Editor's note: The following essay is rekeyed and reprinted with permission of the Panorama Museum of Bad Frankenhausen, Germany. The essay was written in connection with the exhibition held at the Museum titled Realism Revisited - The Florence Academy of Art held 1 February to 27 April 2003. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or if you would like to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue, please contact the Panorama Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:
by Rudolf Kober
The "Thüringer Landeszeitung", in its January 3 edition, heralded the exhibit "Realism Revisited - The Florence Academy of Art" as a unique project. This is due in part to the catalogue, carefully prepared as always, that will appear for the first time in bilingual form and include contributions by American and German authors. However, the exhibit is important primarily because the works shown are by artists from the United States and various European countries. In other words it is a joint international exhibition with a unifying theme, which is provided by the principles of the Florence Academy of Art where all the exhibitors studied or where they teach. But there is also something else: It is that the exhibit affords insight into a specific aspect of the current art process, one that is scarcely known here but is of increasing importance internationally. Its consequences will be felt in the twenty-first Century. This observation prompts a closer examination of the characteristics and origins of the process.
Even with the plethora of themes in the portraits, still-life, landscapes and interiors, and with all of the differences in individual predilections and personal signatures that range from Old Master precision to looser interpretations, if we look at the roughly 120 works shown they are obviously based on common characteristics. These are the mastery of creative abilities and their accoutrements - anatomy and physiognomy, perspective and spatial relationships, light and composition, as well as colour harmony and tensions. All of these are the tools of artistic creation which have been tested and nurtured for centuries in the history of art. The nature of these tools, current for their time, was passed from master to apprentice in artists' studios and, since the sixteenth century, from teachers to their students in art institutes and academies. This gave rise to theoretic concepts which, since the teachings of Plato and Aristotle, reflected greater emphasis on materialistic or idealistic representations, or on those closer to reality, symbolism or allegory.Whether it was in the Mount Athos artist book, the treatises of Cennino Cennini or later, the writings of Leon Battista Alberti, Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer and others, it was always, despite all the differences, a matter of the artistic principles to strive for and what concepts could be learned. The discussion of artistic principles was encouraged in the art schools of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. From the simple to the complicated, systems and corresponding models were developed for teaching and learning. This was always related to the goal of mastering the means for artistic rendering of the visible and, based on this, the synthesis of the new artistic reality.
The activity of the Florence Academy of Art is based on these traditions of systematic teaching and learning. Hence, in searching for a name for the commonalities seen in this exhibit despite the variety of offerings, we come up with the term "academic realism". It includes both the fundamentals, i.e. the academically taught and learned mastery of drawing and painting based on an intensive study of nature, as well as the independent art work based on these. The close relationship of the Florence Academy work with these traditional concepts of the earlier academies and also with the interpretations of the major painters of old is reflected in quotes from Dürer's theoretical writings. "The living aspect of nature shows these truths. So look at them carefully, follow them and do not depart from nature thinking that you can find more within yourself, for you will be led astray. Art is truly contained in nature and whoever can draw will be rewarded. If you can master nature, many flaws will be removed from your work." But he writes elsewhere, "A good painter is full of ideas and, if it were possible for him to be immortal, these inner ideas, of which Plato writes, would always give him something new to express in his work." This deep and systematic, artistically acquired relationship to the representation of reality was aimed at expressing the idea of truth and beauty through the study of nature. It had been done by the ancient Greeks and, after them, taught in the academies until the end of the nineteenth century. Daniel Graves, the director of the Florence Academy of Art, has designated the concept as a tradition of the humanistic spirit in western art which was intended for its continuation. At the end of his text in the catalogue, he cites John Ruskin who said that only those pictures are good which are created with love for the manifestation of reality. This is a rule for the highest artistic endeavours, but it is also one that certainly accompanies the first steps in that direction. "If you decide to draw in order to represent something that is important to you, your progress will be rapid and sure. But if you want to draw only to make a beautiful drawing, it will never succeed."
The Florence Academy of Art is therefore devoted to an art of objects; its standards are based on the objective observation of the manifestations of reality and its principles must be systematically taught and learned as occurred until the end of the nineteenth century in the earlier artist workshops and later in the academies. Nevertheless, even with all of the orientation toward the visible world, the focus was not simply on direct representation, i.e. direct realism or naturalism. With the aim of making a statement about truth and beauty, generally in concurrence with the concepts of the strata of society that determined culture, the observation of reality was enhanced by religion, mythology and history seen in terms of classicism, romanticism or symbolism. In other words, in this academically taught art, it was not merely a matter of reproducing reality in the picture, but also of the interpretation and evaluation of reality. In so doing, the dynamic daily processes and their contradictions were initially, for the most part, ignored. It was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that we saw sociocritical content; toward the end of the century, impressionism broadened the repertoire by the discovery of life in the big city and the appreciation of light and atmosphere.
There was a new development in art at the start of the 20th century. Beginning with expressionism and the discovery of abstract art, the traditional values of imagery based on the mastery of drawing and painting receded. This occurred following or parallel to Cubism, Constructivism, and Futurism and, in the second half of the 20th Century, parallel to Abstract Expressionism, Art Brût, Assemblage, Spazialismo, Op-Art, object and installation art, concept art, and movement from conventional art into happenings and action art, and into land art and video and computer art. This did not mean that during the entire 20th century there were no artists working in the traditional realistic style - and that they do not still do so - in Europe, the United States and some South American countries. Some of them have been exhibited here.
Object painting had never entirely disappeared from modern art. However, its styles, such as New Objectivity, Magical Realism, Verism, Pittura Metafisica, American Regionalism, and later Pop Art, Photorealism, the neo-Fauves and other trends were generally not based on classic academic principles. This was not the case with what we might describe as a realistic intermezzo in the 20th century, viz. the art in which realism was demanded and promoted nationally as an ideological program distinct from Modernism and Formalism and from alleged decadence and "degenerate art". This was true, since the 1930's, of Socialistic Realism which was at that time propagated in the Soviet Union and, after the second World War, in the eastern bloc countries including the GDR; it applied as well to the short-lived art of national socialism. However, even though they had changed since the 1960's, for reasons of principle and ideology, the western world scarcely noted these expressions of art in the eastern bloc. Rather, they provided the West with additional arguments against traditional academic art.
In view of the pluralistically expanded notion of art and its subjectivistic expressions, as an apologist for modern art, for the "documenta" with their videos and installations and several not insignificant paintings which are nevertheless not academically drawn, we might speak of an anachronism when an academic tradition that expired at the end of the nineteenth century continues to be practiced at the Florence Academy of Art. For it would seem that this tradition no longer has a place in contemporary art. It is therefore all the more remarkable that, at the beginning of the 20th century, the roots of this art, which is related to academic standards, lay in the United States rather than in Europe. This development in art history is scarcely known here. It can be explained by the fact that the modern forms of European interpretation, such as Expressionism and Fauvism, Cubism, Constructivism and Futurism, either did not exist in the United States or occurred only after their heyday. Despite all the changes in themes and content, the prevailing art form was indebted to the realistic tradition. In 1911, Ives Gammell, who acknowledged the European academic traditions, established his school in Boston. His students became famous artists and teachers in this tradition. Several of them, such as his student Richard Lack, founded their own academies. His atelier was one of the leading ones in Minnesota and it continues to be active under the direction of former students. There are other such workshops in the United States. Hence, apart from the art education in the former eastern bloc countries there were learning facilities with a direct connection to the nineteenth' century European academies only in the United States.
Daniel Graves, the director of the Florence Academy of Art, was trained as a realist in various schools and under various teachers in the United States. He went to Florence after his final examination and then returned to Minneapolis where he taught the technique and art of etching in Richard Lack's studio. We encounter him again in Florence where important realists continue to be active. For example, we might mention Nerina Simi, the daughter of Filadelfo Simi, who died in 1923. He had studied at the Parisian Academy under Gérôme, one of the most important French academies of the nineteenth century, and then taught developing artists according to these principles. After his death, Nerina Simi continued teaching according to her father's precepts. Pietro Annigoni, the "patriarch of Realism", whom we know from an exhibit in the Panorama Museum, also worked in Florence. Daniel Graves perfected his art in Nerina Simi's studio and selected Pietro Annigoni as his mentor. If we look very carefully, the path of academic Realism in the 20th century led from France via the United States and Italy back to the French academy as the site of tradition and inspiration.
