Local museums display Realist art

    There are big blank spots on the walls of some prominent homes in Philadelphia. Twelve of the 15 American landscape paintings now on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art were pulled from local private collections.

    There are big blank spots on the walls of some prominent homes in Philadelphia. Twelve of the 15 American landscape paintings now on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art were pulled from local private collections.

    These works show the American wilderness with a highly romantic realism you rarely see anymore. It is an example of how local artists are bringing realism into the 21st century.

    It’s called the Hudson River School – which was not a school at all but a style of landscape painting popular in the 1800’s. They presented a grandiose vision of America – so awe-inspiring that legislators in Washington DC used the images while pushing for a National Park Service.

    Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art curator Anne Marley says the cliffs of Yosemite or the rocks of Yellowstone – caressed with pink clouds or raging with thunderstorms – were designed to grab viewers by the lapels.

    Marley: This dramatic lighting was all part of the beautiful, the sublime, the power of god in nature. The treatment of light is seen as a reflection of god in the American wilderness, which tied into Transcendentalism in the time period.

    Some of these artists were trying to use paint to reconcile religion and science. So each leaf is individually rendered as if it came from Darwin’s notebook. A rock testifies to the glacier that formed it. The word Marley uses to describe this kind of precision is “insane,” and it went over big.

    Going to see these paintings was almost like going to the movies. You would pay your 5 cents, you would go to an artist’s studio, he would pull back the curtain, and you would sit there and view them. Of course now we have cinema to do that.

    Movies and photography have stolen some of the thunder of realistic art over the last 100 years, but that hasn’t entirely removed the urge to see the world rendered in paint.

    An artist in Kennet Square named Robert Jackson recently put together a traveling show of contemporary realists, but he had a hard time getting museums interested. He claims there’s a perception among curators that realism is too literal for modern audiences.

    Jackson: Sometimes the common man can’t tell when you see a bad abstract painting. But you look at bad realism – oh, yeah, that’s bad.

    Jackson’s exhibit did make it into five museums, never in Philadelphia. But this town does have a strong tradition of realism. Stronger than most, says art journalist Tyler Green. He says important collections of figurative work at places like the Academy and the Institute of Contemporary Art wield influence.

    Green: There’s no question what museums show have an impact on artists in their region. The Philadelphia Museums is strong in Eakins, the Wyeths are hard to miss, and that all gets in the water and effects how artists see and think.

    One of the places where that influence is exercised is Studio Incamminiati – an art school at 12th and Callowhill Streets. It teaches a highly disciplined realistic method of portraiture. After seven years, the school now has its first gallery show in Bucks County, PA

    Founder Nelson Shanks has a bone to pick with modern art. He says abstract painting actively dis-assembles techniques that have been honed since ancient Rome.

    Shanks: To dismiss the most gifted artists of the last thousand years would be refutation of anything artistic. We can put a 21st century feel into the techniques that had been used – and that is very exciting.

    Shanks says his main task with students is to teach them to see like the 19th century landscape artists did with their Transcendentalism. To To get them to filter their perception through their own 21st century experience.

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