, Nochlin reconstructs the intensity with which Courbet, Manet, and other European artists experienced their social reality and the degree to which that experience was central—not merely a background—to their art. An epilogue, to which I shall return later, pursues issues raised by Realism into the present.

In her treatment of art as a human activity intricately bound up with social, political, and cultural history, Nochlin belongs to a minority tradition. In the 1930s and 1940s, this tradition was brilliantly advanced by such well-known scholars as Arnold Hauser, F.D. Klingender, and Meyer Schapiro. In the following decades, however, it was all but ignored as scholars occupied themselves with the development and refinement of other approaches. The more familiar and established models of inquiry today treat art as a set of highly limited problems involving mainly formal and iconographic solutions. According to most literature, the context in which this problem solving goes on is little more than the artist’s awareness of preceding stylistic and iconographic traditions. The “little more” is taken care of by occasional references to the circumstances of his personal life, or, to a general philosophic outlook, innate to the artist or mysteriously absorbed from the prevailing Zeitgeist. While iconographers often go beyond these narrow limits, relating the subject matter of art to a broader context of contemporary literature and philosophy, they, too, stop short at social and political experience, treating this dimension of life as irrelevant or even antithetical to the significance of art. Although identifying the history of art with the history of thought, they still treat the history of thought as unfolding more or less independently of social and political history—just as formalists study configurations in a historical vacuum.

Even art historians not conscious of such biases, or who would openly disavow them, often perpetuate them simply by limiting themselves to conventional problems and techniques of inquiry. Such techniques, tracing literary and artistic sources, demonstrating the way an artist transformed them, documenting his personal life and philosophy, comprise the normal business of the profession. Limited to these kinds of questions, even the most gifted scholars create the impression that artists of the past were consciously motivated only by these concerns. Indeed, artists of the past are frequently seen as people whose only endeavor was the production of highly refined or intellectual objects that refer primarily to other works of art, or emulate high-minded literature or philosophy. Admittedly, psychological or biographical-minded art history gives us a different picture, but the tendency here is to make each artist an overly unique individual, a solitary hero whose thoughts, feelings, and artistic intentions were rarely touched by the social conflicts, political struggles, or ideological debates within and around which his life unfolded. By screening out this content, art history decontaminates art for a 20th-century audience that values it only when it appears to stand above and outside history.2

For Nochlin, the response of Realist artists to their social and historical reality is the key to their art. Realism is an extended essay on the thesis that the central aim and achievement of Realist art was “to give a truthful, objective and impartial representation of the real world, based on meticulous observation of contemporary life.” Careful distinctions are made between realistic styles of the past and Realism. It is not simply verisimilitude that sets off Realism from past art—although 19th-century Realists were exceptionally single-minded about this—but truthfulness and objectivity in the particular context of 19th-century social, political, and cultural experience.

A section on Realism and science is especially forceful in clarifying this difference. The point here is that what we think of as the scientific attitude was itself an assault on inherited culture conducted by artists and scientists alike, an assault on the religious beliefs, class prejudices, and ideals of decorum that sanctioned and justified the social hierarchy. (In this, mid-19th-century social scientists and artists were heirs of the Enlightenment tradition that attacked the authority of the church and exposed the corruption and injustices of the existing social order.) The very ability to isolate and analyze phenomena objectively comes to be a value-loaded act when its “scientific” results erode, demystify, and demolish the ideological foundations of social institutions, class privilege, and the like. In this historical context “objectivity” is as much a class weapon as what it negated: that body of belief that explained and justified the status quo according to undemonstrable religious beliefs or time-honored social customs. For scientists as for artists, impartial observation and analysis of empirical data was a critique of this cultural heritage. As Nochlin writes:

To Realist writers and artists, the natural sciences seemed to offer a precedent for that stripping away of the clothing of illusion from the base flesh of reality, that divesting of experience of the falsehood of spiritual or metaphysical accretions, which was their goal.

