Realism

In Art, Realism is a pictorial artistic current that can be defined as the attempt to represent matter truthfully, without artifice and avoiding speculative fiction and supernatural elements; it developed in the 1840s and, in France, sees in Gustave Courbet its main exponent; the figures of Honoré Daumier and Jean-François Millet, as well as Rosa Bonheur, are also important.

The Hopeless Case Antonio Rotta
Title: The Hopeless Case
Creator: Antonio Rotta (Italian, 1828-1903)
Date Created: 1871
A young girl wearing a typical Venetian shawl listens stoically as the shoemaker reports upon the hopeless condition of her boot. The artist has depicted this cluttered interior with characteristic detail. Rotta was born in Italy, and attended to Academy of Fine Arts of Venice in 1828. He showed work in the Exposition of Fine Arts in Milan in 1853, and won a medal in 1878 at the Exhibition of the Salon of Paris. He often painted tender scenes, including children or the elderly.
External Link: Walters Art Museum
Provenance: Anton Ritter von Oelzelt Sale, Vienna, November 18, 1878, no. 64 [as “Niente da Fare”]; William T. Walters, Baltimore, 1878, by purchase [Geroge A. Lucas as agent]; Henry Walters, Baltimore, 1894, by inheritance; Walters Art Museum, 1931, by bequest.
Object Type: oil paintings
Medium: oil on fabric
Inscriptions: [Signature] At lower right: Antonio Rotta; [Date] At lower right: Venezia 1871
Exhibitions: From Rye to Raphael: The Walters Story. The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore. 2014-2016., A Baltimorean in Paris: George A. Lucas, 1860-1909. The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore. 1979.
Dimensions: H: 25 x W 20 1/2 in. (63.5 x 52 cm); Framed H: 38 1/16 x W: 34 1/2 x D: 5 1/2 in. (96.6 x 87.7 x 14 cm)
Credit Line: Acquired by William T. Walters, 1878
Classification: Painting & Drawing
Accession Number: 37.182

Realism, a term as central as it is ambiguous in the language of contemporary art criticism (“particularly unfortunate”, as R. Jakobson observes, because of its haphazardly used polysemy). Realism has two main meanings: a broader and more general one, used for artistic phenomena that are very distant from each other whenever we want to emphasize the setting or traits of particular evidence and effectiveness in the rendering of truth; and one that makes specific reference to the genealogy of artists or works in which the movement that around the middle of the nineteenth century took this name as a flag is recognized.

This movement was followed, albeit with significant eclipses and deviations, until it bore fruit, perhaps more surprisingly in keeping with its beginnings, in an art that was different from painting, but which had the impulse to design from the demands that had long been placed on painting; so much so that for the artists with whom this historical line opens, the discourse on figurative arts will happily annex lexical instruments of film criticism: in order to better explain “those instantaneous contrasts of measure, jolts between “close-ups” and “long field”, which only Caravaggio was able to devise, in those days, “with a prominence of truth that later, to express itself, needed special machines” (R. Longhi, 1952).

In the unstable map of critical use, both in the literary and figurative spheres, the words realist and realism alternate and intertwine, between accepted synonyms and attempts at explicit opposition, with the longer-lasting fortune of naturalist and naturalism; and have known, in the twentieth century, a lively contradictory destiny, connected with the double meaning of the adjective “real” in both philosophical and common language, and certainly conditioned both by the prestige (in positive and in negative) of the strong social connotation of the Courbettian movement and by the intellectualistic attraction that apparently, more or less from the “return to style” of 1890 to the “return to order” of the entre-deux-guerres, proceeds from its old meaning (synonymous with idealism) in medieval philosophy, and perhaps, more marginally, from the new scientific referents in the field of modern physics.

