While hyperrealism was the subject of numerous publications at the time of its explosion in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it subsequently became virtually impossible to find an article, journal or book on the subject from a global perspective.
As if it had been a spasmodic fashion movement as quickly forgotten as it had appeared. However, most of the painters who initiated this movement have continued, enriched and often diversified their work, supported by one and then two generations of new artists.
Hyperrealism has taken up the history of painting where it somehow stopped when the photo appeared, pushing painting to justify itself through a headlong rush, from avant-gardes to avant-gardes until exhaustion and mechanical reproduction of itself.
We had to start all over again and it is to American precursors of hyper-realism, the photorealists that we owe this return to studio work and plastic perfection; we were in 1965 and 50 years have passed.It therefore seemed essential to take stock of what appears to be a major movement both in terms of its history and its relevance.
Man's relationship with reality is never frozen. They are constantly escaping from any control because if man makes reality, reality in turn makes man. It is a permanent balance of power where there are no winners or losers. But beyond the battlefield, a symbiosis takes place. History has only remembered a few moments of rupture.
If we look at the evolution of artistic creation, hyperrealism represents one of its moments of rupture, because it consecrates what yesterday was suspicious or even uninteresting. Also because the artistic work had for a few years turned its back on painting and for a long time on figuration, which refers to reality.
Throughout the period in which abstract art dominated, realism sought a new identity in both Europe and the United States. By clinging to outdated style traditions and refusing to break the links with the iconography attached to them, realism had for the most part degenerated into a purely stylistic figuration, which had lost all contact with reality and was unable to develop and embody the realism of modern times.
Hyperrealism is not a movement in the formal sense. He has no manifesto.
Perhaps it is necessary to speak of a common sensitivity: a position that is established on the basis of the relationships existing between the artist and his subject. These relationships are characterized by both emotional distance and, through the use of real photography, but also by a total and laborious commitment on the part of the artist concerned with accurately rendering form, light and colour.
Hyperrealism is a relatively unified trend where each painter translates in almost the same way the contemporary landscape and more particularly the images of a modern society. It is not the style that differentiates them but the theme favoured by each of them and the way in which the subject is seen.
Rejecting the emotional subjectivity specific to traditional and academic realistic painting, the hyperrealist painter does not tell the viewer how he should feel about the subject, he simply states that it exists and that it is worth looking at because it exists. The artist's efforts (often several months of work on the same painting) impregnate things with a new meaning, but they are neither overestimated nor underestimated.
The hyperrealists were described as "virtuosos" because they achieved such perfection that their paintings were confused with photographs.Some argue that these painters would thus only present a simple cold observation of their environment, without subjective analysis.Beyond this absence of direct comments, it seems simplistic to consider hyperrealism only as a mechanical representation.
This apparent impersonality is indeed contradicted by the fact that, as these painters themselves take the photos from which they work, they are given considerable latitude in terms of subject, layout, lighting, composition and colour. This is all the more true since the use of digital tools has recently opened up the field of possibilities.
Finally, the fact of laboriously painting, for months at a time, what the camera can instantly reproduce without effort is not meaningless: the painting is not a photo and during this slow process of human effort, it acquires its own personality to deliver an intensified and densified vision of what it represents.
In return, the painting slowly restores the workload and research with which it has been impregnated.
On the other hand, through the illusionist character of these meticulous representations of the smallest details of a reflection in a window or of each hair of a hairstyle, a fascinating and frightening madness emerges. So, although it is considered cold and devoid of commitment, hyper-realism has a heroic character: by deliberately choosing to do slowly what some media can do instantly and effortlessly, it affirms the value of human effort.
In this old romantic idea of the exhaustion of performance accents can be found in this old romantic idea.
