Romantic Realism

Coarse Nature and Lawless Art

by Donald Kuspit


Nature is tremendously coarse, and to know her aright, you have to grasp her coarsely. Coarse sand needs coarse sieve. This proverb was made for natural philosophy, for we are to grind it finer with our intellects. Our ancestors must have had great insight into Nature, for only in Germany has true coarseness been discovered and cultivated.

—Novalis, Dialogues, 1798

The artist’s feeling is his law.

—Caspar David Friedrich


In 1859 Charles Baudelaire famously distinguished between two kinds of artists: the “realists” and the “imaginatives.” A realist “want[s] to represent things as they are, or rather supposing that I [the self] did not exist.” An imaginative “want[s] to illuminate things with my [their] mind, and to project their reflection upon other minds.” One is tempted to say that a Romantic artist is an imaginative realist, successfully synthesizing “two absolutely contrary methods” of making art, but from Baudelaire’s point of view that would be a mistake. Imagination is the “Queen of the Faculties,” using the “raw materials” of reality to “create a new world.” The imaginatives do not “copy nature; only copy nature”—the realist “doctrine” that Baudelaire called “the enemy of art”—but rather treat nature “in accordance with rules whose origins one cannot find save in the furthest depths of the soul.” The problem is that, as Baudelaire acknowledged, the imagination is “mysterious”; the rules—if there are any—are unclear.

He thought that “systems of prosody and rhetoric” were not “arbitrarily invented tyrannies,” but “demanded” by the imagination, but he said nothing about why it does so. He knew the imagination through its products—“the monsters of my fancy”—and insisted that “all the faculties of the human soul must be subordinated to the imagination.” He argued that “the whole visible universe…is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform,” and he celebrated the innate “originality” of the imagination, its power of “analysis and synthesis,” to deconstruct and reconstruct “external nature,” but he offered no understanding of that de-creative and re-creative power, no understanding of the rules it follows, implying that it has none, that there is something “unruly” about the imagination. The rules it follows can only be found in the furthest depths of the soul, but Baudelaire could not fathom them. He only knew that monsters rose from the depths of the imagination, suggesting that there was something monstrous about it. It remained mysterious—unfathomable—however deeply one penetrated it. For Baudelaire, it was the realm of eternal mysteries—of the completely illogical, the permanently inexplicable, the ultimate unknowable.

It is worth noting that Baudelaire called the realists “positivists,” in acknowledgement of Auguste Comte’s increasingly influential theory of positivism, emphasizing the scientifically exact observation of facts, uninfluenced by any theological systems of belief and metaphysical theories. For Comte, theological and metaphysical ways of thinking about the world were earlier, immature stages in the evolution of thought; the positivist outlook was the final mature stage, the only approach that could tell the truth about reality. Baudelaire’s elevation of the imagination as the most important, dominant faculty of the mind—mysterious because it was out of reach, gloriously incomprehensible even though it informed every aspect of life, the atmosphere that breathes life into the dead facts around us, that we take for granted without fully appreciating its necessity—was his desperate defensive response to the scientific revolution that was gathering momentum in Europe. Scientific realism, spearheaded by Comte’s radical positivism with its modern attitude, was modernizing the world. It was a new model for thought, ousting the traditional old models of theological and metaphysical thinking, rendering them obsolete along with the unrealistic art that depended upon, embodied and propagandized for them. The realistic art it spawned—above all the art of Gustave Courbet—superseded the imaginative art of the past, even as the new realism was criticized for its lack of imagination, and with that its ugliness, that is, the ugliness of reality seen without imagination.

“Religious painting is no longer possible today,” Edmond and Jules de Goncourt wrote, reviewing the Salon of 1852. What had burst on the scene was Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans (1849–50) shown at the same Salon. Nominally a religious painting, it was all too realistic for Clément de Ris. Courbet was “a realist painter in the most complete sense of the word,” he wrote. Courbet “sees nature from a narrow point of view—it has no meaning for him, and the mysterious language of each of its manifestations never whispered a single syllable in his ear.” They were “all equally indifferent to him.” Courbet was the consummate positivist: all that mattered was the raw facts of nature, nature without the “shadow of a feeling of melancholy, grace, grandeur or power.” Without them, nature was ugly; realism meant “the pursuit of ugliness,” for without its shadow of feeling—the feeling imagination projected into it—it lacked beauty.

Nature was not so dire and bleak for Caspar David Friedrich. It was neither ugly nor beautiful, but rawly given. Feeling could be invested in it, as though feeling was a sieve to filter it, but it remained coarse and crude, however refined and subtle the feeling. Friedrich imaginatively imbued nature with feeling—coated it with feeling the way one might sugarcoat a bitter pill to make it tasty, not to say aesthetically tasteful—which did nothing to fundamentally change it. It was immutable hard fact, however ostensibly softened by feeling. Friedrich supposedly spiritualized nature—had a transcendental experience viewing it—but it remained fundamentally material. However intensely he felt it—subjectified it—he respected its objectivity. He knew it was indifferent to his presence—to human beings—even as he tried to humanize it by attuning himself to it. He tried to find himself in it by projecting his feelings into it, but it sometimes resisted his “advances.” “The artist should not only paint what he sees before him,” Friedrich wrote, “but also what he sees inside himself. If, however, he sees nothing within him, then he should also refrain from painting what he sees before him.” It was only in solitude that he could see something within himself. “Solitude is indispensable for my dialogue with nature”—the intimate dialectic of deep feeling and observed fact enabled his art and, more important, psychologically gave him the sense of self he lacked in society. “I must stay alone and know that I am alone to contemplate and feel nature in full,” he wrote, adding: “I have to surrender myself to what encircles me, I have to merge with my clouds and rocks to be what I am.”

“Realizing” nature, he “realized” himself; alone with nature, he could be himself, unequivocally and completely. I “avoid society,” he wrote, because in society he felt inauthentic. To use the psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott’s well-known distinction, in society he was a compliant false self, in nature he was a creative true self, spontaneously and uniquely himself rather than one among many people. As he suggested, he had “to hate people”—separate and distance himself from them by hating them—to love and be himself. Alone with Mother Nature, as it were, he could creatively play, that is, make art, an example of Winnicott’s idea that the experience “of being and playing alone, as an infant and as a small child, in the presence of mother, the parental presence,” is a necessary supportive condition for being creatively alive.

But Friedrich’s nature is not always benign: the feelings that Friedrich projected onto it were often destructive or fatalistically nihilistic. Friedrich’s Hermann’s Tomb (1813–14), depicting a small and unreachable structure at the bottom of the high rock cliff from which it is viewed, and The Sea of Ice (1823–24), depicting a more assertive, violent, powerful, implacable, overwhelming nature—a nature that is grandly inhuman, a nature in which human presence is beside the cosmic point—are among the works that are the true beginning of Romantic realism.

A similar humanly indifferent, violent, assaultive nature appears in J. M. W. Turner’s The Fall of an Avalanche in the Grissons (1810) and Hannibal and His Army Crossing the Alps (1812). Turner is not only projecting his stormy emotions into stormy nature, but flooding it with them. However more indirectly, stormy, threatening nature, predictable only in its unpredictability—the aroused ocean that wrecks ships—is the theme of Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the “Medusa” (1819) and Eugène Delacroix’s The Barque of Dante (1822), other seminal works of Romantic realism.

Nature, observed and imagined, and often both at once—imaginative positivism—has been the basic theme (the Ursprung, that is, the space of origination, the source of inspiration) of Romantic realism since it became a “movement” in the early nineteenth century. It is the founding movement of modernism, influencing almost every subsequent modern movement. Nature is fundamental in Romantic abstraction, where it becomes attenuated into a symbolic mirage, often fantastically distorted, and finally goes underground in Abstract Expressionism, where it becomes covert and implicit, a felt stimulus rather than a recognizable content. Nature seems to have been tamed and humanized in Impressionism, but it remains uncannily “sensational.” Paul Cézanne’s nature paintings bring out the lurking uneasiness—“anxiety,” Pablo Picasso called it—in Impressionism, an uneasiness and unbalance that Picasso carried over into his Cubist landscapes and “unnatural” figures.

Nature, in whatever schematic, “surrealized” form, is evident in Joan Miró’s The Harlequin’s Carnival (1924–25), André Masson’s Battle of Fishes (1926) and Max Ernst’s The Horde (1927). All are Romantic abstractions, that is, they romanticize abstract forms, treating them as vehicles of feeling. Even pure abstraction is implicitly Romantic. Wassily Kandinsky insisted that pure forms convey internal or subjective necessity: “in a composition in which [realistic] corporeal elements are…replaced by purely abstract forms, or by corporeal forms that have been completely abstracted…or [a] composition using purely abstract [unrealistic] forms, the only judge, guide, and arbitrator should be one’s feelings”—a quintessentially Romantic point of view. Arshile Gorky’s painting series Garden in Sochi (1942) and Willem de Kooning’s numerous paintings of women, from Seated Woman (c. 1940) and Pink Angels (1945) to Woman I (1950–52) and Two Figures (1967), are the grand climax of Romantic abstraction. For if De Kooning’s woman’s nature is as mysterious as Gorky’s Garden of Wish Fulfillment (the mysteries of woman and of nature converge into the mystery of life)—then Jackson Pollock’s Sounds in the Grass series (1946) and The Deep (1953) are its swansong and deadend.

