Based on direct observation the men of pre-History left us an important visual legacy of their real universe, of which bulls (seen in Altamira and Lascaux), mammoths (Rouffignac) and horses (Coa) are part of. The attempt of exact reproduction of reality gained new impetus in the Roman portraiture that offers us the precise physiognomic features of a child, maiden, senator or an old person. The next period in which Western art was more successful in recording reality was with the Flemish during the Renaissance (15th century). From the faces to the interiors with the exact reproduction of tapestries and clothing, despite all the symbolic weight that Art History associated a posteriori to these works, these are essentially of the real sphere. In the 17th century, the search for the real was concentrated on living things and on everyday objects, in which the still lifes of Josefa d’Obidos are the high point of this period amongst us.
Nevertheless, the term Realism was associated to the artistic movement headed by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877), accompanying the literary movement led by Emile Zola (1840-1902) that denounced serious social problems in the text As Três Cidades (1894-98). The term Réaliste is used by Courbet in 1844 to name his exhibition of forty-four paintings held at the doors of the Paris Salon when his paintings A Burial at Ornans and The Artist’s Studio are rejected because the topics reported in such a strong way the real. The purpose of the Realism artistic movement in the 19th century was, therefore, to propose a provocative feeling of the real and of nature without contamination of symbolism or romanticism. Eventually denouncing concerns common to Socialism, it pictorically intended to contribute to the regeneration of society. Due to this ideological and political commitment of the Realism artistic movement in the 19th century, the term Naturalism, stripped of any political connotation, is best suited to characterise a large part of 19th century Painting which had as an innovative feature, the Painting “about the cause”.
Realism appears again in the 1930's in the USSR and satellite countries, at the service of political ideology present in these countries, becoming known in History as Socialist Realism. The artists of the Visual Arts, as well as of Literature, were incumbent by the commissioner Andrei Zdanov, under the supervision of Josef Stalin (1878-1953), of exclusively creating in the sense of helping to build an egalitarian society of the future. This path, with maximum exponent in Sergei Gerasimov (1885-1964) ended up stopping the vanguards and promoting with a “heroic realism” the propaganda of State values, distancing itself from the assumptions of the 19th century Realism.
By the end of the 1950s, in other countries of the Western world, without this political weight, an artistic movement appears called New-Realism – in the counter-movement to lyrical-informal and constructivist abstraction dominant then - , that uses themes and media completely different from the Soviet Realism, recovering and widening the values of surrealism and Dadaism.
In Portugal, in the immediate post-war period, the experiences of art called “Neo-Realist” shared the same concerns and practices of the Realism of the U.S.S.R. This was due in part because the Movement of Democratic Unit (Movimento de Unidade Democrática or MUD) would dominate the General Exhibitions of Plastic Arts carried out between 1946 and 1956, and this was a movement of opposition to the dictatorship of the New State of the Communist wing. Therefore, in thematic terms, in the Soviet and Portuguese works, it can be read, above all, the criticism to the doctrine of the Capitalist system and the propaganda of Communism as alternative and ideal political doctrine.
Assuming a social function, Neo-Realism art in Portugal contributed to the debate around “art for art”, in favour of a “useful art” by criticising.
Later, in the 1960s, in a context of greater openness to foreign countries, young artists like Lurdes de Castro and Rene Bertholo by living in France get closer to the topics, to media and to the problematics of the French Nouveau Réalisme.
By the end of the 1960s, especially in England and in the USA, the term Realism, associated to an augmentative – Hyper -, forming the word Hyper-Realism, is used to define a movement of Painting and Sculpture that intends to reproduce in perfection the truth of the photograph. The reproductions are so perfect that paradoxically we question if they are real or ideal. An example of hyper-realism is the sculpture of a nude couple hugging on the floor with a strong erotic charge, by John de Andrea and entitled Anderson and Norma Murphy (1972), currently part of the Berardo collection exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art of Sintra (see image 1).