Just how determined Realists were to represent an unidealized reality is brought home with particular force in a remarkable chapter devoted to death in 19th-century art. Corpses, suicides, funerals, and tombs by Courbet, Rude, Menzel, and other artists are examined together with accounts of deaths and funerals in letters, diaries, and novels by 19th-century writers. One is struck not only by how death was represented, but how it preoccupied Realist artists and writers as a subject of art and literature. Death was a splendid Realist subject, a superb opportunity to deny the whole spiritual superstructure that traditional culture interposed between modern man and his real experience. In these representations, human death is portrayed as but another phenomenon, devoid of transcendental significance, open to the same analysis and descriptive techniques as any other physical or social fact. Courbet’s monumental painting Burial at Ornans was one of the earliest and most powerful of these demythologized images of death. As Nochlin comments:

Who is being buried is really irrelevant; and so is the fate of the dead man’s soul and its relation to the afterlife. Where he is being buried and the nature of the community which participates in this event is what the painting is about—nothing beyond this, but this in all its richness of social and pictorial realism. . . . Courbet’s painting is thus not an “irreligious” treatment of a religious subject, but rather an affirmation of quite different values which it established as worthy of large-scale, serious pictorial treatment.

In Degas’ The Fallen Jockey, a human death is represented not only without reference to an afterlife, but also without social importance. In this chillingly matter-of-fact scene, the awkwardly fallen corpse,. alive and in the running an instant before, is not even noticed by his fellow jockeys. Moreover, Degas’ composition deliberately—and provocatively—makes every other object in the picture, including the curious pattern made by the trees in the background, compete with the corpse for visual attention.

Similar attitudes also infiltrated contemporary non-Realist art. Such is the funerary memorial by Lorinzo Bartolini, Monument to Princess Czartoryski of Warsaw, 1837–44, where references to Christianity and afterlife were mandatory. Yet, even here, where it was called for, the sculptor was apparently uncomfortable with the idea of the beyond. In contrast to traditional Christian funerary art, where heaven is represented as a higher but still contiguous extension of earthly space, Bartolini’s monument confines the Virgin and Christ—and the heavenly dimension they inhabit—to a little Renaissance-style tondo, more readable as an expensive objet d’art hanging on the wall than an affirmation of their divine presences. A 19th-century literalism could, at best, charade the faith of the past. Bartolini gives us death through an accretion of facts, but unlike Degas, trivializes rather than dramatizes their literalness. The revelation of such attitudes in “non-Progressive” art demonstrates that the Realist sensibility was a common, even a pervasive part of 19th-century experience, although not, everyone was willing to acknowledge honestly his loss of faith.

It is in her continuing discussion of the formal means and techniques of Realist artists that Nochlin’s general effort to rescue Realism from art-historical style categories becomes most explicit. The struggle for new formal structures was indeed central to the Realist effort, but not for their own sake—as so much of the modern literature of art implies. Courbet, Manet, and the Impressionists rejected or drastically altered earlier visual conventions, and created new ones as a conscious part of their rejection of inherited patterns of thinking and feeling in general. As Nochlin writes, “they were stressing the importance of confronting reality afresh, of consciously stripping their minds, and their brushes, of secondhand knowledge and ready-made formulae.” To this end, they opposed those energetically brushed and deliberately awkward, casual, and abrupt compositions to both the decorous cadences of classical art and euphemistic veils of Romanticism.

One of the refreshing features of Realism is that while the individual styles of Courbet, Manet, and the Impressionists are carefully differentiated, they are in no way labored or made the basis of closed and distinct esthetic categories. In so much of the literature, Realism is treated as a brief art-historical chapter between Romanticism and Impressionism. Defined primarily in terms of Courbet (often represented as a great artist despite his socialist bias), it was quickly outmoded by the new formal solutions of Manet and the Impressionists. Looked at through this 20th-century lens, Manet’s engagement with social reality is selectively filtered out, or made to appear irrelevant to his purely “artistic” concerns, which are, in turn, magnified. The total historical context to which his art belongs is thus shrunk to an art-historical one. Yet, this context, a peculiar post-Realist invention, is so widely accepted that Nochlin’s refusal to structure her book in its terms will surely be cited as its major weakness. Not that Realism is without actual weaknesses. The writing is often unnecessarily complex, and the two chapters following the one on death seem less coherent in their organization than other parts of the book.

