Painting and Reality

“What I am seeking is not the real and not the unreal but rather the unconscious, the mystery of the instinctive in the human race.” – Amadeo Modigliani

(Detail of the mirror from Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait)

The meaning of realism, in painting, may seem obvious. But, if one thinks deeper on this matter, things get tricky.

Virtually any artwork that gets close in portraying the observable world is called realistic. In the extreme, there are the artists that pursue a thoroughly accurate depiction of what we seem – the hyperrealists. They show undeniable craftsmanship, and the matter about the “role” of such works in a time when we take photographies is another interesting one (photos don’t replace a painting done by hand, and vice versa).

But the question here is how superficially, most of the time, we define “real”, and how this could affect the way we think about painting. What we are used to call real is what we perceive through senses, markedly through vision (as we are talking about painting, in particular). A large part of what we take as reality depends upon visual data. Our perception, obviously, is subjected to its limits and to our (mis)interpretations. This is a matter of physics, and for brain sciences. Continue reading