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From Nature: Realist Works in MMoCA’s Permanent Collection

July 25, 2009 – August 15, 2010


From Nature: Realist Works in MMoCA’s Permanent Collection is the last in a three-part series of exhibitions that examines the major styles of modernism.

Abstract and expressionist styles, previously surveyed in the series, have little precedent in western art. A modern realist style, however, has evolved as a series of personal elaborations on the Renaissance tradition. In Italy and the Netherlands, Renaissance artists of the fifteenth century conceived the work of art as a calculated imitation of visual appearances. Optical realism, a radical departure from the styles of medieval art, came to define the visual arts for nearly five centuries. Constant Troyon’s Landscape with Stream and Cows, painted in the mid-nineteenth century, is a latter-day example of the continued strength of the tradition. Troyon’s landscape, however, marks a period during which optical realism began to lose its authority. Modernist concepts soon challenged and rejected Renaissance naturalism in favor of more individualized styles that allowed for non-realistic elements of color and form.

Realist approaches in modern art are often overlooked in favor of more progressive styles. However, despite the comparative prominence of abstraction and expressionism, realism endures. Many university art departments still ground their students in life classes devoted to drawing and painting the human model in a representational manner.

Although based upon perceptual observations of the world, with the artist “working from nature,” modernist realism still distinguishes itself from past practice. The artist may, for example, simplify detail, orchestrate irrational juxtapositions to create magic realism, or derive works from photographs to affect a photorealist style.

Major artists in the history of modern art have used realism as a basis for their work. Several of these, including Thomas Hart Benton, Sylvia Plimack Mangold, Henri Matisse, and Andrew Wyeth, are represented in this exhibition.

The exhibition is curated by the Museum’s Curator of Collections, Rick Axsom.

Exhibition Support

Exhibitions in the Henry Street Gallery are generously funded through an endowment established by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation.