I’ve been interested lately in the growing media presence of the ‘representational art (RA)’ movement. It seems to reflect the widely-held dissatisfaction with the elitist ‘art world’, represented by powerful gallery owners, mega-rich collectors, and artists such as Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst.
The re-emergence of figurative art (in fact, it’s always been around) has coincided with (or is a part of) the rise of conservatism and nationalism around the world. It can be seen as a desire to return to ’traditional values’ and a rejection of subjectivity and relativism, principles that defined art of the modern and post-modern eras.
There is no shortage of videos on YouTube in the form of RA artist profiles, instructional videos, workshops, and panel discussions, and it becomes clear that the term ‘representational art’ is virtually meaningless, as it apparently includes the worst kind of kitsch (Eric Armusik, above right), the paintings of oddballs (Odd Nerdrum), RAs with a foot in the post-spot-modern art world (Vincent Desiderio), and undoubtedly important artists such as Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. And there can be no doubt that the works of Lucian Freud, Alice Neel, or Chuck Close are representational, but when we listen to RA proponents, their work is rarely, if ever, mentioned.
In fact, for the committed RA supporter, ‘representational’ often means art that echoes the paintings of such artists as Rembrandt, and Caravaggio. Deep shadows, overall gloom, and highlights are treasured as marks of quality. Heroic poses add gravitas. Unabashed sentiment is celebrated. Another resurrected hero of the movement is the quintessential French academician, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, and an example of a school that follows the French academic tradition to the letter is The Academy of Realist Art , which has branches in Boston, Edinburgh and other cities.
An article on the Huffington Post website profiles The European Museum of Modern Art, opened in 2005 in Barcelona and a major promoter of the new representational art. The museum is housed in a refurbished palace in which Putin or Trump would feel right at home. In Japan, there is the Hoki Museum, mainly dedicated to Japanese artists of the RA genre.
So what are my objections to the RA phenomenon? In its extreme form, it is an attempt to return to the past, akin to Trump’s promise to ‘make America great again’. The belief that a return to the principles of the 19th century French academy will lead to any worthwhile art is absurd. I have no quarrel with representational art that sincerely addresses present-day issues, using a contemporary idiom, but to imagine that we still need dimly-lit pictures of heroic nudes or elegant decanters of wine is laughable.
Am I defending the world of Koons and Hirst and white-cube galleries? Definitely not; I find both extremes profoundly depressing. Surely, as in politics, there must be a sane, broad-minded middle ground.
To be continued …