Whatever the weaknesses of Realism, however, Nochlin’s approach to the individual styles of Courbet, Manet, and other artists is not one of them. On the contrary, it is precisely because she does not cast these men into separate categories based upon one or another purely artistic solution that she is able to retrieve the living content of Realist art. Rather than stressing formal differences, she puts the emphasis on the intricate dialogue between the individual artist, his reality, and his visual language. The very organization of the text by theme reveals a clear intent in all of these painters to recreate in art—by the various formal means they chose—their diverse, direct, and unidealized confrontations with their world. Manet, however different he was from Courbet as a man and as an artist, also emerges as a principal Realist, one who now ironically mocks the artistic expectations of the bourgeoisie and its worship of high culture by his unsettling mixtures of Old Master motifs and the cool, glaring facts of modern reality.

In naming Manet, Flaubert, and the Impressionists as Realists, Nochlin not only courts the protests of those advocating formalist style categories, she also invites the more serious objections of Marxist literary historians who might well object to Manet and others as Realists. Specifically, the ideological differences between the alienated, ironic art of Manet or Degas and the positive social vision of Courbet, whose humanitarian values more easily fit definitions of Realism advanced by modern Leftist scholars, might seem too great to group them together under a single definition. Georg Lukács, for example, regards Flaubert’s art as a retreat from Realism because of his cynical and pessimistic outlook, his failure to see bourgeois society as a historical phase, his cultivation of subjectivism as a response to that society, and—compared to Balzac or Stendhal—the narrowing scope and purpose of his art. Nochlin, on the other hand, consistently cites Flaubert’s scathing antibourgeois writings as exemplary of Realism. Nor do the ambivalence of Manet—for whom art was a personal salvation as much as it was for Flaubert—or the cruel cynicism of Degas, exclude these artists from her conception of Realism. That is, Nochlin uses the term Realist in a far more inclusive way than does Lukács, for whom it denotes a specific and positive ideological outlook. Thus, while distinguishing Manet and Degas from the socially optimistic Courbet,3 she emphasizes what unites them all: “a ceaseless effort to divest [themselves] of the impedimenta of traditional training and poncif, a lifetime’s self-purgation of received ideas.”

Significantly, even conservative Realist writers and artists, merely by depicting their true perception of the present, struck their contemporaries not only as brash and vulgar, but as threats to the social status quo. To quote Nochlin again:

The apolitical Monet and Degas, the latter, if anything, reactionary, were as much concerned to “translate the customs and appearances of their epoch” in the 1860s and 1870s as Courbet had been in the 1850s. And it is surely no coincidence that Baudelaire, the Goncourts and Flaubert—and not only the left-wing Daumier, Courbet, Zola and Manet—were all involved in more or less serious encounters with the legal powers of the Establishment. . . . The mere intention “to translate the appearances, the customs” of the time implied a significant involvement in the contemporary social situation and might thus constitute a threat to existing values and power structures as menacing as the throwing of a bomb.

The epilogue of Realism is devoted to the question of what happened to Realist values after Realism. It is here that Nochlin’s critique of the 20th-century formalist bias becomes overt and direct. Through a discussion of the theory and practice of architecture, the decorative arts, and painting, she tracks the formation of certain aspects of modernism as it developed out of and in opposition to Realism. Specifically, she focuses on the breakdown of Realist ideals (beginning in the 1880s) and the increasing rejection of observed reality as an active presence in art. The premium for truth, however, was not rejected; rather, it was redefined, transvaluated, attached to formal means.

The Realist concept of truth or honesty, meaning truth or honesty to one’s perception of the external physical or social world, [was transvaluated] to mean truth or honesty either to the nature of the flat surface—and/or to the demands of one’s inner “subjective” feelings or imagination rather than to some external reality.

