Sunday, August 30, 2009

Contemporary Social Realism

For some time I have been searching to relate my current paintings to a specific style. Recently I connected to the Social Realism style as close, and have been researching this area. The result has been the summary article shown below, and now on my website.

This is still a work in progress, and over the next few weeks I will be showing examples of the paintings by the various mentioned artists, and adding links to the key references:-

Contemporary Social Realism

(Much of this material has been extracted from Wikipedia and Yahoo! Directory.)


Social Realism, sometimes known as Socio-Realism, in the past depicted social and racial injustice, and economic hardship, through unvarnished pictures of life's struggles; often depicting working class activities as heroic.

The movement started as a style of painting in which the scenes typically convey a message of social or political protest edged with satire.

Later it expanded to include scenes of normal American life beyond the gritty side, and had a strong influence on mid century popular culture.

Eventually, it fell out of favor as other more edgy styles took over.

Today, there is a revival of a style of colorful paintings showing ordinary people going about their everyday life - Contemporary Social Realism.

Early Movements and Adoption.

Social Realism became an art movement during the late 19th Century, was adopted by American painters in the early 1900's, and became particularly important during the Great Depression of the late 1920's and early 1930's. It is closely related to American Scene Painting and to Regionalism styles. It fell-out of fashion in the 1960's, but is returning to influence thinking and the contemporary art of today.

The term dates, on a broader scale, to the Realist movement in French art during the mid-1800s. In the 20th Century, it refers back to the works of the French artist Gustave Courbet and in particular to the implications of his 19th Century paintings "A Burial at Ornas" and "The Stone-Breakers," which scandalized French Salon–goers of 1850.

Many of the early artists who subscribed to Social Realism were painters with socialist (but not necessarily Marxist) political views. The movement has some commonalities with the Socialist Realism used in the Soviet Union and the the Eastern Block through about the 1990's. But the two are not identical - Social Realism is not an official art, and allows space for subjectivity. In certain contexts, Socialist Realism has been described as a specific branch of Social Realism.

Realism, a style of painting that depicts the actuality of what the eyes can see, was a very popular art form in France around the mid to late 1800’s. It came about with the introduction of photography - a new visual source that created a desire for people to produce things that look “objectively real.”

Realism tended to be heavily against Romanticism, a genre dominating French literature and artwork in the mid 19th century. Undistorted by personal bias, Realism believed in the ideology of external reality and revolted against exaggerated emotionalism. Truth and accuracy became the goals of many Realists.

American Social Realism:

The origins of American Social Realism lie in the Ashcan School painters, who in the first decades of the 20th Century depicted the commonplace, gritty, and unglamorous realities of city life. John Slone, Robert Henri, George Bellows, and George Luks were prominent members of this diverse group who painted scenes from everyday life. Later, Reginald Marsh, though not a member of the Ashcan School, continued this tradition, taking lower Manhattan and the Bowery as his themes.

The Great Depression:

The advent of the 1930's Great Depression and the enactment of the New Deal’s programs beginning in 1933 stimulated a broad trend toward sociopolitical commentary in American painting. Many artists were commissioned to decorate public buildings with murals dealing with American subject matter.

In the Depression era, American painters began to grapple more openly with such themes as joblessness and poverty, political corruption and injustice, labour-management conflict, and the excesses of American materialism. Works in this vein by Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood, William Gropper, Charles White, and Jack Levine, all of whom worked for the WPA, are notable for their overt and sometimes scathing pictorial criticisms of American society.

American Scene Painting:

But other artists such as Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry, Edward Hopper, and other Regionalist painters also dealt with everyday life in their works, but in a romanticized way that was basically incompatible with explicit social protest or criticism.

Their work, often called American Scene Painting, depicted scenes of typical American life and landscape painted in a naturalistic, descriptive vein during this same Depression period. Sometimes it is referred to as an umbrella term for rural American Regionalism and the urban and politically oriented Social Realism painting, but its specific boundaries remain ambiguous.

As an Antimodernist style and reaction against the modern European style, American Scene Painting (including American Social Realism) was seen as an attempt to define a uniquely American style of art. The term did not signify an organized movement, but rather an aspect of a broad tendency for American artists to move away from Abstraction and the Avant-Garde in the period between the two world wars.

Popular Influence:

American Regionalism and Social Realism had a strong influence on popular culture. Its imagery appeared in magazine advertisements, and influenced American children's book illustrators such as Holling Clancy Holling. Norman Rockwell is the most popular and easily recognizable painter of this style and period.

Loss of Popularity and Rebirth:

But in the later part of the 20th Century, this style of painting grew less popular. The movements towards new ideas and new ways of expressing old ideas predominated. It seemed each new artist wanted to out do or over extend the thoughts of the previous artists.

But today, in the beginnings of the 21st Century, a desire to display a brighter, lighter form, as Contemporary Social Realism, has emerged. Some collectors and artists, including myself, are embracing this return to reality with the depictions of today's everyday life of ordinary people in the bright colors of the earlier styles.

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