In all these works, there is a struggle to strike a balance between projective identification with nature and perceptive identification of it. “If projective identification gets inside the other,” the psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas writes, “perceptive identification stands outside to perceive the other.” The latter respects “the integrity of the object”—its objective reality, autonomy and dignity—while the former “projects parts of the self into the object, a form of imagination.” At its balanced best, Romantic realism gives each its due in the process of integrating them, thus achieving what the Goncourt brothers called the “equilibrium…maintained in art by the law of contradiction.” As Goethe ironically put it, “the very quality of a work of art which strikes the uncultivated as natural, is not nature (from without), but man (nature from within).”

Tracking the history of Romantic realism through all its permutations, one quickly realizes that the balance tilts towards projective identification and away from perceptive identification: the self comes to usurp the place of the object, using it to express itself rather than convey its otherness. Privileged over objective reality, the self imagines it is more unique than the object it perceives, seemingly banal and unexceptional compared to its inimitable individuality. It is increasingly clear that the integrity and objective reality of the object is not respected but repeatedly violated, until the object is de-realized and disintegrated, and finally dissolved into a coarse formless residue. As the psychoanalyst Michael Balint argues in his discussion of “the dissolution of object-representation in modern art,” after being “deformed” almost beyond recognition, the object is degraded to an anal smear—the “primitive ‘anal’ messing” sublimated into “painterliness.” However seemingly suave, it is inherently coarse, for it attacks, undermines, repudiates what Vasari calls “that minuteness of finish which is the perfection and bloom of art.”

The singular, unruffled smoothness of surface that made for the “finality of perfection” that the Renaissance cherished—the refinement that signaled and confirmed that art was civilized and rational—began to disappear when the act of painting became “romantic,” that is, like feeling, a law unto itself, and as such without rules. For the Romantics, there were no rules for representing feelings, and feelings themselves followed no rules, that is, they were irrational. To rationalize them into refinement was to deny them. One could only express them, thus making art became a way of purging them, a cathartic practice. With Romantic realism, feelings began to be expressed for their own uncivilized sake, resulting in paintings that became increasingly irrational and uncivilized. The artist’s feelings became increasingly dissociated from the objects he painted, and finally came to dispense with them, or betrayed their reality by treating them as strange, absurd, estranging, mysterious illusions, the bizarre by-products of the seemingly imaginative expression of feeling for its own irrational sake. The result was an increasingly coarse—unrefined, unfinished—painting, a failed representation and primitive expression.

The Romantic “handling” of nature, involving the triumph of feeling over objectivity, begins with what was called Turner’s “vicious practice” by Sir George Beaumont. “It is the scribbling of painting,” the critic wrote, “so much of the trowel…surely a little more finishing might be borne.” It becomes codified, even ritualistic practice, with Vincent van Gogh’s remark that “to finish [a painting] I have to become an arbitrary colorist. …Instead of trying to render exactly what I have before my eyes, I use color more arbitrarily in order to express myself powerfully.” Thus what Van Gogh saw before his eyes became secondary to his self-expression, as though the former was merely a stimulus for the latter, an objective means to a subjective—dare one say narcissistic?—end. Van Gogh’s statement became the credo of expressionism in all its varieties, particularly of German Expressionism and German Neo-Expressionism. The “effect is mysterious,” reminding us of Baudelaire’s “mysterious” imagination: to be mysterious had come to mean to be arbitrary. The imagination had rules, Baudelaire thought, even if he did not know them. For Van Gogh, it was permissive, that is, it allowed one to break the rules. The determination to express mysterious feelings, and with that recover the “savagery” and “instincts,” the coarse, ingrained energy of life, which Paul Gauguin said artists had lost, made art arbitrary. That is, it allowed the artist to be as arbitrary in his handling as he wished, suggesting the arbitrariness of his feelings, the arbitrary way they came and went. Gauguin’s “savage practice” and Turner’s “vicious practice” unite in what Balint called the “sadistic practice” of modern art.

It is worth noting that Gauguin, like Baudelaire, was oppressed by positivism. He wanted to rescue art from the “aberration caused by physics, chemistry, mechanics, and the [scientific] study of nature.” He advised the artist to dream in front of nature rather than scientifically study it. “Do not paint too much after nature. Art is an abstraction; derive this abstraction from nature while dreaming before it, and think more of the creation that will result than of nature.” This too—the idea of the work of art as a dream-like abstraction— along with Van Gogh’s idea of self-expression, became gospel in modern art, resulting in an increasingly arbitrary handling, justified as spontaneous.

