realistic art

Mon, 31 Jul 1995 15:17:01 EST

All art is abstracted, sometimes subtly, sometimes boldly.
Realism as a style of art is no more "realistic" than any
other style of art. For example, beginning art history
students (and I have taught hundreds of them) always think
fifth century BCE Greek sculpture is heaps more "realistic"
than that of the Egyptians. It isn't. What delights my
students' eye is the comforting recognition that the ancient
Greeks sculpted the human body as a animated figure which
occupies a breathing space larger than the marble itself.
In other words, the discus thrower reaches out into space,
or so my students assume. The Egyptian sculptor stayed
within the block of stone and the figure resulting looks,
well, blocky, stiff as a board. My students are therefore
sure the Greeks were "better" (read "more realistic") at
sculpture than the Egyptians.

And then I take my pointer and ask my students to consider
the faces of two representative slides--one Egyptian, one Greek.
The face which depicts age, the face which has soft skin molded
over cheekbone, lines around eyes, a droop to the mouth, the
face, in short, which is _portraiture_ is the Egyptian face.
The Greeks did not carve individuated faces until the Alexandrian
period although certainly if they had wanted to they surely could
have done so. They had the technical skill as well as did the

Well, then, what about those bodies? The Egyptian body is stiff,
the Greek body seems maleable. Surely the Greek body is "realistic?"
No, it isn't. It has been carved according to an idealised set of
proportions, a canon of mesurement based on the ratio of distance
from nipple to nipple and then bisected to navel. (Delicately I
demonstrate where this ratio would put the navel on me were I an
idealized Aphrodite. The class always dissolves in giggles. To
date no one I know has claimed to have a navel placed where
the Greek sculptor of the fifth century would have put it.)

Once the student has the point about abstraction and realism, I
can proceed to teach something about art and how to look at art
and how to do visual analysis of work from other times and other
cultures. It is usually quite easy after that to demolish the
notion that art is "evolutionary" or that so-called "primitive"
or "folk art" is work created by people less skilled in seeing
than artists of the French Academy in the 19th century or Walt
Disney Studio animators today.

One of the best examples I've come across lately concerning views
of the human figure and the cultural constraints which affect how
we depict the human figure is the fourth cassette in the Metropolitan
Museum of Art series, "Art on Film/Film on Art." In the video,
"A Day on the Grand Canal with the Emperor of China," artist
David Hockney looks at two Chinese scrolls--one from the 17th century,
one from the 19th century. Both are state documents depicting the
emperor's trip down the Grand Canal. In the 19th century scroll, the
artist has attempted to organize the space according to European
principles of vanishing point perspective. The earlier scroll is
organized differently--the eye scans it quite naturally, just as the
eye usually scans. Vanishing point perspective is a perspective we
have been taught to value as "more realistic" in the West, but it is
not a scanning point of view, it is static. One must stay fixed
in place. In the video, David Hockney
notes quietly that although gunpowder was a Chinese invention, it
was the West's use off v.p.perspective which permitted the development
of cannons that fired accurately at chosen targets.

I use the film in my World Religions lectures on Chinese religions.
It works brilliantly for my purposes of illustrating how a world
view influenced by Taoism,Buddhism, Confucianism, etc. is going to
be a different world view than that of a society influenced by
Christianity. The Western world not only produced the vanishing point
perspective, we dub it "real" (and somehow more skilled, better, etc.).

All of the above is to say that an effort to correlate depictions of
the human figure in one guise or another with changes (evolutionary)
in society are doomed. One might, one just might be able to narrow the Q.
to say something about societies which value portraiture, or produce official
portraits because not all societies do. That could be interesting to study.
However, seeking to correlate "realistic" depictions of the human figure
with "developmental" changes in social organization is not going to cut it.

Most general art history textbooks take up the question of "realism" in
art in their introductions. Helen Gardner's _Art Through the Ages_ is
pretty good.

With apologies for the length of this post,

Maureen Korp, PhD
University of Ottawa