In the development of 20th-century modernist theory, ever more reductionist, even the subjective element is eventually rejected and the values of truth and honesty are pursued exclusively in reference to formal means. In its converted form, truth to reality now means making evident the literal “realities” of a work of art as a pure, nonreferential object—its flatness, color, shapes, etc. The Realist’s world, with its social dimension, is entirely supplanted by a new idealist reality, the realm of art, wherein the esthetic virtue of a work is in part measured by the degree to which it does not refer to a commonly experienced world. The reference is always to a transcendental realm, absolutely pure, ahistorical, self-reflexive, and “uncorrupted by perceptual, social or emotional references.”

The demonstration that art is art and nothing more, an independent system of signs having no “signified” (to borrow the terms of modern linguistics), becomes the business of art—its “subject,” as it were.

Thus, mainline modernism performs many of the same ideological tasks performed by the art that 19th-century Realism contested so fervently: severed from all reference to common experience—the horrors daily thrust at us in the newspapers, anxieties about careers in a world of scarcity, feelings of loneliness and alienation, the ugliness and disorder of urban and suburban environments—art gives comfort to worn and troubled minds. It posits a realm of higher ideas, sealed off from the painful and banal realities of life. It redeems the spirit, confirms its existence, provides a safe, removed arena for the exercise of emotions. And, like the idealist systems of 19th-century art and philosophy, modernist art reveals its spiritual achievements only to the elect—even when these achievements are inspired by humanitarian sentiments. As Nochlin repeatedly insists, from its beginnings in 19th-century theories of design to the present concerns of literalism or Conceptual art, avant-garde taste has been the taste of the few. The values for abstraction, simplicity, and functionalism, the self-conscious imposition of formal restraints—these could be appreciated only by those with education, training, and leisure. It is significant that modernism limited the audience of art to a tiny circle of the initiated

at the very moment when mass communication, Kitsch and academicism were beginning to make art attainable to, and the business of, an ever increasing, ever less-educated public. . . . The idea that only an elect—an anti-Philistine elect known as the avant-garde—self-chosen and self-perpetuating—could respond to the work of art on the basis of its art qualities alone, is a social response, not merely an aesthetic one, to the tremendous social and institutional pressures on the production and consumption of art that went along with the more general upheavals of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In other words, the creation of the avant-garde was the mirror image, the precise response to the emergence of the mass Philistine audience.

Realism, then, looks with Realist eyes at the present. In both the main body of the book and in her epilogue, Nochlin dissents from the familiar art-historical and critical appraisals that cast Realism into post-Realist definitions. More importantly, she reveals the ideological bias that has made the story of post-Realist art an inevitable series of ever flatter achievements, the less relevant to nonartistic experience the more praiseworthy. Realism looks at modernism from the other direction. The assumption it makes is that the acts of the spirit, even when they result in the purest of pure art objects, are never untouched by the forces of reality, and that the real always includes the concrete contingencies of social experience. As Arnold Hauser wrote in The Philosophy of Art History,

One can put off the decision, conceal one’s position, talk of dualism and dialectic, reciprocity and mutual dependence of spirit and matter; but after all one is either an idealist or a realist, and has to face the question of whether genius falls from heaven or fashions itself here on earth.4

Carol Duncan

—————————

NOTES

1. Quoted in Nochlin, Realism, p. 60.

2. For an excellent analysis of the ideology of academic art history, see Kurt W. Forster, “Critical History of Art, or Transfigurations of Values?,” New Literary History, 1971–1972., pp. 459–470.

3. For a more detailed discussion by Nochlin of the specific differences—personal and ideological—between Courbet and Manet than the scope and purposes of Realism could allow, see “The Invention of the Avant-garde: France, 1830–80,” Avant-garde Art, ed. T.B. Hess and J. Ashbery, New York, 1968, pp. 1–24.

4. A. Hauser, The Philosophy of Art History, Cleveland and New York, 1963, p. 12.