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Ethics and aesthetics of a precision art


Ethics and aesthetics of a precision art

Photorealism, whose dazzling success in the early 1970s made this way of making reality the primary origin and ultimate goal of a work of art universally known, has since been given a contrasting treatment under the general term of hyperrealism, which is both neglected by certain art historians and admired by a public of amateurs who are sensitive to this exaggerated vision of reality.

In any case, everyone thinks they know this artistic movement, although they cannot always name an artist, nor know how it spread or exactly who it influenced. We readily acknowledge its major historical importance, but we would be hard pressed to know what has happened to it today.

This is why we felt that a large-scale exhibition was necessary, both because of its international and intergenerational character and because of the intrinsic quality of the works it presents.

Our era is undoubtedly more saturated than ever with images and commentaries; so an exhibition of this kind should be considered for its capacity to refresh our eyes, to detoxify our sight, assuring us of the infinite pleasure provided by the ten thousand objects that surround us and nourish our imaginations.

Birth of hyperreality

Hyperrealism was a significant event in the history of art when, in the late 1960s, spectacular paintings were exhibited in the United States that reproduced scenes of everyday life with an attention to detail, an aloof objectivity and a colourful intensity that made them look like photographs.


© Ralph GOINGS / USA / 1970, Peinture à l’huile, 60 x 85 cm

© Chuck CLOSE

A new artistic code was born, outrageously abandoning expressionist practices of all kinds. Two exhibitions in the USA, « Realism Now » in 1968 at the Vassar College Art Gallery in Poughkeepsie and « Sharp Focus Realism » in 1972 at the Sydney Janis Gallery in New York, announced, without creating the term, a genre that would later be grouped under the names « Hyperrealism » or « Photo-Realism ».

This movement around a new painting in which realism would be both the goal and the means, is exhibited without a manifesto, without a statement, only under the invocation of a pleasing call for air: illusionism.

Hyperrealism is in direct opposition to the Abstract Expressionism that dominated at the time, as well as to contemporary movements such as Minimalism, Conceptual Art, Land Art and Arte Povera, theatres of operation for a theoretical discourse in full effervescence. Hyperrealism is first and foremost the affirmation of a painter’s work, accomplished by the best of craftsmen, patiently, humbly, and the result, all probity and scrupulousness, if it plays on our credulity, nevertheless deceives no one.

The aesthetics of advertising and magazines are a breeding ground for images that trigger the desire to confront them. The smoothness of the surface of things, the icy aspect of what seems immediately consumable, the contrasting effect of light on relief, the play of lines and curves, the immersion of manufactured materials in a natural environment or that of bodies in water… all these aspects come directly from the widespread use of photography.

The vacancy of figuration

A mechanism is at work. The hyperrealist artist reproduces a photogenic object taken out of its context as faithfully as his technical skill allows and makes an image as unobtrusive as possible, the object being to be looked at for itself and for its own pictorial value. But he does not simply make an observation; he reveals the nature of the object, deeply buried in our visual memory.

By remaining ostensibly at the stage of appearance, he can just as easily be accused of superficiality. The artist is himself a painting machine; he remains indifferent to the object of his painting and uses technical means to distance it. He will have set up a series of mechanical modes of reproduction that will allow him to capture reality in such a way as to magnify its omnipotence, without prohibiting the composition or ever making any theme sacred. The pictorial language thus produced seems the impassive result of a pre-established process, impartial to reality and intransigent to its author.


© Roger WATT

We can imagine that the choice of the subject imposed itself on the author, that the graphics of the chosen piece of reality will be decisive, that the visual quality of the motif will have been the main trigger for the realisation of the composition: to make a work with practically nothing, practically everything. A grass, a sky, a cloth, a glass, a lip, a fingernail, a letter, a tree leaf, a street, a site, a crowd, a forest, a library, a body, bodies…. We enter the material, we are inside.