The free use of the term realism is therefore part of the more general register of use when, in a work, fidelity to reality in its immediacy prevails: in a range of references that go from the Lascaux caves to Roman portraiture and even to Picasso, perhaps with the necessary adjectives, as is the case of “expressionistic realism” in Picasso’s work (E. H. Gombrich, 1950). In fact, there are many meanings involved, shades of meaning that oscillate between essential figures that translate or evoke the impact of a truth that is not exclusively visual, and the result of conventions elaborated by traditions of the most careful and analytical fidelity to the natural model, sometimes pushed to the point of a descriptive obsession that has nothing to do with the naturalistic “certainty of vision”, but can even overturn it into its opposite.

In fact, it is not uncommon to find a certain degree of confusion with critical notions and terms of long history such as “illusion” and “illusionism”, “deception” (recurring as a laudatory topos throughout the historiographic tradition), and even trompe-d’oeil, which expresses the precise desire to go beyond the boundaries of painting. As a valid synonym of naturalism, realism begins to be used in the nineteenth century, long heard as a neologism, for the innovative characters of Giotto’s painting (“Giotto – testifies C. Boito in 1877 – was praised as an idealist painter by many, and by many as a realist painter”), and for the early Renaissance: “Masaccio humanizes, makes all his concepts less mystical in form – writes D. Martelli writes in 1892 – and progresses along the way that today we would say of realism”. But when we speak of realism, always as a synonym of naturalism, with reference to Caravaggio and so on for the work of Velázquez, Le Nain, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Chardin, Corot, Manet or Degas, we find ourselves instead rightly, as for Courbet, within the field of the second and more specific meaning of the term.

It is in fact with the “terrible naturalness” of Caravaggio that the modern conscience that was born, at the end of the sixteenth century, from the post-Renaissance scepticism and pessimism begins to manifest itself fully in the figurative arts; whose main achievements are the claim of the dignity of the world of phenomena as the only truth drawn with fullness by the man (who draws moral certainty from the bonds of universal reciprocity), the critical attitude towards dominant cultural codes that habit has deprived the ability to mean, and, most importantly, the resolute rejection of the principle of authority, even that of classical antiquity, to the advantage of direct experience (which gives rise to that privileged relationship with the present day, destined to become later, for the artist, the imperative to “be of his time”).

“The life of Caesar – wrote Montaigne at the end of the glorious 16th century – is not for us a better example than our own; whether of an emperor or a man of the people, it is always a life subject to all human inconveniences… In reality, if we say that we lack the authority to give credence to our testimony, we are speaking out of turn. For, in my opinion, from the most ordinary and common and known things, if we knew how to see them in their true light, we can deduce the greatest prodigies of nature and the most marvelous examples”.

Not differently from Caravaggio’s, the recurring historiographic topos of the “only teacher” nature resounds on his lips, with which Bellori captured, regarding the painting The Gypsy Who Tells Good Fortune, the novelty of the relationship established with the subject: a true institution, as it has been written, of the anti-subject, of the tranche de vie in the modern sense, and the driving force, with regard to the inescapable sacred themes, of his way of trying “to find the bottom of eternal human comprehensibility” (R. Longhi, 1951).

Vivid throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially in the confluence of Caravaggio’s legacy and Nordic and Dutch naturalism, this same sentiment of the primacy of the world of phenomena and direct experience, and of the dignity of the representation of the everyday and the private, takes on the color of open challenge in the first title given by Courbet to The Funeral at Ornans (1849): Tableau de figures humaines, historique d’un enterrement à Ornans, exhibited at the Salon of 1850, when history painting was still at the apex of the hierarchy of artistic genres; it asserts itself with other language in the Impressionist tranche de vie; and it also resurfaces in the course of the twentieth century (for example in painters such as the American E. Hopper or the Italian A. Ziveri) but above all, with overwhelming vitality, in the neorealist season of cinema. However, whether it is Caravaggio, Courbet or Rossellini, the critical response to this historical line also presents characteristics of surprising continuity, especially in the convergence that associates, often from opposite sides, two main classes of objections.

