Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Realism and Transcendence

From The Living Church-

Gustave Courbet, radical leader of the 19th-century Realist movement in Paris, when asked to include angels in a commission, famously quipped: “Show me an angel and I will paint one.” This sums up the dilemma faced by any realistic painter attempting to represent the supernatural. Of course, the down-to-earth Realists were mostly concerned with portraying modern life and so only infrequently turned to religious subjects. However, on the rare occasions that they did, their attempts were generally unsuccessful.

Edouard Manet’s Dead Christ looks more or less like any other cadaver from the morgue, and Thomas Eakins’s Crucifixion, despite its meticulous attention to historical accuracy, looks like the execution of a common criminal, not the death of Christ. Despite the magnitude of their undisputed historical importance, neither Manet nor Eakins were able to rise above their materialistic realism enough to represent the transcendent dimension of these subjects.

This is one reason that most commissions for religious art in 19th-century France went to now long-forgotten conservative academic painters rather than to avant-garde Modernists, whether they were Realist, Impressionist or Post Impressionist. The academics used idealized forms based on Renaissance prototypes, but these derivative works, unlike the Renaissance art they emulated, were more often than not maudlin or sentimental kitsch that largely have been relegated to the dustbins of history.

More here-

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