The wonderment for the objects of our daily life, to which we generally do not pay attention on an aesthetic level, crystallises particularly on the machine which is the vector of modernity par excellence: the works take as a model, without any satirical or sociological commentary, the obvious signs of the modern world: the city, the factory, the plane, the car, the motorbike. The greed with which we look at these works projects us towards a world without history, without conflict, without misery, a summer of distractions and a perpetual vacation for the neurons: would Hyperrealism be a seaside art?

The crossing of appearances

The fake is authentically fake. Hyperrealism provides the immediate illusion of an absolute neutrality, absolutely claimed, to revive and rejuvenate the eye tarnished by the times, to bring it back to a cold perception of things.
No regard for feeling, nor for emotion, nor for interiority, nor for secrecy, nor for mystery. Everything is there in front of us, and will remain there. There is nothing else, neither behind nor in front. There has been nothing else before; there will be nothing else after. Time does not exist. Neither does space. Shapes and colours, materials and perspectives, framings are deliberately imposed on the retina.



How does a movement whose strength manifested itself in a flash at a time when society was the object of bitter criticism and art was struggling with the very notion of image or figure? Hyperrealism imposed the power of the photographic image; its artists remained more or less attached to the tried and tested, even academic, means that had been deviated from by the agreed imitation of external reality. The world of appearances is then renewed, the mirage is accomplished each moment before our eyes, regardless of the fact that it is a deception: the artist, deceived by his beliefs, will deceive the viewer in turn. Is he, however, a more perfidious swindler than the romantic, surrealist, metaphysical or realist painters?

Reality is a permanent theatre where the conjurers are perhaps not those we think. Here the image shows itself in absolute certainty, at the height of its inanity.

© Franz GERTSCH / Switzerland,
1983/84, Acrylic on cotton, 330 x 340 cm

Neither authors of subliminal messages nor candid artisans, they try to demonstrate that art can propose a vision that remains in a kind of no man’s land, without a designable project, without a proven purpose, leaving the viewer in a state of uncertainty, as he is in front of any reality. The world does not need our gaze to exist. Let us know this.

The hyper-realist movement repeats this in its own way, which can be chilling, as sentimentality is absent. How far can a gesture go that is not guided by any idea? Crossing reality will remain a beautiful chimera.

The American dream: conquering reality

Early Hyperrealism is clearly American; it reactivates the old attraction for faithful representations of the country, of nature as well as of artefacts, even to the point of trompe-l’oeil. It thus presupposes a kind of return to order, honouring the artist’s skill and patience. It is as if the American nation were asking to be described in a literal way, in its dominating evidence and monumentality, both political and artistic.


© Robert BECHTLE / USA / 1968–69 / Oil on canvas, 151.8 × 214 cm

The question is whether all this is part of its ubiquitous Entertainment or a gentle challenge to it. The artistic genre is, as we know, extremely demanding. As Bernard Lamarche-Vadel insisted, « the hyperrealist painter is the meticulous pantograph of a surface that he replicates. » The studio is the day and night residence of monstrously exemplary artists, who express themselves little, do not often give interviews, rarely write in the newspapers. They make, they produce slowly, and avoid inappropriate solicitations. They make no claim to genius. They do not cultivate an overinflated ego. In short, the society of the spectacle, paradoxically, does not find in their works the mercantile mirror that Pop Art held out to us.


The hyperrealist artist is a counter-hero, in a way: glorifying a technique that he masters to perfection, he finds himself downgraded on the grounds of interpretative inadequacy. By reducing the status of the artist to that of a craftsman, and by focusing on subjects that are often of great banality, hyperrealism could not fail to be rejected by the proponents of an art that must constantly renew the symbolic power of the artist over his or her contemporaries as an absolute demiurge, an art that cultivates the exceptional, calls for scandal, and summons us to question our inability to understand what we are.

Hyperrealism has therefore suffered from the false idea that it was of no philosophical interest, that it was nothing but vain and perfectly gratuitous virtuosity. The methodical exercise of painting and the obstinacy to render reality in its juice of the time isolated these artists, even if most of them achieved remarkable commercial success.

