Let us begin by understanding the two terms.
Realism, especially modern realism, which flourished at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and since then has fallen into a predictable rhythm, is about depicting a scene as-is, with almost photographic precision. There has been another school of art also called realism, which flourished in the medieval times, and which presented an idealized and beautified version of a picture.
Let me explain through an example. If you were to paint the scene of a bench in a park with a garbage bin in the vicinity – as a modern realist, you’d show the banana peel under the bench, and if perchance the garbage disposal squad hadn’t arrived by then and the bin was overflowing, you’d diligently paint the garbage too. However, if you were attempting to replicate medieval realism (closer to romanticism,) your painting will have replaced the banana peel with a dandelion and the garbage bin with a statue of a voluptuous woman. In both cases, you’d have painted the proportions, the colors, the lights and shadows…and everything else very, very realistically.
So that was about realism. Now, let us talk about symbolism.
Simply speaking, symbolism is the use of symbols in your imagery. For instance, if you want to show pain and agony along with the feeling of being trapped, you might use objects that relate to these feelings (so an artist may decide that the imagery of a barbed wire fence with a bloodied rag could convey the feeling,) or you might use a totally different representation to “show” the mental condition of such a person. How an artist wishes to symbolize a feeling, an idea, a thought, is for the artist to decide.
Do you see the difference?
Realism vs. Symbolism – The Difference
Realism is a faithful replication while Symbolism is the presentation of the artist’s interpretation. For this reason, odd and unrelated imagery may be found in a symbolist’s art. The artist would always have an interpretation for the artwork that he or she created, but as a person viewing the artwork, the audience must carry away their own interpretation of it. Just the way a writer explains a character’s personality, thought-process, plans, ideas, fears, expectations etc. all through the use of similes and metaphors, the artist uses the visual counterpart of these tools to establish a story within an artwork.
This is why Symbolism can go where realism can’t. Realism can present you with the faithful representation of the visual that the artist sees, but it cannot take you into the hearts and minds of people, it cannot tell you the story of a person, it cannot transfer feeling and emotion into the artwork. No amount of realistic imagery can tell you anything about the thoughts that crowd the mind of a woman who becomes a dacoit after being gang-raped; Nothing in the domain of realism can show you the mental strength and capability of a man fighting his own schizophrenic demons. To paint such pictures, you must step out of the comfort zone of realism.
Photographers – The New Realists
The photographers today do a better job at realistic depiction of visuals. Some photographs have the ability to evoke emotions so powerful that they move nations into action. And yet, a single photograph cannot take you on a visual odyssey into the world of feelings, thoughts, emotions, or even stories – because stories don’t happen at a point in time, they happen over time – and this is where the artist steps in and takes you beyond the surface of the paint, into a world that begins to make sense…little by little.
Most artists start as realists. They faithfully paint what they see. Then they begin to feel the constraints and start exploring. Dali discovered Surrealism, Andy Warhol found Pop Art, and Picasso got Cubed. I don’t think that artists deliberate too much upon the path their art would eventually take – I think their art finds its own direction and then they just follow.
I think I’ve just finished writing the Dummy’s Guide to Realism vs. Symbolism 🙂 I am sure you’ve got it all. Now I must find my digital easel and get back to work.