The first in the name of style (of “artifice”) and therefore on the edge of the equivocal opposition between copying and interpreting: from Boschini who in the seventeenth century attacked, in defense of great Venetian painting, the “naturalists” because “i no è Pitori, i xe copisti” (La carta del navegar pitoresco, 1660) to Delacroix who defined realism as “the opposite of art,” since it is not possible to conceive “that the spirit does not guide the artist’s hand” (Diario, 1857). The second objection, recurring with great frequency and with a great variety of targets in artistic historiography, seems to be particularly excited by the works of the “painters of reality”: it is the accusation of triviality, at first inflicted with regard to the categories of “decorum” and “convenience” and as an undue derogation to the precepts of “verisimilitude” (Bellori, Baldinucci etc.), and later with more serious arguments. ), and later with more varied but substantially similar arguments during the nineteenth century by the well-thinking critics, directors of opinion and orchestrators of the campaigns against Courbet (or the scandal for Manet’s Olympia). And one could bring numerous examples from the chronicle and film criticism adverse to neorealism as well.

If the demand for “truth” placed on art had been growing throughout the eighteenth century in the two main sides of “scientific” truth (as in Algarotti) and “moral” truth (Diderot), if realism is prepared, in the years between 1830 and 1840, also by the collusion, especially in landscape painting and with the relevant contribution of the English landscape between the developments of the naturalistic currents of the eighteenth century and the disorderly anti-classical instances of Romanticism, it is in the crucible of the Romantic era, in the years from the July Monarchy to the revolution of 1848 and in those immediately following, that the critical use of the term (already in progress in the literary field in the second decade, particularly for Balzac) is extended to the field of the figurative arts. And not only is it affirmed in the conversations and discussions between artists, writers and critics (remember that among the names of those who frequented, in those years, the Andler brewery, considered the cenacle of realism, there are Corot, Daumier, Courbet, Decamps, Barye, Bonvin, Baudelaire, Champfleury, Duranty, Silvestre, Vallès, Planche, Proudhon), but finally arrives in the pages of the reviews of the great appointment-periodic show of the salon.

The influential critic of the “Cronique de Paris” and of the “Revue des Deux Mondes”, Gustave Planche (who in 1836 was probably the first to use the term “realism” in the specific field of art criticism) used it at first in an anti-romantic and anti-academic way (it seemed to him that the notion of realism could serve the “regeneration of art”, for an innovation that did not fall into “bizarreness”) and then in an increasingly reductive sense to define a quality of “truth” so to speak inferior, different from the ideal and correct truth that he would end up proposing, in opposition to realism, to the bourgeois public of the Second Empire. In the uneven panorama of writings in defense, the semantic fields involved associate instead sincerity and objectivity with simplicity and essentiality, and intensity and strength with attention to the everyday and the private (for artists these were the years of travels to Holland, and for critics a season of rediscovery, in the great Dutch art, even of names hitherto neglected, such as Vermeer), with a terminology current especially for the landscape, the portrait and the “genre scenes”, but which is now also referred to a painting that explicitly rejects the hierarchical system of artistic genres. It is true that the abolition of this system of classification had already been put forward as a proposal, in theory, in the 18th century, by A. J. Desallien D’Argenville: without reservations, but also without practical results, so that the rigid separation of “genres” (even physically in the halls of the Expositions) continued to function as a practical device under whose ambiguous cover the taste for naturalism could grow, for artists and collectors.

The acme of hostility was in fact almost always triggered not so much by the desire to be of one’s own time (the self-interpretative mark of a large part of modern painting), as by the explicit attack on the codified system of genres, the mirror of a hierarchical conception of the universe and of society. All the more so since the decisive innovation in pictorial means also attacked another venerated authority: that of the eclectic and bloodless tradition taught by the Académie des beaux-arts. This is what happened most obviously in 1855, when Courbet, who already had to his credit, as Baudelaire writes, “an astonishing debut … which has taken on the gesture of an insurrection”, opens, next to the Palais des arts which hosts the grand Universal Art Exhibition (with the two capital retrospectives of Ingres and Delacroix which monopolize the critics, and the crowd of academic, eclectic and anecdotal works on which the public’s favor is poured), his Pavillon du Réalisme, where he exhibits about forty paintings, including those that had been rejected by the official exhibition. There were already well-known and “scandalous” works such as the Funeral at Ornans and the Stone Breakers, but the center of attention was undoubtedly The Painter’s Studio: allegoria reale determinante una fase di sette anni della mia vita artistica (1855), a manifesto-work, populated by portraits of friends and the crowd “of trivial life, the people, misery, poverty, wealth, the exploited and the exploiters” (Champfleury, 1855); a work destined to cause a scandal also because of the oxymoron of its title, so much so as to arouse reservations in Champfleury himself (“Courbet wanted to attempt a sortie from the field of pure reality: allegoria reale, he says in his catalog.

