There are probably more styles of contemporary art than there are hairs on a hog. It’s hard to know, without phoning the sponsor or seeing images of the work, whether a “contemporary” exhibition” is restricted to the wild and way-out or just to “living artists”.
What is Impressionism? Realism?
I don’t feel I can define either “impressionism” or “realism” with any authority. These terms seem to mean different things to different people. Some people call anything with a merely identifiable subject “realism”, while others mean something much more narrowly defined and of a traditional nature. A great example of the latter would be a Holbein portrait, or a Da Vinci.
I’ve always been inclined towards the very specific, as long as it is accurate. Perhaps this is so partly because I have needed glasses to function adequately since I was a kid! So what people call "details" are very meaningful to me on a day-to-day basis. I can get around my own neighborhood and most of New York City wearing my computer glasses, but bare-faced, I would feel closer to helpless even in my own neighborhood than I would be comfortable with. There's just not enough information!
"The devil is in the details", which may be why some artists seem to avoid them at all costs!
Batten the Hatches
The image at the beginning of this post is a recent monotype of mine. While I'm usually inclined to create works that require intense scrutiny and attention to more realistic detail/specificity, I didn't have anything in mind when I made it. I was just playing around with a printmaker's small rubber brayer and having some fun. However, when it came off the press, I needed to give it a title for reference' sake. It looked a bit unstable, a bit wild, and some of the marks reminded me of a rigged ship suddenly caught in a gale. So I dubbed it Batten the Hatches.
It might remind you of something else, or it might remind you of nothing at all. It may simply give you a feeling. And that's okay. Both art and music give you a feeling of some kind (even revulsion), and that makes both music and visual art potentially "accessible" to anybody who can hear or see it, respectively, because it is not language-dependent.
But back to Batten the Hatches: is it realism, simply because I found the suggestion of a specific subject in it after it was done?
I don't know how I would categorize it in terms of style. I guess all I could definitely commit to would be "contemporary" or possibly something along the lines of "marine abstract". It wasn't created with anything particular in mind. I was just exploring, satisfied to see where it went and what pleased my eye. So does my lack of intent make it an abstraction? Quite possibly. Impressionism? Perhaps? A vague kind of loose realism?
I'll be danged if I know!
Style, Intention and Skill
When I'm working on a highly realistic, challenging piece of art, I often ask myself why anybody who played a musical instrument would be satisfied with playing a perfect Happy Birthday to You and not want to work towards something more challenging. In most anything you could call a discipline, the goal is usually to learn and improve, not to simply reach a certain point of skill and call it quits there. However, there are some things you do just for recreation or because they need doing. As my Dad often said about these situations, "It gets the job done."
You can learn a great deal about dance or slalom just by watching it, but you will learn a whole lot more by actively participating! Many artists make very pleasing pictures that are “starts” (to my general way of thinking) and are deserving of a place on a wall. But I wonder if they strive to acquire more skill, or if they tend to settle for what they’ve accomplished to date? Are they passive rather than active learners? Are they just having fun? Does it matter?
I had fun with Batten the Hatches. Maybe that's enough, at least sometimes.
What is Impressionism?
19th Century landscape painter Thomas Moran said that his own paintings were just “impressions”. They appear tremendously realistic to viewers, although they aren’t hyper-detailed or even physically accurate by his own admission. Moran called them “impressions” because they were not simply documentary in nature. He played around with what he saw in front of him to get the best composition possible.
Nature doesn’t worry about composition. That’s the artist’s job. But when I look at Moran's painting The Grand Tetons at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, I'm as good as THERE. I can almost feel the temperature and humidity of the air, the difference between standing in the shadows or in the sun; I can nearly hear the water tumbling over the rocks, and I fancy I can just about hear bird song.
And I don't think any work of art, however it is created, can beat that. THAT picture really communicates. In the end, maybe that's what really counts.
These days, “Impressionism” seems to be defined almost however the painter wants to define it, as long as the subject is identifiable. This can give an artist a tremendous amount of wiggle room. For example, the artist might believe it isn’t necessary to be concerned that a veterinarian will recognize immediately that an animal in a painting has a missing or distorted bone or muscle, or that the rigging in a painting of a sailboat is inaccurate or nonexistent. Impressionism can be a very forgiving style: forgiving to the artist, and forgiving to a public that may have no real knowledge about art or about the subject of a work. Impressionism is pleasing and easy to live with.
But there's a limit to what you can get away with neglecting, especially if you are a traditionalist. If I was going to paint a traditional painting of a rigged ship, you can bet I would make it my business to duplicate the rigging accurately rather than faking it!
What Matters Most?
An artist can be extremely accurate in some ways but not in others. For example, Van Gogh’s Starry Night was found on astronomical investigation to have all of the stars/planets accurately placed in relation to the night sky as it would have appeared on the date the picture was painted. Van Gogh might have known the names of these astral bodies, or he simply might have liked what he saw in front of him and endeavored to place things as he saw them. Could he have gotten away with an inaccurate sky? Most likely. But it's worth knowing that he conformed to a degree of reality in at least this one part of his painting. Like Moran, he decided what he thought mattered most and acted accordingly. The placement of those stars may not mean much to the average person, but for an astronomer, it makes the picture more meaningful!
Is Impressionism a Realist's Way Out?
Working as an “Impressionist” (however you define that) might be perceived as allowing you to be either lazy or unskilled or both. And that might be the case in some circumstances and for some people. Painting is often not an either-or proposition, though. You can choose to paint your impressions, like Moran and Van Gogh, without abandoning appropriate knowledge, accuracy and diligence where it matters most.
Define Your Intentions and values
If you are an artist, what is your intention? When is "artistic license" appropriate in order to achieve a pictorial end rather than an ego-focused end? When are you just being too lazy to do your research, analysis, practice or application? Are you trying for realism but leaving out the difficult parts, like some amateurs who always make sure they paint a portrait with the subject's hands hidden because they aren't "good at hands"? (Note: if you aren't good at something, maybe that's the one thing you should invest more of your time in?)
If you are not an artist but a "spectator" or "collector", ask yourself similar questions about what you value, what is meaningful to you in a work of art. If you're a cellist, you would probably want a picture of a cello to show the right number of strings on it. If something was amiss in this respect, you might be inclined toward the opinion that the artist was probably ignorant, lazy, and self-satisfied. And it might spoil some of your pleasure in viewing the picture. A good cellist certainly can't take the lazy way out!