Realism – Concept, types, characteristics and representatives

We explain what realism is, what its historical context and its characteristics are like. In addition, the art, literature and the authors of realism.

Realism - art
Realism tries to represent reality in the most plausible way possible.

What is Realism?

By realism we understand an aesthetic and artistic tendency, fundamentally literary, pictorial and sculptural, that aspires to the most exact similarity or correlation between the forms of art and representation, and the reality that inspires them. That is, a trend that assesses the resemblance of a work of art to the real world it represents.

This aesthetic doctrine formally emerged in France in the 19th century, under the influence of rationalism and the tradition of the French Enlightenment, which privileged the human intellect and knowledge of reality over emotions and the subjective world.

But nevertheless, Realistic considerations can be found in the art forms of almost all ages, since prehistory. And generally speaking, realism tends to be opposed to other art forms such as abstractionism, neoclassicism, idealism or, in the specific case of literature, to the subjective forms of romanticism.

In a rough way, realistic art is recognized, whatever its discipline, because it tries to represent reality in the most plausible way possible, preferring everyday situations and discarding the heroic, in favor of themes more attached to the mundane, to the common. In many ways it has been thought of as a way of understanding and criticizing contemporary societies to the artist, which requires, among other things, objectivity.

Historical context of realism

Realism represented the social changes inspired by the French Revolution.

Trends towards realism and towards abstractionism or fantasy have often clashed throughout the history of art. Thus, the appearance and expansion of romanticism between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a movement opposed to what was proposed by the enlightened and rationalist tradition of France at the time, prompted at the same time a contrary reaction, which would reject the sometimes mythological exoticisms that they cultivated. the German and English romantics. This new school would be realism, and its objective would be the search for art in the daily life of the human being, in the class conflicts typical of the time and of the social changes inspired by the French Revolution of 1789.

Thus, the rise of journalism, the theories of Auguste Comte, and Darwin’s evolutionary theory were important drivers of faith in human reason and the progress of civilization through scientific advancement. Hence, the realism it was much more than a mere aesthetic reaction: it was also the application of positivist philosophy to art, aspiring to make the artist a character committed to portraying his culture and his time, addressing hitherto ignored themes, without escapist fantasies or daydreams.

Thus many realisms were born, such as socialist realism, committed to the revolutionary political cause and the social novel; or kitchen sink realism, a trend that wanted to investigate the dirtiest, ugliest and most ordinary of reality.

Characteristics of realism

Realistic art proposes a look focused on the human being and his daily existence, turning away from mythological, religious, fantasy and dream themes, preferring instead the social and political denunciation. This led to pictorial techniques that aspired to objectivity: the almost photographic reproduction of the observed, or the long and meticulous literary descriptions that tried to exhaust the observable through words.

The characters and favorite scenes of realism were always the most mundane, generally carried out by the common people, when not by the dispossessed classes, who were represented in their greatest fidelity, assuming art as a vehicle to capture the real life of those below: the peasantry, the nascent working classes, etc.

Much of what realism was in painting, served for the subsequent emergence of Impressionism, and its principles were taken even further by the coming naturalism, in its many meanings and aspects.

Art in realism

Realist art aimed at a local perspective.

Photography was already making its first appearances when realism became the prevailing school, so in one way or another they aspired to an accuracy, objectivity and level of detail in art that had never been possible before, thanks to innovations. scientific, and that in the case of painting and sculpture, later led to twentieth-century hyperrealism.

Moving away from romantic motifs, realistic art pointed to a local perspective, manners, which also coincided with the emergence of numerous nationalist movements in Europe in the 19th century. Obviously, his paintings are always figurative, far from abstraction, and their motives always explainable in secular, almost scientific terms.

Literary realism

Literary realism
Literary realism gave long descriptions of objects, settings, and characters.

For its part, literary realism targeted less ideal and more truthful writing models, to move away from the sensitivity and imagination of the authors, to engage with the observation of the world that surrounded them, in its social, economic and political details. It was hoped that a writer would study society just as a doctor would study the human body.

Regarding the forms, the realism he privileged the simple, direct, sober style, which would open spaces for the reproduction of people’s daily speech and for long and detailed descriptions of objects, environments and characters. This resulted in long paragraphs with many subordinate sentences, as well as in an “invisible” language that did not have many twists, metaphorizations or eccentricities, since the important thing was not the author, but the reality described.

Finally, in the narrative an omniscient narrator was always preferred, capable of explaining down to the last detail why what happened happened and of instructing the reader in the social and economic issues that involve its history. This also led to the appearance of archetypal characters, if not stereotypical, who ended up being similar in so recurrent: the young prostitute, the working communist, the homeless, etc.

Authors and representatives of realism

Some important representatives of this trend in the various artistic disciplines are:

  • Painting. The French Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), Thomas Couture (1815-1879), Jean-Francois Millet (1814-1875), Jules Breton (1827-1906), as well as many other representatives from England, Germany, Italy and the United States mainly.
  • Sculpture. The French Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), Honoré Daumier (1808-1879) and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875), as well as the Belgian Constantin Meunier (1831-1905) and the Italian Medardo Rosso (1858-1928).
  • Literature. The French Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), Stendhal (1783-1842) and Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880); the Englishman Charles Dickens (1812-1870); the Spanish Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920) and the Russians Fiódor Dostoevski (1821-1881), founder of the psychological novel, and León Tolstoi (1828-1910).

Magical realism

Magical realism - Gabriel García Márquez
Gabriel García Márquez was the main exponent of magical realism.

Magic realism is a twentieth century Hispanic American literary school, whose main exponent is the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This trend is committed to the realistic representation of strange and wonderful events, which nevertheless produce little or no surprise in the fictional universe of the work. In other words, it is about the daily and objective approach to fantastic events.

This side of realism It also involves a political stance in the face of the reality of the Latin American peoples, initially formulated by the Cuban Alejo Carpentier (who called it “real marvelous”) and by the Venezuelan Arturo Úslar Pietri (already as “magical realism”), in which the Latin American continent plays the role of reservoir of magic and the exotic within a rationalistic and scientistic western hemisphere.