Modern arbitrariness—climaxing in Abstract Expressionism—seems like madness from a traditional representational perspective, which is why Turner’s Falls of the Rhine at Schaffenhausen (1806) was said to be “madness” when it was exhibited, and why Turner was called a “madman.” The critics “were troubled not by the subject of the picture,” the art historian Hugh Honour writes, “one of the natural wonders of Europe which had inspired numerous effusive descriptions in the late eighteenth century, but by its technique.” Honour notes that Turner’s seemingly arbitrary handling “could hardly be more different from Friedrich’s dry, flat linearity,” suggesting that Turner’s technique was more modern than Friedrich’s, however much both were modern because they used nature to objectify their feelings. What Honour describes as Turner’s “almost brutal handling of pigment with bold scumbling and much use of the palette knife” set the precedent for modernist Expressionist handling—the coarse expression of coarse feeling. Turner’s paintings became almost unreadable as representations—unbelievable and incomprehensible as renderings of observed reality. The artist David Wilkie wrote: “I really do not understand his method of painting at all his designs are grand the effect and coloring natural but his workmanship is the most abominable I ever saw and some pieces of his picture you cannot make out at all and although his pictures are not large yet you must be at the other end of the room before they can satisfy the eye.”

Do the commentators have a point in thinking that Turner was mad, and that he was projecting his madness into his paintings, which is why they seemed mad? “Romantic” madness is the triumph of irrationality, tactless instinct and intense feeling over rationality, civilizing rules and tactful “classical” restraint. Madness means the loss of self-control, at its subtlest in refined behavior, and, with that, lawless—that is coarse—self-expression. There is something tragic in the romance with madness; lack of control inevitably leads to self-destruction—the ousting of the life instinct, “the preserve of all things,” by the “daemonic force” of the death instinct, to use Freud’s terms. More to the point of my argument, madness means the collapse of self-containment, which is what occurs when Turner shreds and strips the surface from his paintings, in effect skinning them alive. Stripped of its skin—the refined finish giving it the perfection of finality—it was stripped of its integrity, that is, it no longer held together, was no longer all of a piece but piecemeal.

The skin “joins the parts [of the body] together in a unifying whole,” the psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu notes, and without its containing skin or finish, the painting comes apart. Its coarse flesh—Turner’s brutally handled pigments—is on naked, uncontainable display. The skin is “the interface which marks the boundary with the outside and keeps the outside out,” Anzieu writes, adding that the skin is a “narcissistic envelope and guarantees the psychic apparatus a sure and continuous sense of basic well-being,” and also “a primary means of communicating with others, of establishing signifying relations.”

Destroying the skin or finish of the painting, as Turner does—destroying what the Renaissance painters worked so hard to construct and maintain— Turner breaks down the boundary between inside and outside (which is not the same as integrating them, as Friedrich aspired to do), subverts the well-being or goodness of the painting, suggesting his own lack of well-being and bad feelings, and undermines its signifying capacity, disrupting its communication with others. (All of which suggest that Turner had narcissistic issues—delusions of grandeur, not to mention belief in what Freud called “the omnipotence of thought” [particularly the thought of the self], as all the Romantics did.) It is the problem David Wilkie had with Turner’s method; it unsettled and disrupted the picture, making it difficult, if not impossible, to see. Up close, it was a painterly mess. From a distance, it came into hesitant focus as a scene. It did not exactly signify anything, however expressively significant it seemed. Turner’s pictures had become presentations or dramatizations of raw pigment rather than refined representations of something self-evidently objective and acutely observed in all its intricate otherness, particular detail and differentness.

The result is an oddly tormented painting, charged with self-defeating daemonic energy, suggesting that Turner was inwardly tormented, as the Romantics tended to be, that is, “living between conflict and fragmentation,” to use the phrase of the psychoanalyst Salman Akhtar. What Akhtar calls “the mad core” of the Romantic is revealed through his “affective turbulence”— chaotically self-evident in Turner’s nature and Pollock’s so-called all-over paintings—and the inability to establish what Akhtar calls an “optimal distance” between the self and its objects (nature in the case of the Romantic realists), and, with that, the inability to differentiate and separate them, that is, to accept their different realities. (Wilkie found it difficult to find the optimal distance from which to view Turner’s paintings. It was a shifting, unclear distance, correlate with the shifting, unclear character of the painting. Instability and indefiniteness were built into perception as well as the painting.)