The return of technology
Contemporary artists have never abused the word "work" so much as since they do nothing and have never aligned the list of their "works" so much as since they have reduced themselves to gestures that are often quite derisory and vain, such as sending texts by mail or gluing vertical strips on walls. So in this necessary reversal that is taking place today, we can see, as reacting against this oblivion of the body into which art has sunk, the work having dematerialized to such an extent that it excludes any control or simply any know-how, the artist returns once again to the body and the gesture. Thus, to apply his power, the hyper-realistic artist needs these artificial extensions of the limbs, the brush, the palette knife, the airbrush, now augmented by all these prostheses, the camera, the video projector, the computer, the graphic palette, all of which always consists, in any case, in repeating, extending or projecting an image of himself towards the world, in other words, in establishing a bridge between the body and his reality, in rebuilding, always, the image of an adorable decoy.
Hyperrealism returns to easel painting. It restores the processes of conventional painting while emptying it of its content.
This passionate return to the pictorial act emerged during a period of pictorial abstinence during which technical criteria and evaluation criteria were lost.However, history has relegated objective realism to a second-class cabin.
For great art, we are not satisfied with a pure description. It is only when the subject of the painting has renounced pure resemblance and opted for true meaning, that history adopts its artistic aspect.
Hyperrealism, a peaceful and literal account of visual realities, therefore still occupies an embarrassing position. However, there are two complementary notions, if we place them beyond the dogma of modernity, which plead in favour of hyperrealistic art: on the one hand realism is undeniably linked to the subject and on the other hand, as Don Eddy points out, the appearance of the world is really more exciting than the appearance of art.
A technological art
The profusion of images conveyed by video, cinema or photography, social networks has changed the way we see and hyperrealists are recording these changes.
Today, images broadcast by the visual media are as important as real phenomena. They modify our perception of real phenomena and help to prioritize their values.
All hyper-realistic painting thus has to deal with a second-hand reality, a reworked reality, reworked first by photography and then by technological tools and then by reproduction on the canvas.
The hyperrealist painter often uses technological tools often quite consciously to break with the habits of classical pictorial representation.
It has become common to find in the workshops of hyperrealist artists computers, tablets, video projectors decorated with the most powerful software.
And it is indeed this continuous adaptation to new, essentially digital tools that has enabled the movement to renew itself a little like techno music, which, like hyperrealism in an astonishing parallel, has been constantly diversifying over the past 30 years through multiple underlying trends.
Painting and photography
John Salt notes that photographs "made it easier to get rid of the influence of other painters. The idea that photography helps to free the artist from old forms of realism has been taken up by Tom Blackwell: "the lens distorts according to classical conventions of perspective or the needs of pictorial representation".
Hyperrealists therefore use photography to establish a distance between them and the subject.
Photography moves the image from a three-dimensional to a two-dimensional plane in a way that excludes the artist's choices, which could be based on emotional or psychological preferences.
Nevertheless, photography is not considered as a simple tool by all artists. Although they use it to distance themselves from the subject and free themselves from the aesthetic conventions of the past, photography is a new way for them to approach subjects.
The same paintings could not be painted without photographs and photographic visualization is part of the idea of painting.
"I don't see how I could do either without the other," says Estes, describing the close relationship between his painting and photography. In reality, Estes, like many other artists, takes considerable freedom with photography: he takes several shots of the same subject to obtain the maximum amount of information and this information is then integrated into the painting.
It is therefore important to distinguish between painters who use photography to represent what the lens sees and those who use it to represent what the eye sees.
"Some people think that from a photo, you can only make one painting. But you can do as many paintings from a photo as you can from real life," says Chuck Close.
Hyperrealism has facilitated a cross-fertilization between painting and photography. This permanent dialogue between the two techniques plays an important role in contemporary art.
We don't hear about hyper-realistic works saying "it's quite the reality", but "it's quite a picture". This illusionism rarely becomes the trompe l'oeil of a real object. He always reminds us that photography is always between reality and art and that this world in between is the subject of the work.
It is not reality that matters, but photography, because it is photography that is the subject of the work.
