A recent piece in the New Yorker magazine written by Adam Goplik, Titled “Life Studies” was ostensibly about how the author learned to draw from one of the leading “classical realists” of today, Jacob Collins. The fact that he stumbled through the learning process was not particularly of interest to me. What was of interest is how thick headed the classical realists are and what a shame that is. Classical realism is a name given to those artists who hearken back to the academy days, when students were taught a very strict and very specific way to make art. It is more or less the Pre-Raphaelite movement of today. They don’t consider any art valid after 1860 unless it is created in a very specific academy realist style. It is truly a shame because there are many things about these painters that are admirable. Their work, generally, is of a very high technical quality. They work from life and the object of their art is to create beauty. That isn’t what I have an issue with. I consider myself to be a contemporary realist. What I have issues with are the limitations they place on art, dismissing all artists who are talking about things other than what they are talking about. They (Collin’s in this article) dismiss out-of-hand not only Monet but also Sargent, Homer, and O’Keefe because they added their thoughts to what they saw. They deny the artist’s intent. And they deny an artist’s response to their time and place. Conceptually the work is much like Andrew Wyeth’s—illustrative.
Drawing from memory, drawing from the subconscious, drawing from the symbol side of your mind, and drawing from imagination are just as valid as drawing from life. To deny that, is to deny the way we think and the way we communicate visually. The idols of the classical realism school, or most or them, painted not was before them technically, but created the worlds of heaven and hell. (Unless of course, they did something no near mortal could.) They may have drawn from life, but it was staged. Jesus is not Jesus in the paintings, he was a model dressed up as Jesus. Is that more or less real than working from an image of an actual person, or a memory or a dream?
To pretend our time and place does not exist, (i.e. Andrew Wyeth and yes, Jacob Collins himself) creates a falsehood in itself, a world entirely bordering on the illustrative. Wyeth painted the rural countryside of Pennsylvania while traveling around in a five-million dollar private jet. The world he painted was not his world or really anyone’s world. It was a story. Jacob Collins paints his children beautifully but why deny their time and place? Where is his world? Beauty does not deny who we are. Beauty is not one way of thinking.
The problem with the entire “Classical Realism” movement is not that they are bad painters creating bad product, quite the contrary—much of the work is technically outstanding—it’s that they are too much like the “creationists” of art; determined to ignore the entire twentieth and twenty-first centuries. They block out additional ways of seeing. They don’t allow consideration of another way of thinking.
Do I insist my students learn to draw from life? Absolutely, yes. Without that skill, it would be the same as a writer who does not know how to read. But in addition to it being a fundamental skill that improves their ability to observe, to connect their eye/hand coordination, and aid their visual memories, it gives them access to a world that is not apparent. It gives them access to a state of being.
"The object of painting a picture is not to make a picture. The picture, if a picture results, is a by-product and may be useful, valuable, interesting as a sign of what has past. The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence.” Robert Henri, “The Art Spirit” 1923
But then, Jacob Collins would dismiss Robert Henri. He was born after 1860.