Characteristics, History of Superrealist Painting.

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Photorealism (1960s onwards)

What is Photorealism? - Characteristics

In contemporary art, the term "photorealism", "photo-realism" or "photographic realism", describes a style of highly detailed 20th century realist painting in which the artist attempts to replicate an image from a photograph in all its microscopic exactness. As a movement, photorealism, sometimes also referred to as Superrealism or Hyperrealism, came to prominence in the United States during the late 1960s and early 1970s, largely as a result of paintings by Chuck Close (b.1940) and Richard Estes (b.1936), and the extraordinarily life-like sculpture of John De Andrea (b.1941), Duane Hanson (1925-96) and Carole Feuerman (b.1945). Being wholly representational, photorealist art is a natural counter to contemporary abstraction.


Supermarket Shopper (1970).
Superrealist sculpture by
Duane Hanson.

Self-Portrait (1997) by Chuck Close
Museum of Modern Art, New York

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How Photorealist Art is Created

Most photorealist painters work directly from photographs or digital computer images - either by using traditional grid techniques, or by projecting colour slide imagery onto the canvas. The aim is to recreate the same sharpness of detail throughout the painting. Subjects vary - superrealist artists tend to specialize in specific types of scene, human figure or portrait - but invariably the subject matter is relatively prosaic and devoid of special interest: it may even be selected purely for its technical difficulty. In any event the main focus is on the precision and detail achieved by the artist, and its impact on the viewer - which can be compelling.

The Impact of Photography and Digital Imaging

It is thanks to photography - a century after it first appeared - that superrealist art has been made possible. How else could the same scene be maintained for the length of time (days, if not weeks) required? Latterly, the appearance of computer graphic software, capable of manipulating digital imagery, has also been a help in enlarging and analyzing pictorial content and colour. As a result, contemporary American painters like Chuck Close, Richard Estes and Don Eddy, have achieved a degree of detail that significantly exceeds anything produced by the great Renaissance artists, like Jan van Eyck, Leonardo or Titian.

In contrast, photorealism in sculpture has no relation to photography. This is because sculpture is a three-dimensional art, whereas both painting and photography are two-dimensional. Superrealist sculptors therefore have the same problems of technique to overcome as Renaissance artists.


Origins and History

Photographic realism emerged in the 1960s as a style of American art, in sharp contrast to intellectual contemporary art movements like Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism. Although nominally a type of "realism", photorealism was not a successor to earlier types of American realism practised by the likes of Winslow Homer (1836-1910) and Edward Hopper (1882-1967). Instead, it was closer to Pop-Art, whose banal but instantly recognizable imagery it shared. However photorealism has none of Pop-Art's whimsical humour: rather it tends to be ultra impersonal, and its meticulous but indiscriminate detail can actually produce a sense of unreality. Thus whereas Pop artists sought to highlight the absurdity of much of the media imagery relied upon by the Consumer Society, photorealist painters and sculptors aim to celebrate the integrity and value of an image.

Famous Photorealist Artists

The most celebrated members of the American photo-realist school include top contemporary artists like Chuck Close (b.1940), who specializes in gigantic-scale pictures of expressionless faces; Richard Estes (b.1936), who paints street views with intricate glass-reflections; Audrey Flack (b.1931), who strives for emotional effect in her vanitas painting (still lifes with moral messages); Howard Kanovitz (1929-2009), whose works have the illusion of using figurative cut-outs; Ralph Goings, Tom Blackwell, Robert Bechtle, and Robert Cottingham (b.1935) noted for close-ups of advertising signs. In Europe, famous superrealists include: the Irish painter John Doherty (b.1940), the British artists Dianne Ibbotson (b.1946), Michael Leonard (b.1933), Michael English (b.1943), John Salt (b.1937) and Graham Dean (b.1951), the Frenchman Claude Yvel (b.1930) and the German painter Gerhard Richter (b.1932). Other European photorealist artists include: Roberto Bernardi, Franz Gertsch, Clive Head, Bertrand Meniel, and Raphaella Spence. Renowned sculptors who work in the hyperrealist style include: the Verists Duane Hanson (1925-96), noted for his fibre-glass consumer figures; John de Andrea (b.1941), who models ultra-realist nudes; Ron Mueck and Robert Gober.

Works by photorealist artists can be seen in several of the best art museums in America, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. For more details, see: Art Museums in America.

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