Here are two words that quarrel with each other and disturb me a little… An allegory cannot be real any more than a reality can become allegorical: the confusion is already great enough with regard to this infamous word realism without it being necessary to increase it still further…”). But the painter’s studio made such an impression on Delacroix that he confessed through clenched teeth: “…I discover a masterpiece in his discarded painting; I could not tear myself away from it… They have discarded one of the most singular works of our time; but that one is not the type to be discouraged by so little…”. (Diary, August 3, 1855); which was, from that source, no small recognition. The critic Castagnary, for his part, defined an artistic revolution” the fact that Courbet painted his contemporaries, bourgeois or peasant, “with the vigor and character reserved for gods and heroes”.

It is true that already in the 18th century, Diderot had put forward the proposal to reserve the appellation of “genre painters” to the “imitators of brute and dead nature” and to extend the title of “painters of history” to the “imitators of sensitive and living nature” also in the scenes of common and domestic life, but his discourse particularly aimed at promoting the magniloquent and pathetic “moral” scenes of Greuze. And if one considers that in 1836 L. Grosclaude had exhibited without scandal at the salon an unusual work (Toast at the Grape Harvest of 1835) whose undoubted role for the beginnings of the realist movement has been emphasized, and which portrayed a private event with life-size figures but was still mentally ascribable to a genre scene inspired by Dutch group portraits of the xvii cent. xvii, it is clear that what made Courbet’s painting decidedly offensive was precisely the association of resolutely innovative workmanship with the explicit invasion of territory reserved for history painting. “Courbet’s historical paintings, which will be an event at the salon,” wrote the other critic and literary flanker and spokesman for realism Champfleury in 1850, before the Funeral at Ornans was exhibited in Paris, “will raise important discussions. Critics may as of now prepare to fight for or against realism.”

The contradictory destiny of the term realism, associated in this battle with the names of not only Courbet, but also Francois Bonvin, Alexandre Decamps, Théodule Ribot, François Millet, as well as Daumier, Corot, Jongkind, and most of the landscape painters of the “Barbizon school”, is played out in the decade 1850-60, with the help of many factors. In addition to the publication of some of the main writings of the realist writers (Champfleury’s Le Réalisme in 1857, the Salons of Castagnary, who also collaborated in the drafting of the famous Letter to his pupils published by Courbet in 1861, the magazine “Le Réalisme”, five issues between 1856 and 1857, by the young Duranty, a close admirer of the impressionists, the critical interventions of Th. Thoré from his Dutch exile, the Recueils des dissertations sur le Réalisme by the poet Max Buchón in 1856, etc. ), there is also the pressure of substantially extra-aesthetic facts such as the spread of the positivism of A. Comte (who in 1844 had defined “the positive” in terms of the opposition between real, useful, precise versus chimerical, idle, vague), and the success of a pseudo-realism marked by social themes treated with sweetened invoice and anecdotal intentions and obedient most often to the dictates of critics such as Planche on the dogma of the “finite”. It seems, however, dominant, in both favorable and unfavorable critics, the concern to defend art, in its cult of reality, from the specter of the “mechanical copy”: something that had not worried, in the eighteenth century, the theorists of an art devoted, in competition with science, to the exact investigation of nature (Algarotti).

