FORMS OF REALISM

By Paul Henrickson, © 2006
tm. © 2007

Hyman Bloom: Wood

Odd Nerdrum: Self Portrait

Ivan de Lorraine Albright

Nick Abdalla: Leopard Girl

Andrew Wyeth

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Andrew Wyeth

Paul Cadmus: Male Nude

Albrecht Durer: Rabbit

Hyman Bloom: Beggar

Hefferman: Self Portrait as a Great Scout Leader

Suydam Levi

Hefferman:

Hyman Bloom: Candelabra

Caravaggio:Rest on the Flight Into Egypt

So often, often indeed, to the point that it is inevitable that when discussing aspects of art styles all of us tend to generalize to the extent that only gross generalizations appear and the opposite happens as well, that in searching out the multiplicity of characteristics that are part of a general style we tend to obliterate the edges and no longer are sure of where we are. I do not promise that the following will be any different for while I have purposefully limited the discussion to forms of reality I find that that concept doesn’t stay put for long but generates into fractels. The process is not unlike breathing, or cells dividing. The above selection of illustrations does not exhaust the supply by any means but might serve to immediately suggest to the reader that that one word “reality”, even in the limited discussion of its application in art criticism opens up tremendous opportunities for, as it is often said, “ it broadens the mind”. Even that expression has its problems for it silently suggests that a person who is considered broadminded has not standards of behavior. In this best of all possible worlds one must be careful how one uses words…they have such power. The idea for this essay first came to und when upon surfing the web I came across the site for the Columbia, South Carolina, Museum which was proudly featuring the work of one Julie Hefferman, someone about whom I had previously heard nothing. I found her work absolutely delightful, highly imaginative, provocative and challenging, but her work also raised some questions as to whether it was in actuality “creative”. It also immediately reminded me of the work of the Norwegian Odd Nerdrum, that “dirty old man from the north” who may have, I suspect, adopted the name as a pseudonym for public relations purposes since in Norwegian

the word sounds like “nerd” or “nurd” which in Norwegian refers to what in Jewish we know as “putz” or in Yiddish “ecke”, or in common English we know as “prick”. This is without a doubt a “nomen omen” (name signifying character or fate) if I have ever known one. Now, the question is: wherein does reality lie if we chose as our universe these two “realistic” painters? If we check out Hefferman we find that, for all practical purposes, there is hardly a detail she hadn’t observed (birds’ feathers, wings, articulating claws and plaster ceiling decorations and the flames of mysterious fire) and, one might certainly say that that is an aspect of reality…isn’t it? Well, maybe it isn’t so very real after all in the sense that such a combination of realities is hardly an everyday event. Ug unh!, what will one do with that statement? In order to be real something has to occur everyday? In that event a good portion of the world has been living an unreal social existence for more than 2000 years and another good percentage living a different one for nearly 1,500 years. How many times does a someone have to rise to Heaven before the event becomes real? From these examples we would suppose , at least twice, oh yes then there was Elijah! Paul of Tarsus, known to some as Saint Paul, says somewhere that he visited the third Heaven, and how many teen age boys after their first date express themselves by saying “I was in seventh Heaven”? Some what older, but still young adults sometimes refer to “being on cloud #nine.”Then, of course, we have the problem of knowing just exactly where Heaven is. If what one of those who rose tells us is true that the “kingdom of heaven is within you” then the enigma is not quite solved for we have eye-witness testimony to the effect that he rose into the air and disappeared into the clouds. The whole subject gets very confusing. Such metaphysical problems are beyond my abilities to solve. I find it complicated enough to deal with Hefferman and that northern nerd ( oh, yes, that is also right, there is yet another meaning, in America a “nerd” seems to be an individual who is incurably “unhep”, that is, commonplace and conventional…wherein, of course, being unconventional automatically becomes a hep convention. Just who was that troublemaker who invented language..ah, yes, it was God, for “in the beginning there was the word”. Well, there we have it, blame it on God! As for Nerdrum we have amply evidence that he admires Rembrandt. I am certainly unconvinced that the admiration would be mutual. Rembrandt, of course, did not have qualms about showing the female nude, nor does Nerdrum come to think of it, but it is not possible for me to imagine that Rembrandt would have shown any male, least of all himself, sporting a prideful erection. And I thought

