Fifty Years of Photorealism
On Wednesday June 29th the well-attended inauguration took place of Fifty Years of Photorealism in the Musée d’Ixelles (French) or Museum van Elsene (Dutch). The museum, in existence since 1892, is located in the affluent multicultural suburbs of Brussels’ city center known for its Art Nouveau houses built by Victor Horta, many of which are listed as UNESCO world heritage sites. As all public institutions and street signs in Brussels, the museum has a bilingual name due to the cohabitation of its Dutch-speaking and French-speaking communities.
First things first. What exactly is Photorealism? Those in the know can skip this paragraph, but readers who’d like some background information can visit the following links:
I spoke to Frank Bernarducci before the opening of the show and asked why this exhibition is a must-see. He explained, “Fifty Years of Photorealism is the first time the genre has been shown contextually, not only as a timeline but categorically. The essential artists who precisely depict either people, places, or things are exhibited side by side so comparisons can be made and techniques can be studied up close. This important survey includes all the artists involved in the movement from the beginning until the present day, and it’s still growing. Younger artists find the work fascinating and inspiring. The future of Photorealism has no limits.”
Upon arrival at the museum one could not overlook the two heavily armed soldiers in camouflage patrolling the entrance gate to the museum. They declined having their photograph taken. Such is the situation in the de facto capital of the Europe. Yet the courtyard of the museum was already buzzing with dozens of visitors who had arrived well ahead of time to attend the opening.
The exhibition, spread over a spacious ground floor and a wrap-around mezzanine, shows an eclectic mix of paintings by “three generations” of American and European Photorealist artists. It is an excellent overview of half a century of paintings in this genre, most of which come from private collections and public institutions. While not all pieces spoke to me, I was keenly aware of what a treat it was to be able to behold paintings I would not see otherwise — certainly not all together — and made, as secretly hoped, a few “new discoveries.”
There were several artists in attendance, a few whom I’d already “met” online via Facebook. Funny how being ‘friends’ on social media fluidly extends into real life; it happens to me regularly that an online relationship completely removes the awkwardness of a first introduction in person. I set out to find them amidst the increasing amount of visitors streaming into the museum.
The first artist I spotted was the tall, elegant Spaniard Bernardo Torrens, who is participating with two flawless nudes (The Last Sun Ray and Alli te Espero). After an affectionate greeting I asked him how he would describe his art. Tongue in cheek, Torrens paraphrased Louise Bourgeois, “If I have to tell you why I created this, it’s because I failed.” And with a twinkle in his eye, continued quoting Edward Hopper, “If you could say it in words there would be no reason to paint.” In short, Torrens paints what he cannot express in any other manner — and, I must add, he does so exquisitely. Skin and the female figure are his forte; particularly evident in The Last Sun Ray in which the monochromatic skin of a female figure exudes riveting warmth and softness.
I cornered Dutch artist Tjalf Sparnaay, easily recognized by his distinguished white mane, who smiled broadly when I introduced myself. Understandably, Sparnaay is very proud to be part of this exhibition in which he’s showing two beautiful still lifes (Salad and Fried Egg) from his personal collection, in the style he labels Megarealism to distinguish himself within the Photorealist movement. Food certainly isn’t the only subject matter he paints, yet he feels that it’s the gateway towards future work, in which he aims to focus on subject matter that is bordering on fetid or grungy, which, he explained “turns interesting, even beautiful, through its imperfections.”
While chatting, Sparnaay and I discovered a shared experience that influenced our view on art in very similar ways. In 1974 — when I was 11 and Sparnaay was 19 — we both visited the Photorealism exhibition entitled ‘Kijken naar de Werkelijkheid’ held at the Museum Boijmans-van Beuningen in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. At that age I had already seen many of the world’s fine art icons which formed a base for my understanding of quality, style, and art history. Beholding the first generation of American Photorealists made an enormous and long-lasting impression on me in more ways than I can describe and heavily influenced my artistic path. At that moment we both realized that our reaction to that first encounter with Photorealism had been incredibly similar. As Sparnaay enthusiastically recounted “I didn’t understand how it was done, but I knew I wanted to paint like that!”