The artist grasps and communicates the message of the objective. He affirms the integrity of his subject while aiming for perfection.
Finally, there is a real problem with the photographic reproduction of hyperrealistic paintings in these ambiguous relationships. Indeed, it tends to return to the original source, the photo. In fact, the painting itself is unphotographable.
The reproduction of any work by Picasso, Matisse or Rembrandt tells you something about what painting looks like, while a reproduction of a hyper-realistic painting looks like a facsimile of its photographic source.
According to Malcolm Morley: "It is a way of affirming the autonomy of painting as an object, because only painting tells you something about itself.
Hyperrealism and abstraction
Hyperrealistic painters were influenced by the expedients used by abstract painters: enlargement or distortion of scale, uniformity of surface, gigantism of the works, pre-eminence of the image.
For example, treating a subject by isolating certain fragments from their context and reproducing them in a mimetic way gives them their own identity, often with a strong abstract charge.
This is particularly true of certain details of Chuck Close's paintings that are revealed when observing the abstract paintings.
The expansion of a part of a tire at Don Eddy's becomes a simple crossing of lines closer to Stella than hyperrealism.
The coldness attributed to hyperrealistic sensitivity corresponds to an abstract way of seeing things without comment or commitment.
Even the apparent frontality of Estes or Goings is composed and treated in an abstract sense. Reflections are often used, in Pelizzari, Lieder or Ivanoff for example, as abstract elements such as barriers and parking lines in Eddy's work.
In fact, some hyperrealistic painters have become abstract and vice versa.
The way some artists prepare the subject they will reproduce is influenced not only by abstract art but also by conceptual work.
Thus, many artists prepare large-scale installations using various subjects that they then reproduce faithfully. We find this exploratory phase which consists in doing preparatory work for the execution of their canvases with many artists.
An absent critic
Hyperrealism is one of the few recent innovative trends to enjoy widespread public success. It has been the subject of numerous exhibitions in many countries and some books have even been devoted to it (see books)
However, despite a certain popular success, hyperrealism has met with relative indifference from critics and institutions.
When conceptualists abandoned traditional tools and media in favour of performances and installations, other artists, in reaction, returned to the workshops. For the critical community, this constituted a revolutionary counter-shock with much more shocking implications than those caused by the most iconoclastic of the strategies developed by the Conceptualists. Hence a certain unease between the hyper-realist movement and criticism.
Hyperrealism is a demanding art form and painters spend most of their time painting in their studios, which leaves little time to provide information for media and critics. Moreover, hyperrealist painters have left in the closet a certain number of attributes specific to the actors of the great Art such as the cult of personality, the myth of individual genius, the elitist, esoteric or transcendental approach.
They thwart the common sense that art is a separate, marginal, especially not ordinary activity and that the artist is engaged body and soul in a mysterious search for truth and the absolute, thus undermining the authority of the media and the systems for portraying reality. The figure of the creator is erased in favour of the more modest figure of the smuggler.
Hyperrealism is not based on the romantic idea of the artist devoured by inner demons, outside systems, that his suicidal impulses lead to creations... before the self-destructive end in alcohol or drugs. No, we are not in this novel that merchants and speculators of all kinds love so much that it allows us to qualify uninteresting productions as major works.
This being said, this phenomenon is more broadly part of the loss of status of painting: critics or curators of the most important international events have integrated into their discourse an idea of painting as a past activity in favour of expressions such as video, performance or paradoxically photography, which seem more relevant to them.
Despite the relative disdain displayed by critics on a daily basis, art historians have begun to integrate this popular movement into their thinking.
The American pioneers, the photorealists
The vogue for photorealism may have led to a rebirth of figuration, whereas it was only a logical extension of the American realistic tradition. The United States has known until Pop Art, which chronologically preceded the arrival of photorealism, many figurative approaches such as those of Edward Hooper, Charles Sheeler or Andrew Wyeth.