there were laws all over the world against exhibitionism. There is, of course, except in places like New York for people like Madonna or in Washington, D.C. with that Jewish girl, Monica Wollenski, now famous on the lecture circuit for having sucked Clinton’s cock. Can one imagine the mental images members of her audiences are having when she opens her mouth to give a talk? Well Nerdum keeps interesting company and there are all kinds of ways of making a buck!. Technically, Nerdrum’s canvasses are impressive , but for me, at least, they lack the lasting and awesome aesthetic surprise of recognizing Rembrandt in a film by the Dane, Carl Theodore Dryer made from the play of Arthur Miller entitled “The Crucible”. In mentioning surprises we are reminded that recently there has been a renewal of interesting Dryer’s films since the discovering in an Oslo mental hospital; of an early 1927 film. Now, after nearly a half century after Dryer’s death we recognize the multilayered characteristics of his filmic vision. This is just another example of fractal reality. It is important to remember at this point that the artist involved may not have been fully aware of his very fluid flow of images and that, perhaps, in some sense the mental state the creator is in at the moment of creation may be compared to something dream-like. Time and space whilst in a dream may not be the same experience at all as it is in what we call a waking state. Reality subdivides before our very eyes before we have a chance to know what it is we were looking at. Reality is such an illusive faerie…just like some of the inhabitants of Hefferman’s paintings. I keep looking at her “Self Portrait as a Great Scout Leader”and my mind keeps returning the image that Danilo Donati, the art director for Federico Fellini gave us in “Satyricon” with the scene involving the death of the hermaphrodite. I wonder how one would judge that reality to the similar one in 19th century Connecticut when a fellow by the name of Suydam Levi caused a row when he applied for permission to vote in another political party and some red-neck voyeur pointed out that the he was more of a she and shouldn’t be voting at all. This is just another example of not only are things not what they seem, but the contours of reality are always getting blurred which George Seurat made into an art form.

Three drawings by George Seurat

Even with all of his somewhat astigmatic focus Hyman Bloom’s departures from realism are less frightening than either Hefferman or Nerdrum, and this makes him appear rather down-to-earth and conventional. Yet, all this convention is so compiled that his results are jewels of visually sensual experience even when he paints unappealing subjects like bloated corpses and severed legs.

Hyman Bloom: Corpse

Even while his countryman and contemporary (They both came from Latvia and are both Jewish) Mark Rothko is also concerned about the sensual yet the total offering is considerably less rich than Bloom’s and the absence of richness can not be explained by the absence of a subject matter as any close look at the blouse in Rembrandt’s ”Lucretia:” will show us.

Mark Rothko

Rembrandt: Lucretzia The most I am able to do in this format lacking, as I do, details of the blouse which reveal a color, texture and surface treatment of the medium that is as exciting as some work by Willem de Kooning, is to point out that it exists.

Willem deKooning The chandeliers as painted by Hefferman and Bloom also point up important differences in perception. Where Hefferman painstakingly reveals all the essential structural aspects of the chandelier and it would be possible for a glass blower to use her work as a model for a reconstruction project, this would not be true of Bloom who shows, or attempts to show us, the brilliance created by a chandelier and not the chandelier itself. Which reality shall we choose, that of the structure or that of the brilliance, and we must choose because another reality, the reality of vision itself, human vision forbids us to see both at the same time. Try studying the structure of a fully lighted chandelier to find out what I mean. The Caravaggio, unfortunately is not clear enough an image to show us the fascinating detail that he, at the age of 23, shows us on the ground by the feet of Joseph and Mary. Not only does he practically give us an encyclopedic graphic notation of the plants available in the area, but he, near Joseph, details the numbers and sizes of stones that are found and the quality of the dust. This difference by the way, that is, the lushness at the feet of the virgin, and the barrenness at Joseph’s feet seems to be Caravaggio’s adaptation of the doctrinal idea of the virgin birth and the belief that Joseph was not the father of the child. Between the angel’s head and Joseph’s head the detail of the cluster of oak leaves seems to illustrate his delight in both the intricate details of nature and his own abilities to reproduce it in paint. This, not so by the way, is an important fact to remember in light of the fact that in later work Caravaggio has eliminated that sort of detail and most effectively concentrates on the more massive and dramatic distribution of forms. Changes of this order are evidences of creative minds at work. On the subject of detail and as detail relates to “reality” the Nerdrum, the Bloom drawing of the “wood” or that of the “Beggar”, Durer’s drawing of a rabbit, Paul Cadmus’ drawing of a male nude reclining and Ivan Le Lorraine Albright’s self