A strange scale of values

© Richard ESTES

The hyperrealist artists, each according to his own path, voluntarily forced themselves to represent only one type of work according to their own methodology. This singularisation has become the signature of the genre, supported by the public’s admiration for an extraordinary technicality, and renewed by works that are always astonishing and that magnify the notion of irreproachable resemblance without any feint. But it might have seemed that this fabulous virtuosity was only a rather primitive way of concealing the inanity of such work, however exhausting it might be.

The absence of justification, whether artistic, social or philosophical, led some to say that there was no future for these artists who indulged in the arbitrary choice of subjects and the childish pleasure of achieving the feat of painting better than anyone else. After the expected period of fascination with technique that drove away enlightened amateurs, it is notable that all over the world today the quality of so-called hyperrealistic works, thanks to new techniques and new generations of artists, is once again attracting attention, not without concern for a world that is dying before our eyes, but not without fervour for that gratuitous act that will no doubt be no stranger to our salvation: to face reality.
We are therefore enjoined to look for the deep meaning of a world observed coldly as the clinical report formulates it and without privileging one aspect or another: behind the colourful disguise of reality, what is hidden? Underneath our propensity to love the glittering appearance of what surrounds us, what do we want to hide? Where does our humanity lie?

If an aesthetic emotion is born, it will never border on sobbing but rather on the extra energy to go and see for oneself. The hyperrealist artist, by returning to easel painting, restores conventional techniques and the teaching of the masters. The most trivial subjects are given the greatest sophistication; such is the strange scale of values here.

Images that are more than life

Hyperrealism, with its concern to render exactly what is perceptible in the real world, whether through the use of photographs projected onto the canvas, through the process of painting with airbrushes, or nowadays through the contribution of digital technologies, first displays a technique, then salutes the silence of things.

At first glance, one thinks they are gigantic photographs. Then one understands that they are paintings. Then you ask yourself: why so much effort? There must be a reason for developing such a large amount of work. The banality of life, the accessories of our way of life, the streets, the shop fronts, are all pretexts for painting with the most impassive of realisms, as if reality (a reality that has been remade here) were the only thing that should shock us.


© Ron KLEEMMANN / Manhattan on the Hudson, 1979, acrylic on canvas, 47 x 59

The trap of illusion leaves us with a bitter taste, because we are beset by the idea that we take the images of reality for reality itself.
Showing must be enough to say everything. The quality of the work must shine through in the highest resolution of the image. Textures, lines and shadows seem to be illuminated by the artist’s own work and sharper than in the photograph that served as a starting point or model. What you see in front of a hyper-realistic work, you would not see anywhere else, not even in reality. In short, truth to the power of ten!

Hyperrealism seems to be a frantic quest for appearance, the aim of which is to repress a deep-seated anguish: where does the truth lie? The hyperrealist artist presents himself as a magician of reality, making counterfeits and performing sleight of hand for our sole pleasure. He paints a reality which then becomes a fiction.

The magic of light

The skill of hyperrealist artists is a high point in the history of art, but it can also be a pitfall. With the facture taking precedence over all other considerations, the risk lies in complacency in the execution of the feat and the self-satisfaction that follows.


© Ralph GOINGS

The artist is then hypnotised by his own capacity to render reality and can sink into anecdotal figuration and self-sufficient imagery. A new world then opens up, one of magic and illusionism and no longer one of extreme realism pushed to the point of meaninglessness, rigorous in its own way.

Is reality not enough for you? Perhaps it is not human enough? So hyperrealist art is essentially about blindness. Producing unique pieces that are copies of photographs is an anti-artistic act that should make us question the reproducibility of images as well as the singular quality of a work of art. Is duplicating something that has already existed in the common visual field creating? Isn’t creating a totally imaginative personal work copying a pre-existing state of mind? A trompe-l’oeil is not neutral.

What about the credibility of the image? Why double the reality of works in its image? What do I recognise in a hyper-realistic painting? In fact, nothing, since I am seeing for the first time. The work sends me back to the need to devalue myself, without which conceptual elaborations parasitize my sight and direct my thoughts.