London-based Ben Johnson, very British and very charming, has been described as a modern-day Canaletto and is known for his elaborate cityscapes and architectural interiors. His paintings (The Rookery and Looking Back to Richmond House) attracted me at first sight and I spent quite a while gazing at them at the exhibition. I was quite surprised to find out he used to be a successful German Expressionist in the early 1970s, a style very different from his current one. Concerned about the exclusivity of art that requires translation by artist or critic to be able to be understood, Johnson described how he found himself at a crossroads in his artistic career, which prompted him to combine his passion for architecture, geometry, abstraction, and painting. In Photorealism he found a way of portraying subject matter that, to him, is worth celebrating, using a language that can be understood by a broad audience. Passionate about the magic of taking raw materials and turn them into a dream, Johnson described himself as “a realist who engages with photographs.” Looking Back to Richmond House was my new favorite and I will go back to look at it again.
Born in Canada, but living in Texas for 30 years, Rod Penner is a second generation Photorealist with kind, smiling eyes. He prefers to be known as an American Realist so that his work is seen in a wider context. I have been a fan of his work since I first saw it, so it was a treat to meet him in person — and yes, he’s as nice as people describe him. This exhibition shows two of his larger paintings (Orange St. and Main and House with Snow) which depict what Penner describes as “southwestern small town America.” The simple tract houses and solitary buildings he paints tell a story that he hopes will draw people in. By making careful choices on what to paint and what to leave out, he aims to invoke a memory of something intangible the viewer will recognize. Penner clearly feels affection for his subject matter. He explained, “It’s important to me to paint what I know. I don’t necessarily feel a connection to the building or house I paint but I do feel that I know the type of people who live there.” He paints the clues to those people without showing them in his paintings, because, he explained, “that would take away the mystery.”
Finally, I got to meet Louis K. Meisel. I’m not easily unsettled, but this is the major force behind Photorealism, the movement and style that I’ve admired since my early teens. To me, Meisel is a celebrity. However, his easygoing demeanor put me at ease immediately. We sat down together in the back of the museum cafeteria, where both vending machines were out of order — or had perhaps been purposely deactivated due to terrorism concerns.
Meisel hadn’t been nervous about flying into Brussels airport where a mere three months ago terrorist attacks took place. He said, “Brussels is probably the safest city in Europe at the moment” owing to the presence of a legion of high ranking government officials from 28 countries attending meetings after the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU last week. On previous visits to Belgium Meisel never had had the time to sight-see, so the previous day a driver had taken him to see several cathedrals and museums. “The food is good,” he said, “I really like Brussels.” Meisel did not show any signs of jetlag.
During his notable career Meisel has been involved in more than 300 exhibitions; as curator, advisor, organizer, author of catalogs, or by acquiring or loaning art. This three year traveling exhibition Fifty Years of Photorealism is his brainchild, which he planned together with Otto Letze, managing director at the Institut für Kulturaustausch (Institute for Cultural Exchange) in Tübingen, Germany, which handles the organization, implementation, and management of international exhibition tours.
I asked Meisel how he felt about this museum. While he wasn’t completely satisfied with the lighting (which the museum promised to adjust), he thought the setting was nice and was pleased all of the artwork could be shown. His blue eyes lit up when talking about all the venues where Fifty Years of Photorealism had been and would be shown, the most beautiful one so far being the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, Spain. After Madrid this exhibition traveled to Birmingham in the United Kingdom, Bilbao in Spain, and Tallinn in Estonia. After Brussels, Fifty Years of Photorealism will be shown in Hagen, Germany, then Rotterdam in the Netherlands, and finally fly back to the United States to close in Tampa, Florida.
The appeal of this exhibition lies in the fact that virtually all of the artwork comes from private collections (including approximately 20 paintings of Meisel’s own) and other institutions from around the world — these paintings will likely never again be shown together in one place. The reason why Photorealist paintings are so rarely seen in substantial numbers is due to the fact that they take a long time to be painted, some represent a full year or more of daily work. Meisel explains, “These are not churned out quickly; the time, effort, and skill these paintings demand is evident at first glance. Another reason is that most of these pieces sell to collectors before they are shown in public, so there isn’t a huge stock that a curator can easily access.” Meisel added, “So it’s seeing it now, or never.”
Most Belgians with a minimum knowledge of art history know that Louis K. Meisel is the proponent of the Photorealist art movement and that he coined the term Photorealism in 1969. Perhaps less known is that Belgian art dealer Isy Brachot was the first to show the European artists who were influenced by the American Photorealists in a major exhibition in Brussels in 1973. Brachot subsequently coined the French word Hyperréalisme, meaning ‘Hyperrealism.’ So once again Brussels becomes the shining city where glorious Photorealism reunites and celebrates its artist superstars and faithful devotees.
Written by Lorena Kloosterboer, Realist Artist & Author © Antwerp, Belgium
Originally published in PoetsArtists Magazine, July 2016