Pop art with its neo-Dadas antecedents has been both the synthesis of the realistic current and the abstract current and the dithyrambic apotheosis of the American way of life. In fact, it is one of the highlights of American realism and the spirit of the Wesselmann, Rosenquist and Oldenburg is basically that of the Demuth or Nigel Spencer. This 100% American style reached its peak at a time when the whole world was undergoing the fascination of America, copied its way of life, and its urban folklore, became passionate about its daily mythologies, from western to song, loved its idols, imitated its thugs with big hearts.
The American nature of a Rauschenberg or Warhol is identified with the archetypes of international modern folklore, it illustrates the entire hierarchy of values of a global civilization.
By focusing attention on the urban environment, on the power of fascination of the image broadcast in series by the modern media, pop artists have revalued figuration, which at the time seemed to be the almost exclusive lot of academic painters.
On the other hand, at the same time, the image of America tended inexorably to crumble and after imposing its law on the world, American painting returned home and at the end of this objective introspection, found itself, through hyperrealism, as it has always been, regionalist, earth or industrial, inexorably rooted in the physical and human reality.
In fact, few hyperrealist artists think they have been directly influenced by Pop art and among pop artists, only James Rosenquist is a reference. He is the one whose work they feel is the closest to their concerns. Several of his paintings, in fact, offer a simple image, immediately recognizable and which can evoke one aspect or another of hyperrealism, although the purpose is quite different. Unlike hyperrealistic paintings, Rosenquist's painting is always a commentary – moral or philosophical – on the modern world, never a simple observation.
More generally, as Estes noted, "the trouble with Pop Art is that it is too talkative. It's an intellectual game. Once you understand the message, it loses all interest.
Despite this, the hyperrealists acknowledge their debt to pop art, which paved the way for the treatment of banal subjects and made possible figurative painting without reference to the past, old masters and academic considerations.
Hyperrealism has borrowed from pop art the iconography of everyday life. It celebrates the banal image and trivializes the cultural image.
American hyperrealism is generally considered to be a mechanistic style and it is not surprising to note that many painters are fascinated by automobiles (Don Eddy, Robert Bechtle, John Salt, Ralph Goings, Ron Kleemann), motorcycles (David Parrish, Tom Blackwell), aircraft (Chris Cross, Tom Blackwell), factories (Randy Dudley), urban views (Richard Estes, Noël Mahaffey, Robert Gniewek, David Cone, Anthony Brunelli, Bertrand Meniel).
All these themes are part of urban folklore in its most universally recognized aspects. The consumer society is in full swing, it has put on its Sunday clothes: restaurants are clean, streets are cleaned, neon lights shine with all their tubes, motorcycles are flashy. Nothing has been forgotten by detergents, not even the bodies in a car cemetery. Everything is revealed with great clarity as if it were the advertising promotion of a well-packed product or postcards published by a tourist office.
It is this aspect of hyperrealism, mechanical but reductive, that has been recognized by the general public and disseminated in the media.
In this art, personal writing is most often absent, the atmosphere reduced to a minimum and the subject reduced to everyday life, the artist confirming his personality with a characteristic theme. This is what Peter Sager calls their trademark.
Far from being unanimously accepted, this radical aspect is mocked by a whole fringe of critics.
"Where is the neutrality of this painting and these painters who systematically ignore a whole part of their environment (to speak only of it) and that their objectivity leads to seeing only new and bare walls, raked earth, unfailingly clean windows, always new engines? "exclaims Desmonde Vallée.
Other artists, even if they adhere to the beauty of polished car bodies, window displays or gas stations, deal with subjects evoking the colonial era, art deco from the 1920s or draw their inspiration from the 1950s, thereby enhancing the emotional intensity of their subjects.
This is the case of Baeder or Jacot.
Finally, other painters have been able to negotiate ruptures in the themes, the subjects, by taking a certain distance with this hypertechnical and icy side.