portrait all contain illustrative detailing that might encourage us to label all these works as realistic…and they all are, but with very significant differences where the idea of detailing has been pushed, shoved, shaped, molded or subtly blended into an orchestration so that what we get is a very different message in each case. So, once again, we find our vocabulary insufficient to adequately describe those aspects of “realistic” art about which we become more and more aware. In point of fact it does appear as though the functioning realism is not in the subject of the work, but in the attitude if the artist. Considering that shift in our analysis how might an artist answer the question, so often asked, “are you a realist painter?” The questioner more than likely does not understand that his question can make no sense to the artist who must, if he is honest, always answer “yes”…quite certain that the questioner will not understand the answer, especially since he doesn’t understand the question, unless, of course, as an alternative, the artist is willing to begin a lecture on the subject. Sometimes comparing works by different artists is helpful, not at all to decide which I the better one, but simply to clarify existing characteristics by seeing additional alternatives. This person did that and another person did something else. In this regard my mind turned to Arthur Rackham , an English illustrator of children’s books who delicacy and sophistication in draughtsmanship reminded me somewhat of Hefferman. While I have some questions about the appropriateness of some of Rackham’s subject matter in terms of their employment as illustrations in children’s book, yet I must remind myself that both he and the books he illustrated came out of the Victorian era and they, without doubt, had some rather odd ideas about what might be appropriate for children. But there seemed to be something more that Rackham and Hefferman had in common and I think it may be that little something that appears to be just somewhat off color which turns innocence into the scalpel of seduction.

Arthur Rackham illustrations for children’s books

And, as a matter of fact, just a little step more, or maybe just a slip in one direction or another and we find ourselves in the neighborhood of Odilon Redon.

Odilon Redon

The committed realist will observe that there is little reality in a weeping, ten-legged spider. It would seem after all if the above us that the only conclusion one can legitimately arrive at is that reality is a matter of a personal point of view. How trite this conclusion is! It seems to have no more significant a value than its constant repetition by a busy and partially aware housewife attending a PTA meeting forcing herself to be polite while listening to the half truths of not fully formed professional teachers when she knows her children much better than anyone else having carried and nursed them for one intensive year , or more. What academic degree can take the place of that? Yet, the illusion that there is an identifiable reality persists and decade after decade art critics and historians persist and arrogantly insisting that they know what they are talking about. Well, in that limited definition of reality of course they are right, as right as some horse wearing blinders is correct in believing that if walks only in the direction in which can clearly see he will be safe. I do not know, or course, whether the horse has any “belief” in this regard or not/ The blinders were out there by the man so that should any sideways sudden activity occur the horse would not bolt. My, how conventional…a convention imposed upon the horse by humans, and how un horse-like! They, generally, without blinders are looking every which way. Now the question remains what would our reality be like if, in our academic single file progress, we took the blinders off? Is it sufficient for us to realize that reality can exist only when there is change, that is, development, and that when that ceases, there is no more reality? In other words, perhaps, we do not recognize a reality until we have left it? As for the creativity of Hefferman and Nerdrum. It obviously doesn’t exist in their technical abilities, impressive as those are, for there are thousands of other artists who have perfected techniques. Is it possible that their creativeness resides only in their effort to restructure who they are, to find the kernels of their beings somewhere in the middle or a corner of all the dross that masses itself about them. What they both seem to have in common in addition to their technical abilities is an egocentricity that seems to deter the growth they seek. He who would save his life

shall lose it. Change seems to be a requirement for life. The rather self-conscious gothic-tale like presence of Hefferman gets a little worn after awhile and Nerdrum egocentric erotic self-pride is certainly an aesthetic bore. The fascination that may exist in an erect penis is limited, I think, to the one with it and to the second person, if there is one, who may be the stimulus for it. In terms of the formal qualities that go into the production of a work of art I think both these characteristics, outstanding as they are ( pun intended) can not play a significant role in aesthetic considerations. They are beside the point.