In 1839, on the other hand, the invention of photography had effectively exonerated painting from its “scientific” and documentary tasks and ambitions (even if not, due to technological insufficiency, in its immediate practice). However, whether enemies or defenders of realism, critics seem to agree not so much in trying to locate the role and character of photography in relation to the new perspectives of the image, as in the almost ritualistic recourse to the new topos of the opposition between photography and art, in the sense in which Cattaneo, writing about theater in 1842, affirmed that “poetry cannot become the obsequious and minute daguerreotype of history” (not judging differently from Apollinaire, who in 1913, in full eclipse of realism, wrote that “only photographers manufacture the reproduction of nature”). C. Boito (who also tried to explain how photography had no capacity to render either the value of tones or chiaroscuro) wrote in 1877: “To copy is not given to the sun, with photography: one must say to interpret”; and for Diego Martelli, Decamps’ compositions showed how “modern realism is not at all the photography of nature but rather the cult of nature and truth”. In the thicket of theoretical treatises, this most often meant the difficulty in overcoming the obstacle of objectivity (which was one of the main instances of realism), circumvented but not resolved by resorting to a subjectivism of a still romantic brand (“nature seen through a temperament” by Zola), when not to a pure and simple return to the ideal, even if put at the service of the social utility of art (as in Proudhon’s theses): with the result of a notable contribution to the impending confusion.

On the other hand, for those who knew how to see it, the signs of painting were not ambiguous. Baudelaire, who had already indicated in Daumier “one of the most important men not only, mind you, of caricature, but also of modern art” (in the Massacre of the Rue Transnonain “the drawing… is not really caricature, it is history, vulgar and terrible history”), wrote in 1862 that “Courbet must be acknowledged as having contributed in no small way to restoring the taste for simplicity and frankness, the disinterested, absolute love of painting”, and did not fail to welcome in Manet, in his “very intense Spanish flavour, which makes one think that Spanish genius has found asylum in France”, “a resolute taste for the real, the modern real”. That taste which, as J.-E. Bianche, will be worth later to Degas, for whom “there were no “subjects” so vulgar as to be considered unworthy of being painted”, to be considered “one of the leaders of the realists: “realism”, as a current expression, evoking then the idea of trivial subjects”.

Already in the nineteenth century, however, realism remained a term, for the detractors as well as for the protagonists of the movement, relatively contestable, to be used with some reserve, of which one felt, in short, the potential ambiguity. To quote two decidedly heterogeneous testimonies (one coming from the very heart of the movement and the other from the periphery, or rather from the border of common use: if Courbet affirms “The title of realist was imposed on me, just as the title of romantic was imposed on the men of the 1830s; at all times titles have not given a fair idea of things; otherwise works would be superfluous”, Tommaseo introduces a reservation in his delayed definition: “doctrine and practice in considering and treating the subjects of the fine arts, as opposed to idealism; inasmuch as the realists, not so well titled, want to represent things according to the material appearances of the exterior reality, without expressing with the instruments of art the intimate spirit, and thus refining and ennobling their own and others’ spirit.”

The growth, even outside of France, in literature as in the figurative arts, of the currents of realist tendency, recorded variations of modes and sometimes even of names (it is the case, in Italy, of the strong social connotation of verismo), but it occurred mainly under the sign of the diffusion of a realism of compromise that quite often implies the coexistence of different formal systems in the same work. It is enough to remember how in 1874 – the same year of the exhibition of the Impressionist group at Nadar’s – at the National Museum of the Palais du Luxembourg (where since 1818 works by living artists, bought or commissioned by the State, had been exhibited for the edification of the Parisian public and foreign visitors) the Realist movement was represented by Daubigny and Bodmer – Courbet was still banned – but many of the most successful works by artists such as Fromentin, Jules Bréton, Rose Bonheur etc. were considered Realist, and these were the variants that most impressed the taste of visitors.

In the second half of the century, and more frequently in the decades between 1860 and 1890, reference was made to this more general tendency, to this differently declined “realism”, by groups or single artists who, for various reasons (with characteristics of greater or lesser attention to the Courbettian movement – a case in point being that of the Belgian realists, such as Constantin Meunier, or Dutch, more directly linked to France -, but always in more or less close correlation with the developments of contemporary realist movements in literature, and with formal and thematic variants strongly influenced by their respective national or regional backgrounds also theoretically claimed) are placed under the sign of a common consensus to privilege fidelity to the “true” however understood or motivated.

