I can’t remember the last time I stared at a row of perfected and painstakingly painted pears sitting on white linen. In fact, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen a show of pure, unbridled realism. The form itself has, by and large, been overlooked for a long time – shoved into a decorous and austere realm or reserved for Old Masters and aesthetes.
But Bashar Al Shroogi, owner of Cuadro gallery in DIFC, believes that realism has unfairly become a ‘forgotten or lost art’. After the huge show of abstract works that inaugurated the gallery, Al Shroogi decided to turn the focus around completely in this new exhibition and head into the depths of pure realism. Assembling a collection of Spanish, Belgian, Italian and American artists big enough to fill the seven-room gallery, these are ‘new realists’ – defiantly formal in their approach yet, Al Shroogi believes, undoubtedly contemporary.
‘I don’t think a show of realism, on this scale, has been done in the region before,’ he says, explaining that this will try to tackle the question of what the genre actually means. ‘Pure realism, which you see in these works here, is when the artist has painted directly from life, not from photographs.’ All of the artists featured in this show have worked directly in the field for their material. Jose Manuel Cajal, for example, paints mundane Seville street scenes. He depicts silver saloon cars turning onto a roundabout, another focuses on the neon light of a metro station, while one particularly effective work captures the last few hours of sunlight in front of an office block. While these are testament to the virtue that realist artists painting from life can achieve in their work it’s the tiny, just perceptible flourishes that bring life to Cajal’s canvases.
As we walk among the paintings Al Shroogi explains that artists painting from photographs too often focus on every slight detail to achieve their effect: ‘They try to paint every ripple of water, every blade of grass, every bump in a rock. But the eye doesn’t see in that way. When you look at realist painting done from photography, it can often be confusing because your eye doesn’t know what to look at. But in this pure realism, painted from real life, there are little elements that won’t be painted exactly and which you can only see once you get up close. A blade of grass might not be completed fully, and there are some areas that fade out as a shadow crosses. To me that is the mark of realism done correctly.’
It’s this intuitive, fluid approach that makes this collection of new realists particularly attractive. Al Shroogi says, ‘When you look at some of our artists, you can follow their line of teachers straight back to an Old Master. ’ But while their investigations might be the same as the Masters – how to render drapery, light, and situation – Al Shroogi believes that the way in which they have filtered modernity through these expressly realist interests is how they remain markedly contemporary. ‘For the first time, we’re exploring what artificial light actually looks like. In the Masters, most of the artificial lighting was candlelight, but here we can see the artificial light pouring in,’ he says and points to the obscured overhead lights of an office in one of Cajal’s paintings. ‘How does it reflect off the figures, how does natural light move with it. How does neon look to the eye? These are all questions that this group are exploring.’
Even the setting, Al Shroogi believes, is uniquely contemporary. The masters of realism, from Caravaggio onwards, would paint packed scenes from the salon. Objects, other subjects, landscape would all be of primary importance. But looking through these new realists, many have surrounded their subjects in a desolate and humming emptiness.
We walk past works by Matthieu Bassez, a Belgian painter whose subjects range from burlesque dancers to an ennui-ridden woman collapsing into a chair. As Al Shroogi points out, the subjects appear suspended in nothingness. ‘This is the human figure painted in a very classical style, with very classical lighting, but everything else stripped away. The emptiness around it is what makes these contemporary. It gives you a chance to enjoy what the artist is doing. Because it’s just a form surrounded by empty space, you begin to look at the drapery, at the details, every ripple of the linen. I think it’s quite incredible.’
Cuadro (04 425 0400), Gate Village Building 10, DIFC. Until February