Four New Exhibits Trace Realism at the Allen

Odette Chalandon

19th-century French artist Honoré Daumier once said, “One must be of one’s own time.”  Indeed, the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s newest exhibits honor the words of the Realist movement’s founding father. Their four new exhibits were conceived when Associate Professor of French Libby Murphy approached the museum about curating an exhibit of 19th century French lithographs in conjunction with her class, “La Comédie Humaine,” which explores the social movements that gave birth to Realism.

As an institution that’s part of an academic setting, the museum derives its exhibits from actual curricula. Murphy’s project served as the impetus for the creation of four new exhibits: Regarding RealismModern and Contemporary RealismsThe Human Comedy: Chronicles of 19th-Century France and Harold E. Edgerton, Seeking Facts. The museum was able to pull from the over 14,000 works in its collection to provide visitors with a deeper understanding of Realism in its various forms. The Review was able to view Regarding Realism and Modern and Contemporary Realisms as they went on display.

The two exhibits, taken as a whole, trace the genesis, history, evolution and continuation of the movement from the 19th through the 20th century. “They form a cohesive unit,” said Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Denise Birkhofer. “There is a historical narrative, but each exhibit is also self-contained.”

Walking into the first gallery, one begins to understand the historical narrative. Curatorial Assistant Sara Green, OC ’12, begins the story in the mid-1600s with works that represent the predecessor to Realism: Naturalism. A lobster still-life and sweeping landscapes of rich, dense colors greet visitors. The artistic interest for Naturalists, and later Realists, was to oppose idealization, and the pieces demonstrate the style of the time: smooth brush strokes and realistic proportions.

The exhibit, like the movement, starts with French works. Armand Charnay’s “The Park of Sansac, Autumn” is a romantic painting with a simple subject. A woman dressed in black walks along a path reading a book. She is surrounded by the burnt orange, brown and grey of a fall day. Similarly, Gustave Courbet’s “Castle of Chillon, Evening” presents a serene tableaux of an unassuming sailboat approaching the castle.

There are also etchings in the exhibit. “Knife Grinder,” by Charles-Émile Jacque, is a quintessential Realism piece: it portrays a man at work, bent over his knife grinding machine. He is looking down at the little girl next to him, who offers up another knife. The two figures are outside what appears to be his workshop; there are some old machine parts on the floor. In the background, a woman and another child stand together. This is an example of the sort of everyday activity that became the new ideal subject of the Realist artists.

The show reflects the movement’s expansion and influence on artists from other European countries, such as Holland’s Hague School and artists such as Jacob Maris, as well as those from the United States.

The spread of Realism to the United States in the 1930s and ’40s is exemplified by Thomas Hart Benton’s lithographs of agricultural life. His lines are curved in a way that tampers with perspective, foreshadowing the Surrealist movement to come. His subjects are real, but their portrayal is not realistic. Separate from agricultural landscapes was Urban Realism, which focused on cityscapes and, unexpectedly, women. Instead of the domestic, docile images of women portrayed in earlier works, these women are pictured as independent: They’re lusty, partly undressed and purposeful. Look at Douglas W. Gorsline’s “Brooklyn Local,” whose subject is a woman riding the subway and fixing her hair. Her jacket is open and her shirt is partially unbuttoned.

The second exhibit, Modern and Contemporary Realisms, deals with the concept of realism with a lowercase “r.”  Like the early Realism movement, realism concerned itself with the representation of real life, but the expression was moving farther and farther away from a given reality. “Although the Realism with a capital “R” was a finite movement, the realism as defined in my exhibit follows the evolution of the desire to represent tangible, real objects,” Birkhofer said.

The influences are so far-reaching and so varied in both style and country of origin that extra walls were constructed in the Ellen Johnson Gallery to accommodate all the works and better organize the exhibit. “The large walls would have swallowed the pieces if they were installed in the original space; the new walls create a sense of intimacy that draws the viewers to take a closer look at each piece,” Birkhofer said.

It is easy to see that each new corner of the gallery is its own subworld of realist art. Each new development and sub-movement reflects the original Realism in their glorification of the mundane. Two examples represent the Pop Art movement. One is James Rosenquist’s “Nails.” His acrylic painting of nails, a subject we would normally consider uninteresting and unworthy of a work of art, takes on significance through his use of brilliant colors and the implication of tally marks. The other, Roy Lichtenstein’s “Craig,” depicts a woman presumably looking up in anticipation into the eyes of an unseen man. In contrast with the Rosenquist piece, the reality here is not related to a common object, but rather the depiction, or implication, of the recognizable reality of a classic male-female heterosexual relationship.

All the pieces in the exhibit belongs to the Allen’s permanent collection, and include a few new acquisitions, including works by Elizabeth Murray, Roger Brown and the Chinese painter Xiao Xie. The last was donated by Driek and Michael Zirinsky, OC ’65 and OC ’64, in honor of Edith and Naham Zirinsky. There are plenty of recognizable artists represented as well, including Giorgio de Chirico, Joan Miró and Dorothea Lange.

When visiting this incredible survey of the Realism movement, the transition from Neoclassicism to the Realism movement occurs subtly, but by the time you reach the 20th century, everything erupts. Although it is tempting to dash straight to the Modern and Contemporary Realisms exhibit, with its incredibly diverse and celebrated artists, be sure to take time in the Regarding Realism exhibit; it will greatly enhance one’s ability to understand and appreciate the modern Realists.