Representational art is defined by rigorous devotion to classical tradition, mimesis, and craft. However, since the Renaissance there have been divergent interpretations within the tradition, some focusing on Empirical Realism as an end in itself, others opening to Imaginative Composition with mimetic realism as a tool to create poetic revelations of truth.
In Northern Europe, representational art will lean most heavily toward Empirical Realism. Dutch painters will forward genre paintings, still lives, and landscapes with painstaking attention to detail. The figurative physiques are uncompromisingly average, plants can be identified to the species, and cloth specific to the quality of weave. In this northern branch of the tradition, authority is in the world as observed, and task of the artist to diligently record it as observed. Even in the finished product, the artist’s craft was expected to work toward the complete eradication of all evidence of the artist’s hand. Vermeer championed such devotion to the point that contemporary critics accuse him of using mechanical forms of reproduction.
Southern Europe, on the other hand, will prioritize Imaginative Composition. The southern masters likewise believed that the artist must be a student of mimesis, however, the authority for the work was the artist’s creative imagination. To wit, their ability to reorganize data to create compositions of interpretive poetry and beauty. Southern artists were more likely to omit, emphasize or invent observed elements in service to the larger aesthetic and conceptual goals of the piece. Bodies were idealized, fauna generalized, and cloth transformed into dynamic abstractions. Likewise, the artist’s craft is more likely to allow media to be self-evident in the gestural hand of the artist. Both Titian and Michelangelo became more gestural with their media over the course of their careers and saw the development as maturation of their skills.
Contemporary representational artist may work anywhere within the continuum between these traditions. For example, the artisan Andrew Wyeth was known to edit, collage, and alter his subjects in serve larger poetic goals while at the same time remaining a devoted realist. By defining and charting the Northern and Southern traditions within Representational Art, I propose to contemporary representational artists that both Empiricism and Imagination contribute essential elements to a finished work of art: realism necessary for mastery and empathy; the imagination necessary for pleasure, logic, and transcendent truth.
Guy Kinnear is a contemporary figurative artist working in painting, drawing, and sculpture, with an MFA degree from the San Francisco Art Institute. He has been a professional arts educator for the last two decades, teaching studio, theory, and professional development courses in Bachelor and Masters of Fine Arts degree programs. He and his artist wife also work collaboratively in creative community development events in California and Canada. His studio is in the California Central Coast, where he is exploring sustainable off the grid living with his family.