In an effort to challenge some prevailing assumptions surrounding the art of the painter Wols—whose work various critics in the late 1940s associated with the expression of existential unease—Alex Potts proposes that what Wols truly wished to convey was “a real sense of the substance of the world,” its “bare non-art materiality” (119–20). An anecdote supplied by the critic René Guilly on the occasion of Wols’s 1947 Paris exhibition provides some evidence for that contention, even as it reveals the artist’s feelings of inadequacy in the face of his task. Walking by a decomposing wall glimpsed through a pane of broken glass, Wols is said to have lamented, “My painting will never achieve that” (119). He may have meant that his art was incapable of the immediacy and directness he associated with the “real.” Perhaps, as Potts suggests, Wols’s disappointment came from recognizing that his desire for “rendering the reality of things” in their “brute materiality” was incommensurate with working in mediums that were each bound, for better or worse, to sets of historical conventions that conditioned artistic representation (120). Nonetheless, in Potts’s ambitious account of twentieth-century realism, some version of Wols’s aspiration—to convey as if directly the “vivid actuality” (326) and “material substance” (3) of things—widely animates the experimental practices of postwar artists.
Schreyach, M. (2014). Representing “Actuality.” [Review of the book Experiments in Modern Realism: World Making, Politics and the Everyday in Postwar European and American Art, by A. Potts]. Art Journal, 73(4), 78-81. doi: 10.1080/00043249.2014.1016348