The difference between real and realistic

`REALISTIC' is a very deceptive word to use when writing about art, for it implies that only works bearing a close resemblance to the appearances of nature can adequately represent reality or truth. Reality, however, is not that easy to pin down, and truth is much too dynamic to permit itself to be defined by something as superficial as appearance. Both qualities, in fact, defy precise pictorial representation, something that artists of all stylistic persuasions realize all too well.

That doesn't mean, of course, that artists won't do their best to embody these qualities in their work. Nor that they won't examine every technical and stylistic device before settling on a style that seems most appropriate to the task.

Before they begin, however, they must decide what aspect of reality they wish to dwell on. They may prefer to focus on things, places, or events, and produce still lifes, landscapes, or depictions of historical events. They may place their primary emphasis on order, color, execution, or novelty, on a subject's psychological or spiritual implications, or on new theories as to how to enhance perception. Or then again, they might simply want to record someone's exact physical appearance, translate three-dimensionality into two-dimensional design, or give vent to their enthusiasms through brilliant explosions of pure color.

The range of possibilities is endless, with every variant seeking its own style and technique. The result is apt to be more than a little confusing. Since no one can say with absolute certainty that one artist's perception of reality is truer than another's, or that abstraction is less -- or more -- capable of representing the deeper dimensions of reality than more traditional forms of painting, any use of the words ``real'' and ``realistic'' while discussing art poses very serious problems.

Take the two paintings reproduced here, for example. Both are frontal studies of women set against plain backgrounds. Neither woman is wearing jewelry or makeup. In fact, each is presented as simply and plainly as possible, as she apparently actually is -- or, at least, as she appeared to the man who painted her.

As the world views such things, both pictures are ``realistic'' (although one would certainly be considered more ``real'' than the other), for both obviously were based on living subjects, and each artist did his best to capture what he saw.

What each ``saw,'' however, differed dramatically. Where Chuck Close responded to every pore, wrinkle, and hair of his model's face and head and reproduced the exact tone, texture, and detail of her dress, Alberto Giacometti focused primarily on his model's volume and placement in space and paid only cursory attention to her features and attire.

Even more important, Giacometti worked directly from life, constantly rethinking and repainting his model's image until it became a mass of overlapping smears and strokes of paint. Close, on the other hand, placed a photograph of his subject near his easel and painstakingly and unemotionally transcribed it, square inch by square inch, to his canvas.

Also, Giacometti's picture is small, a little over 21 by 18 inches, while the one by Close is huge, 8 by 7 feet, to be exact.

Except that both are studies of women's heads, these paintings obviously have little in common. And if we take each artist's overall intentions into account, they will be seen to differ even more dramatically.

Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) was essentially a sculptor. Even his paintings and drawings concern themselves primarily with how his subjects ``fit'' into the spaces they occupy, and the manner in which their weight, volume, and tactile qualities can best be translated into compact, two-dimensional images.

His commitment to his art was so total, however, and his method of working so uncompromising, that he couldn't avoid projecting many of his deepest feelings into his work. Even his most tentative paintings, as a result, bear the unmistakable stamp of his personality, and his best rank among this century's most moving demonstrations of the depth and sturdiness of the human spirit.

Chuck Close, on the other hand, is a dedicated modernist for whom the human face is primarily a convenient formal device. He is not interested in the humanity of his subjects, only in how best to transform photographs of them into gigantic, awesomely ``real'' icons representing the epitome of physical illusion. As such, they are intended not to convey the artist's feelings or ideas about society or his fellow men and women, but to stake out for himself as extreme a formalist position in the modernist firmament as is occupied by Mondrian and Pollock.

In short, the paintings of Chuck Close are not at all about human reality, no matter how ``realistic'' his men and women may appear, while Giacometti's, for all their distortions and simplifications, are very much about the reality of human existence, both as it is perceived and as it is experienced and expressed emotionally.

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