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FROM THE ESSAY ON “REALISM AND IDEALISM," IN “ESSAYS SPECULATIVE AND SUGGESTIVE."
BY JOHN ADDINGTON SYMONDS.
Is there any solid foundation for the current conception of the antithesis between the Ideal and Real? Is there at bottom any antagonism between the two terms ? Realism dare not separate itself from the ideal, because the ideal is a permanent factor, and the most important factor, in the reality of life. Realism forms the substratum and indispensable condition of all figurative art, sculpture, and painting. The very name figurative indicates that these arts proceed by imitation of external objects, and mainly by imitation of the human form. Now it would be absurd to contend that imitation is the worse for being veracious, for being in the right sense realistic. Nobody wants a portrait which is not like the person represented. We may want something else besides, but we demand resemblance as an indispensable quality. The figurative arts, by the law which makes them imitate, are bound at every step of their progress to be realistic. The painter must depict each object with painstaking attention to its details. This is the beginning of his task. But he very soon discovers that he cannot imitate things exactly as they are in fact. The reason of this is that the eye and the hand of the sculptor or painter are not a photographic camera. They have neither the qualities nor the defects of a machine. In every imitative effort worthy of the name of art, the human mind has intervened; what is more, this mind has been the mind of an individual with specific aptitudes for observation, with specific predilections, with certain ways of thinking, seeing, feeling, and selecting, peculiar to himself. No two men see the same woman or the same tree. Our impressions and perceptions are necessarily coloured by those qualities which make us percipient and impressible, individualities, differing each from his neighbour in a thousand minute particulars. It is precisely at this point, at the very earliest attempt to imitate, that idealism enters simultaneously with realism into the arts. The simplest as well as the most complex work contains this element of ideality. For when a man reproduces in art what he sees in nature, he inevitably imports himself into the product. Strive as he will to keep himself out of the imitation, the man is powerless to do so. The thing imitated has of necessity become the thing imagined. Twenty photographic cameras of equal dimensions and equal excellence will produce almost identical representations of a single model. But set twenty artists of equal skill in draughtsmanship to make studies from one model, and though the imitation may in each case be equally faithful, there will be a different intellectual quality, a different appeal to sympathy, a different order of suggestion in each of the twenty drawings. In other words, each of the twenty drawings represents the thing perceived and conceived differently. Some specific ideality has formed an unavoidable feature of each artist's work, while all have aimed at merely reproducing the objects before them. This is perhaps the simplest way of presenting the truth that realism and idealism are as inseparable as body and soul in every product of the figurative arts.
In art it is not a machine but a mind which imitates. No draughtsman can rival the camera in bare accuracy, but every draughtsman is bound to do what the camera cannot do, by introducing a subjective quality into the reproduction. Artistic beauty is mainly a matter of selection, due to the exercise of those free mental faculties which the machine lacks. The artist observes defects in the single model; he notices in many models scattered excellences, he has before him the most perfect forms invented by his predeces
To correct those defects, to reunite those excellences, to apply the principles of those perfected types, becomes his aim. He cannot rival nature by producing something exactly like her work, but he can create something which shall show what nature strives after.
“That type of perfect in his mind
The figurative arts are thus led to what is after all their highest function, the presentation of thought and feeling in beautiful form. Such idealism is only realism in the intensest phase of veracity. The Greek sculptors are our surest teachers. They had to create images of gods and heroes, each representing in perfection some one psychological attribute of human nature. For these spiritual essences they were bound to find fit incarnation through the means available by art. The solution of this problem forced them to idealize, while their exquisite sense for the beauty, grace, and dignity of the living model kept them realistically faithful to facts in nature. We cannot, however, always expect that perfect synthesis which makes the works of Pheidias exemplary.