It is for this reason that the great fortune of the term realism and the extension of the appellation “realists”, as an alternative to “naturalists” or “realists”, is justified for groups as distant from each other as the “school of Piagentina” (with the landscapes and interiors of Lega, Cecioni, D’Ancona, Borrani etc.) and the Russian group of the Viandanti (marked by historical-psychological interests, in competition with great contemporary literature, artists such as Maximov, Repin, Kramskoj). ) and the Russian group of the Wayfarers (marked by the historical-psychological interests, in competition with the great contemporary literature, of artists such as Maximov, Repin, Kramskoj); and, to give just a few examples, for names such as those of the American Thomas Eakins (fascinated by Spanish painting of the seventeenth century) and the German Max Liebermann (whose adherence to realism is a prelude to interest in the further, pressing news of Impressionism).

And always of realism we speak for a range of options and an arc of generations, which in Italy (where, however, the term verismo seems more widespread) include among others G. Palizzi, M. Cammarano, G. Fattori, L. Delleani, A. Morbelli, F. Zandomeneghi, T. Signorini, F. Carcano, G. Pellizza da Volpedo; and again for the collusions with ferments no longer realist coming from the French post-impressionism, as in part of the work of Segantini or Previati. (So that later a sort of concomitance between tiredness of aesthetic canons and saturation of demand would be among the causes of the precocious abandonment, by the artists of the younger generations, of “realist” experiences: this is the case of Ensor as well as of Boccioni).

In the meantime, the perturbation brought to the consumption of images by the widespread affirmation of photography, the changed conditions of diffusion and communicative validity of cultural codes, the abuse of contemporary subjects, the seductions of the instance of the “return to style” brought about by the generations of the Symbolist season in literature as well as in the figurative arts, determine since the last decades of the 19th century a wave of reflux, but also of conscious reflection on the mechanisms of functioning of artistic norms, which is reflected on the use of the term realism both by artists and by critics.

At first set against naturalism in a game of rebound of negative connotations, in the most general use of the word now tends to slide towards the equation between “real” and “ideal”. The reinterpretation by young artists in the 1980s of theoretical works such as Charles Blanc’s Grammaire des Arts du Dessin, published in 1867 but now the subject of reprints (and an occasion for meditation for Seurat and his friends), where it was stated that “the ‘ideal’ far from being synonymous with the imaginary, is the concentration of truth, the essence of the real”, is not extraneous to this upheaval. The fact is that a complicated condition of relativity governs the ambiguity of the term, and is especially evident in the passage between successive artistic norms, and in the comparison between generations.

According to the lucid and punctilious analysis of R. Jakobson who in 1921 (from the linguistic laboratory of the Prague School, particularly contiguous to the experiences of the figurative avant-garde) analyzes the mechanisms of this ambiguity, the ambiguity mainly occurs in the exchange between the level of intentions (of the operator) and the level of judgments (of the user); and above all the term is relative because it refers now to the “tendency to deformation of the artistic canons in progress, interpreted as an approach to reality”, now to the “conservative tendency within an artistic tradition, interpreted as fidelity to reality”.

One of the figurative examples given by Jakobson, taken from the history of nineteenth-century Russian realism, is the variety of reactions to Repin’s painting Ivan the Terrible Killing his Son, judged “realist” by his companions in the struggle for realism in painting but “unrealist” by his teacher at the Academy, while Repin in turn felt that the works of Degas no longer conformed to the precepts of realism. In order to get an idea of what happened to the term “realism” at the beginning of the 20th century, it is worthwhile first of all to take a look at the “historical avant-garde” workshops, where the young artists, even though they considered 19th century realism to be over in painting, did not intend to renounce the title of “realists” and were looking for new contents and definitions, which often denounced a sort of contiguity with suggestions inherited from the Symbolist age but accepted and debated with a new ease.

