Social Contexts

.. Breton interpreted the gleaners’ daily work in an ideal way, not a realistic way. So how can the viewer see the painting and not assume that that’s how the life was? Breton was a respected rural bourgeoisie, he knew what his peers would praise and what they would frown upon. He painted what they wanted to see. Courbet also painted the gleaners, yet it was criticized for being offensive.

Breton painted with a mask on, Courbet, who also painted the gleaners a and was criticized, pulled away that mask. Masking the reality of social and economic conflict in the countryside, the myth projected rural society to be a unity, a one-class society in which peasant and master worked in harmony. Courbet’s imagery was considered offensive or dangerous precisely because he pulled away that mask. Jules Breton, in other words, was a realist purveyor of the bourgeois myth of rural society. By altering the true image of society is a form of self-deception. Denial is a common psychological defence against feelings of guilt ans anxiety, and there were plenty of signs of it among the bourgeoisie during the nineteenth century.

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The drawback here is the artist’s interpretation of the society, whether it’s truthful to the subject or whether it has been masked. Another disadvantage to the methodology of considering the social context is the viewer’s own context. A viewer may see different things within a piece of artwork. For example, the critics praised Breton’s version of the The Gleaners and bashed Courbet’s version. Breton’s image was pleasant, and Courbet’s showed withered women and was pitiful. The critics didn’t want to necessarily want to see the real world’ so they chose to believe that the women were healthy and beautiful.

Now if the actual gleaners were to see both of the paintings, they’d most likely reject Breton’s version. Courbet’s version was more truthful to their being. So, the viewers’ context is never the same. Every different person can explain a work of art by different means, and can take separate routes. Who says that the social context taken from a work of art has to strictly be the content? Context doesn’t pay any attention to the visual elements.

From the formalist perspective we can look at everything but the content: colour, how the shapes relate to one another, do the forms fit in space, etc.. Yet another drawback. If the viewer is concerned with the context of the form and not the content, then the context is skewed again. The formalist perspective concentrates on form, basically. The curve of the gleaner’s backs bend with accuracy. The shadows created by the figures and the amount of wheat that they carry that the sun in setting in the west.

We don’t know for sure what Jules Breton wanted to convey when he painted The Gleaners. We can assume certain circumstances and backgrounds, but the key word is assume’. When determining a social context of a work of art it’s strictly an assumption and is only one of the many, many contexts that can be derived. Yes, works of art, especially realist works, can give the twentieth century some sort of clue as to what life was like in the 1850’s. Yet, we can’t take everything we view as the truth.

It has to be at face value. If one were to look at Breton’s version of The Gleaners and then at Courbet’s version, we would see exceptionally noticeable differences. So what are we supposed to assume’ as the truth? The answer is we don’t choose either one as the truth. We have to look in between and find a happy medium in which we can understand and be satisfied with by either doing background research on the painting or simply not regarding either to be truthful and just moving on. It’s very hard, nearly impossible to fully understand a social context for a work of art.

In this instance, with the gleaners, through documentation, we can determine which work of art was a little embellished towards pleasing the critics. Sooner or later we have to just look no further along the association line than is absolutely necessary. The vision can get too cloudy if the context wants to be understood completely. There are various and numerous drawbacks to considering the social contexts. The major one, being stated, is that all context is itself textual.

It’s too hard and labourious to attempt to comprehend the mannerisms and customs of the eighteenth century. We weren’t there to experience it so we have to be happy with just reading and viewing about it. Then there is the subjective aspect. There are different viewers, different intentions from the artist. Who determines what the message was? Is it the artist, or the viewer? Is one more important than another? It’s all very subjective.

Perhaps the artist intended one central idea yet the viewer captures another. Which one is more correct? The formalist perspective is the opposite to the post-structuralist concept. The formalist focuses on the form and colour, whereas the post-structuralist is based on concept and circumstance. So there is another way to look at things. These concepts can be applied to almost any art medium.

It is not necessarily restricted to the realist period or even the visual arts. Literature is an art form which is easily examined and studied through these concepts. In fact, most of the philosophies and theories have been derived from and for literary sources. It is easy to juxtapose literary sources with visual art due to the visual arts being a wordless’ book. Many things can be said about a work of art without any facts being known about it. But the one thing that I am confident about, is the social contexts in which art works are created are complicated and subjective.

Bibliography Nochlin, Linda Realism, Penguin Books, England; 1972 Weisburg, Gabriel P. The European Realist Tradition, Indiana University Press, Indiana;1982 Wendelboe, Karen, Finger Prints1, .htm, December 2, 1999.


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