What differentiates these artists from other photorealists is that they do not care about the complex banality of snack bars, semi-trailers, suburban streets, provincial cinemas, rodeos and all the slices of life in the popular America they represent. They have invested in other fields of artistic investigation.
Thus the representation of Chuck Close's faces, John Kacere's bodies, Richard Mac Lean's horses or the scenes of mythology reproduced by John Clem Clarke also belong automatically to hyper-realistic painting.
The works of Don Eddy, Audrey Flack, Ben Schonzeit, Chuck Close or Joseph Raffael show the greatest thematic freedom and testify that hyper-realistic language is not a closed and frozen system as a simplistic and partisan reading might suggest.
Hyperrealists or synthesis
If it is necessary to recognize their sensitivity and technique very close to those of American photorealistic artists, it is less at the level of sources than at the level of seizure that hyperrealistic artists mark their profound specificity.
There are in fact as many hyperrealism as there are painters, each one contributing through his personal vision, in a style that is specific to him to a definition of reality.
So it seems adventurous to rally these artists under a common and improbable banner of a uniform hyperrealism.
Some of them are close to the academic tradition. With a perfect technical mastery, especially in the field of drawing, they draw up an inventory of daily life. And most of them master technological or digital tools.
We are generally far from the traditional themes of American photorealism. This is not the case with Santander, Ford, Pelizzari, Neffson, Verschaffell, Penner or Bricq, which are closer to radical photorealism.
Everything in their work can be classified according to the traditional categories as taught by the Fine Arts Schools: still life, nude, landscape, scenes of daily life …
However, if their vision remains dependent on that of the old masters, it also reflects, at the level of the figurative subject, a modern concern.
Paintings, often of very large format, thus give rise to abstract forms or imaginary constructions that reveal something of the hidden order of the everyday environment.
The painters thus endeavour to reveal various forms drawn from the depths of the image and one is struck by the impression that, correlatively, familiar objects and scenes become "miniatures of the world".
Some use contemporary imagery as a starting point for various forms of a rather narrative figuration that clearly differs from an essentially static current. The technique, although perfect, is less academic and the subjects are still topical with Pouchous, Bowen, Bernard, Waters, Bauer, Gravinese, Rodriguez. But they are never advertising, nor do they give in to the anecdote.
To the brilliant and closed success of the duplication of a snapshot, Hucleux, Cadden, Comoretti, oppose the European melancholy of an immeasurable object to the consciousness that tries to appropriate it.
Even if they obey the same technical imperatives as photorealists, a generation of artists has produced many works that, although inspired by photography, have philosophical, political or moral implications. This is the case of Peterson or Helnwein immersed in the social, political and cultural context.
According to Foster, hyperrealism expresses what it tries to hide through the anguish of its interest in bright, reflective surfaces. A world of reflection: we are with Lieder, Ivanoff, Pelizzari or De Graaf.
For some hyperrealists, it is less the visual aspect of the daily and urban environment that attracts their attention than the tactile aspect of the elements.
The theme of still life is revisited by many artists. Each one taking a new look, a personal touch by getting rid of the sclerosing constraints of the traditional trompe l'oeil; Chartier in an ironic register, De Graaf, Campos, Bodin, Kloosterboer, Molinari, Bernardi playing on the effects of matter or perspective, Béliveau more literary with his scrupulously reproduced works, Wirths more conceptual.
Practically absent from photorealistic painting, the theme of nature inspires hyper-realists: Spence and aimable landscapes or undergrowth, Kessler with strange bodies of water, Bernair with its waves.
Other trends are emerging that can be described as dreamlike hyper-realism through the work of Geddes, Rea, Kunkle, Ulibin, Marcatajo or Eley. In their homes, imaginary and real symbols are assembled in frescoes that combine mechanics with animals, minerals with man. Contemporary characters take place in timeless settings.
The use of digital equipment is pushed to its limits by Corfield, sometimes referred to as pseudorealism or Mulhem, who has become a master in the use of holopeinture.