Some examples: Derain, in a correspondence with his friend Vlaminck (1901-1903), writes that for painting he is aware “that the realist period is over” but declares himself confident that he can find, in the parallelism of lines and colors with “the vital base,” a field “not new but more real and above all simpler in its synthesis”; he disputes the precept that requires the artist to “be of his own time” (because it is the artist who creates his time, and therefore has the right to “be of all times”) but states: “I remain a realist because objectively I see no difference between a tree…and the thoughts and despairs of man…which are encompassed in the same unity.” To Delaunay, busy trying to clarify to himself the “constructive” value of simultaneous contrast, reading articles on expressionism suggested the idea that “expressionism is synonymous with realism” and that “realism is, for all the arts, the eternal quality that must decide on strength, beauty, and its duration…” Léger, too, in 1913, claims the title of realist, but specifying that “the aesthetic quality of a work is perfectly independent of any imitative quality,” and that this means employing the term “in its most proper sense” because “pictorial realism is the simultaneous ordering of three great plastic qualities: the lines the forms and the colors”; but he ends up having to postulate a distinction between “visual realism” and “conceptual realism.”

Similarly, Apollinaire, in an attempt to bring together the suggestions of his artist friends, distinguishes a reality “of knowledge, essential, never discovered once and for all, always new”, from a reality that he defines as “of vision” (Les peintres cubistes, 1913). And with an even different meaning, other defenders of Cubism (D.-H. Kahnweiler, Juan Gris, 1946) will retrospectively say that “Cubism is the most realistic art of all because it tends towards a representation that is as precise as possible”. As far as the history of art is concerned, this is the moment of the idealistic interpretations of Caravaggio’s realism (from L. Venturi to M. Marangoni): as R. Longhi recalls in 1951, “the critical problem, which arose in the context of an idealism that was too abstract, risked an initial involution because the “realistic” case of Caravaggio frightened the critic, or forced him into an interpretation that was too “ideal”. In the period between the two wars, a real debate was established around a name that for many ended up assuming a content so broad and vague as to coincide with that of “good painting” (this is the opinion, among others, of Carrà). Painting that for A. Soffici, who declared himself to be a “realist” but wrote about it in 1928 (Periplo dell’arte. Richiamo all’ordine) in accordance with the times, in terms of discouraging prescriptive nationalism, was Italian art: “The principle that has always informed, that informs and will inform Italian art (like Italian thought and life) is this: Realism.

Realism means the concept of totality, according to which matter and spirit are inseparable in every living being, truth and fantasy complete each other, and so the external and the internal world, subject and object. Giotto, Masaccio, Raffaello, Tiziano, who, starting from the datum of the sensible reality, represented the truth, are realists; and since these conditions are also those of classicism, classics”. Here one touches the borderline point of loss of autonomous meaning, so much so that Soffici himself, further on, is forced to specify his own realism as “synthetic” (defining it in opposition to both “pedestrian copy of the true” and “pure fantastic abstractionism,” “as is demonstrated by the works of all ancient and modern painters”), and to lament the existing confusion, providing us with a catalog of the current meanings then in Italy: “On this word ‘realism,’ when expressed nudely, the most extraordinary confusions have been made and are made, the greatest nonsense is said, and no one comes to agree. .. There are those who attribute to it the same meaning as the other of verism, and by realistic painting they mean the art of representing the truth “as it is”, that is, in a certain impersonal and photographic way; there are those who make it synonymous with naturalism, and believe that it indicates a method, or an almost scientific way of working, with the aim, unconfessed, and perhaps unconscious, not so much of producing a work of beauty as of presenting an experience and a document characteristic of a given time; there are those who, more superficially still, even mistake realism for trivialism… “

A greater, more modern awareness of the dynamics of aesthetic norms, and a greater curiosity about the functions of art, leads Léger, in his 1936 response, in the climate of the “Popular Front,” to a call for the opening of a new querelle for realism, to have to equally specify it at least as “new.” “Every epoch has its own, and invents it more or less in relation to previous epochs…The realism of the primitives is not that of the Renaissance, and that of Delacroix is diametrically opposed to that of Ingres…Realisms vary because the artist lives in a different epoch, in a new environment, and in a general order of thought that dominates and influences his spirit.” (In La querelle du réalisme, a book-investigation that questioned French artists on the subject).