Akhtar notes in particular the “inoptimal distance between the human self and the nonhuman environment,” which seems characteristic of Romantic realist art. The result is that the nonhuman environment—nature—seems increasingly fantastic, not to say absurd, and less and less factual and substantial—concretely given. Its details come to seem arbitrary, and with that increasingly mysterious and elusive, until they become token forms of what seems like a deformed, even formless nature: the irreparably damaged nature in Max Ernst’s Europe after the Rain (1947), an acknowledgement of the destruction of Europe in World War II as well as of the daemonic force lurking in nature. The Romantic dance of death of nature begins with Turner’s coarse representation of its cruel indifference and climaxes in Ernst’s tragic masterpiece. It is Romantic realism at its most morbidly extreme.

The coarse and crude, not to say aggressive and insulting, paint-handling, which started with Turner, reached a premature apotheosis with Van Gogh and runs riot in Ernst’s frottages and paintings, has become a rampant standard mannerism in abstract painting, a sort of methodical, consciously “mad” method of abstractly stylized self-expression. But the pre-World War I German Expressionists and the post-World War II German Neo-Expressionists have perfected and magnified coarseness as few other painters and artists have. From the grainy woodcuts of Die Brücke to the “pandemonium” paintings of Georg Baselitz, from the rough-hewn wood sculptures of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner to the gritty surfaces of Markus Lüpertz’s sculptures, from Kurt Schwitters’s use of cardboard, fabric, wood, nails and porridge (for a sculpture), to Anselm Kiefer’s use of straw, ash, clay, lead, broken glass, dried plants and concrete, the German modernists have been masters of unfinished, unrefined surfaces (dirty, imperfect surfaces, compared to the finished, refined, perfected surfaces of Renaissance painting). It is a sort of antisocial, anti-aesthetic surface, composed of seemingly arbitrarily thrown together coarse materials, the rough and tumble rubble and detritus of society, the “tragic” waste one would rather forget and not see. It is supposedly of shock value yet tiresomely commonplace and familiar to everybody, however unfamiliar it once made art seem.

The use of wasteland material suggests the wasteland that society has been to the German Expressionists since Kirchner’s depiction of its emptiness in Red Tower in Halle (1915). The deserted public space and delusionally grand isolated tower symbolize the grandiose modern artist’s feeling of being abandoned and isolated—an alien—in the empty desert of society. But the German Neo-Expressionists could not find consolation and love in nature, as Kirchner could in Red Tree on the Beach (1912–13), where the tree symbolizes priapic passion. All they had to work with was German history and the damage Germany did to itself and others, stigmatizing it and bringing a new feeling of isolation, a new recurrence of the feeling of being coarse, even more coarse than nature, as the Neo-Expressionist treatment of the human figure suggests.

This natural and social coarseness was already noted by the Roman historian Tacitus, who described Germans as children of nature, identified with nature and living in nature rather than in civilized cities, such as Rome. German nature was “for the most part bristling forests and foul bogs,” where the Germans wore the coarse skins of wild animals, or, as Tacitus’s contemporary, the geographer Pomponius Mela wrote, clothes made of coarse tree bark. Often at war with each other, the German tribes were not united and contained in one nation, confirming that they were barbaric. They lacked and resisted refinement, and were indifferent to beauty, which they were too emotionally coarse and intellectually uncultivated to appreciate and enjoy, let alone understand and cherish.

Germany remained a problem for the sophisticated Giorgio Vasari. He deplored the ugliness of the maniera tedesca, compared to the beauty of the maniera italiana. He traced the beginnings of Mannerist decadence to Jacopo da Pontormo. Vasari complained that Pontormo used the elongated figure of Christ—distorted, abnormal, absurd and arbitrarily constructed, for it did not follow Vitruvius’ rules for constructing an ideally civilized and naturally correct figure, normal because it embodied the classical conception of a sane mind in a sane body—in one of Albrecht Dürer’s prints as a model. Vasari ironically commented that Dürer traveled to Italy to study the beautiful, refined, harmoniously constructed figures of its artists, inspired by its classical heritage as well as careful observation of nature. Why would anyone want to travel to Germany, if only in spirit? Why would one want to copy an unnatural German figure? Why would any educated, cosmopolitan Italian artist want to follow the lead of a backward, provincial, insane, coarse German artist? Only someone as melancholy and antisocial, someone as emotionally disturbed, someone with a very insecure sense of self, as Pontormo was said to be, and that his diaries show he was.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2015, Volume 34, Number 3