It’s the real thing that has sex appeal

Hyperrealism has appropriated certain codes of the advertising image, its pragmatism to sell, the accuracy of its purpose; it has removed the consumerist aspect, the commercial circumstance to let the naked beauty of things appear. Yes, it is reality that has sex appeal, and even more so this masterful way of bringing it to light.

A hyperrealist painting makes us want to touch it; it gives rise to visual desire. It commits us to living with reality in a new relational mode. This zero level of interpretation carries with it the ambition of a total clairvoyance and a liberation of our perceptive capacities.
Following the example of a consumer society that wallows in generalized seduction, the hyperrealist theme enlists the services of a certain hygiene of sight: brilliance, cleanliness, sharpness, frankness, clarity, purity… everything seems to come from a display that is likely to capture our interest, everything seems to be exposed for sale.

But what are the objects the passive promoters of: an immeasurable void, a dead thought? No air, no mediating space, no breath. The image is in a vacuum. It is a mass in the mind of the beholder. He cannot detach himself from it.


© Luigi BENEDICENTI / Italie / 2012, Oil on plywood, 99.9 x 132.9 cm

The attention, although maximum, turns us into voyeurs who no longer know what to look at. The indiscretion of objects reassures us that even in the void there is still something. In what way does painting surpass photography? By indefinitely fabricating the truth? Here realism emanates from a concrete subject that is pressed against our retina, and its appearance will always be the best asset of an art that seems to put things in their place, namely the first.

The current state of hyperrealism

For the past fifty years, the popularity of the art form has not waned: the public has been getting younger and younger from generation to generation, and has grown to the point where it has fed a number of websites selling artworks on the Internet. This reception, which can be described as triumphal, should be seen in the light of the indifference of many art critics.
It is true that the major museums have all proposed, sooner or later, an exhibition on the hyperrealist movement in its historical, initial character, but none has ventured to highlight the hyperrealist production in its full actuality, so much so that its supposed conceptual weakness poses a problem for the curators. Except that important exhibitions have shown a renewed interest in Hyperrealism in the last four years:

In 2013, Hiperrealismo, 1967-2012, at the Museo Thyssen Bornemisza in Madrid;
Photorealism revisited, at the Oklahoma city Museum of arts; Ron Mueck at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris ;

In 2015, Soviet Hyperrealism, at the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow; American Hyperrealism, at the Musée d’Ixelles; Richard Estes, Painting New York at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York. In 2016, Hyper-realist Sculpture, 1973-2016, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Bilbao; Photorealism: 50 Years of Hyper-realist Painting again at the Musée d’Ixelles; Duane Hanson at the New National Museum in Monaco.
Some galleries particularly defend hyper-realist art today: Bernarducci – Meisel in New York or Plus One in London. 

An exhibition, a catalogue

If we try to follow the evolution of hyper-realist art for more than 50 years, we quickly realise that the mode of presenting reality pushed to its maximum intensity varies from generation to generation, and that there are therefore several ways of being neutral, of being objective, of being a non-distorting mirror.
As if history generated its own grammar for saying things and making them visible. It is undoubtedly a limit to the hyperrealist project to have its own chronology that we imagined this intimate relationship to the universe of the universal and timeless visible.

Light inevitably evolves, and so does the way it is transposed. We hope that this exhibition will help us to see this more clearly! Incidentally, a question arises: does photographing a hyper-realist work destroy it?

What remains in the work of the transgression of reality by the pictorial material? How can a simple information document resemble the work when it is its denial?

An exhibition catalogue hardly reaches its subject, since by photographing a painting or a sculpture, one refutes the hyperrealist work as such. What witness does not lie? We must therefore consider solutions that will accentuate the fineness of the reproduction.

It is clear that hyperrealism has endured, has been enriched by new works, has diversified, and has even become universalized, thanks to the globalization of the art market, to ever faster and more complete access to information, and to the widespread use of computer tools.

This movement, which was for a moment historically localised, is today, through its successors, whether declared as such or not, an artistic genre in its own right which flourishes everywhere and gains new fans every day.

(© – All Rights Reserved : HYP’ART sas / Author & Art Critic : Christian ARTHAUD)

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