Having now become a disputed label, realism demands and assumes at this point a specifying adjectivization that produces a whole series of crystallized syntagms or compound terms (‘conceptual realism’, ‘surrealism’, ‘constructivist realism’, ‘fantastic realism’, ‘magical realism’, ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’, ‘socialist realism’, ‘nouveau réalisme’, ‘hyperrealism’, etc.). But it is especially significant that in the practice of art criticism, in debates, in artists’ statements, increasingly monopolized and polarized by the rampant controversy between ‘abstract’ and ‘figurative’, it is a qualification claimed by both sides. In the meantime, art historians take their distance from such a proliferation of divergent meanings. In 1934 Ch. Sterling, taking up the expression coined by Champfleury, in his 1862 study on Le Nain (Les peintres de la réalité sous Louis XIII), entitled an exhibition of French Caravaggesque painters to the Painters of reality. R. Longhi adopts the same formula, in 1953, for the Milanese exhibition of the Painters of Reality in Lombardy, and opts explicitly for the recovery, in the critical discourse on Caravaggio and his “naturalist” followers, of the historical terminology, to avoid the distortions caused by the historically improper use of terms of intellectual matrix with suffixation in -ism (those terms that T. W. Adorno justifies, and which are the expression of a type of relationship between artists and between artists and users that is historically different from those meant by words such as ‘workshop’, ‘school’ and ‘style’).

Others are often induced to force the term itself into a negative connotation (such as B. Berenson). Attempts, after World War II, to relaunch realism without adjectives (as in the case of the magazine “Realismo” published in Milan from 1952 to 1956), for a painting in ideal continuity with the social motivations of an ideological realism, but in total rupture as regards pictorial means, however, do not escape the need for specifications (even Guttuso, in 1952, in terms certainly closer to Apollinaire than to Courbet, defines realist as “that art which leads to a true and profound discovery of reality, which is not an eternal and immobile ideal but continually moves, develops and transforms itself”); or they end up renouncing the ambition of projecting a new content in the name (designed as “conscious emotion of reality that has become an organism” in the Manifesto of Realism of February 1946, signed, among others, by Morlotti). In the following decades, the too vague content of the term realism continued to constitute a real critical problem for the experts.

To mention only three examples, we can recall Roger Garaudy’s reflections on a realism “without rivages”, reflections still centered on the problems of the historical avant-gardes, in the will to “open and extend the definition of realism” in order not to exclude the characteristic works of our century, but putting the accent on reality as an activity because “for the artist… it is not a question of interpreting the world but of participating in its transformation” (D’un réalisme sans rivages. Picasso, Saint John Perse, Kafka, 1963); the polemical arguments of the American critic Harold Rosenberg, theorist of Action Painting, who in 1964, in the midst of the expansion of Pop Art and hyperrealist tendencies, observed: “In modern art the most common term is ‘new realities’. It has been used as a title for avant-garde magazines, for art movements (both abstract and representational), and for group exhibitions.

Painters and sculptors of very different tendencies, from Albers to Shahn, have given themselves the appellation ‘realists’ (the fact of being ‘new’ is usually implied). Since the meaning changes depending on who uses it, the term has no meaning”. And, finally, the growth of studies dedicated to realism in the plural. At the Conference of Besançon (1977, Les réalismes et l’histoire de l’art) M. Domino points out “the threat that weighs on every discourse on realism: the risk that one runs of getting lost in the absence of meaning in the chaotic multiplicity of the discourses of realism. Faced with this explosion of discourses, one is entitled to ask the question of the relevance of discourses of realism, or that of the possibility of a discourse on realism. And yet ‘realism’ exists, we have seen it and ascertained it on the surface of history, at the level of an elementary phenomenology; and this proliferation of the discourses of realism constitutes a problem in itself”.