Daniel Graves and Charles Cecil, a student of Gammell's, established an atelier in Florence in order to pass their own learning on to developing artists. After seven years of working together, they separated. Cecil remained in the building that they had occupied and Graves and his students moved to another site in Florence.
The goal of the education at the Florence Academy of Art is not to create new works according to the example of the 19th century. It is, rather, devoted to the traditional values of thoughtful learning and mastery of the media which, in the earlier academies, produced a high level of professional artists in the realistic tradition. This aim is supported by the education which takes place step by step according to an established and timed program, lasting four or five years, that is accompanied by continuous critical review by the teachers. The course requires students to have a high degree of discipline and desire to learn. At present, seventy-five students from twenty-four European and American countries are studying at the Florence Academy of Art. The number of candidates exceeds the school capacity. Great pride is taken in the fact that about eighty percent of the graduates are active as successful artists. Moreover, for all the concurrence in the methods, differences from the earlier academies are also apparent. These are evident primarily in the hierarchy of themes. Historic paintings were previously important; they are no longer seen at this rime. In the past, landscapes and still-lifes were at the bottom of the list, being considered as "mere nature" and "mere objects". This has been reversed. But just as in the past, specialists have developed who concentrate on still-lifes, portraits and landscapes.
The use of this method and its results distinguish the Florence Academy of Art fundamentally from the current art academies in western Europe. The author found an article that deals in detail with those academies in the October 24, 2002 issue of the weekly "Die Zeit". It is stated that in art the focus is on "personality, biography or sexuality". "Creativity is synonymous with happiness and so the academy seems to be a place of high spirits and the good life... Often, these students do not think of art as a profession but are content merely to study it - to have five years of experimentation and a socially acceptable opportunity for focussing on themselves... Many tend to equate art and psychology, reducing the meaning of art to the artist's self-realization...It is obvious that such students want to learn how to handle video or silicon but have little interest in influencing others with their art. This is how academies often become preschools of the esoteric..." The article also mentions that many students are subsequently not active in the arts and that they have no desire to "submit to relatively fixed standards of performance..." Finally, there is "a strangely undefined relationship to time..." "It is not unusual to encounter art students who have no will power and no ambition to achieve." These quotes reflect the differences mentioned above.
We come to a final and theoretic interpretation of the exhibit. The term "academic" indicates that the concept of Realism can be handled in very different ways. Apart from the fact that in art it always refers to a relationship with the expression of reality, the concept can be variously interpreted: in terms of philosophy, epistemology, art history, methodology and style. It can be defined as stylistic history accompanying the entire body of art history. Realism can also be related primarily to the 19th century in which it originated, particularly by way of Courbet and Zola. In epistemological terms, we can make opposites of the concepts "realistic" and "idealistic" or, in mitigated form, "idealizing". The concepts "realistic" and "naturalistic" can be synonymous or also contradictory, while "realistic" and "formalistic" can be interpreted in terms of art history or ideology. Finally, we can establish a contrast between Realism and the Abstract as well as their indispensable connection with the whole of art history. These considerations are also prompted by the exhibit. It is certainly true that we cannot regard the exhibit simply as an extraordinary contribution to worldwide contemporary post-Modernism. We must also set it into a historical and theoretical context. It is clear that, within the scope of the pluralistic expressions of contemporary art, the artistic vocabulary of the Old Masters is only one of many. But there is no really valid argument against it. On the contrary, this art provides a welcome echo of the past within our present artistic spectrum.
It is evident that in the United States and also in Europe interest is developing in Old Master or academic Realism. This is part of a new trend in art, a growing return to the expression of reality. Looking at the course of art history as we have been, this trend piques our curiosity about the future effects of the new Impulses being created for the art of the 21st century.
Bad Frankenhausen, 2/1/2003 Rudolf Kober
Copyright 2003 Panorama Museum
About the author
Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.
This page was originally published in 2003 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.
Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.