Robert Brackman was one of the foremost Realists of the 20th century. Evoking the metaphysical essence of the naturalism inherent in Realist portraiture and still life, his paintings offer us an emotional lucidity of the moment being taken upon. His work exudes a stylistic convergence between the schools of New York, San Francisco, and Paris, expressing the sense and time of all three at once.
Intellectual and radical in the traditional, reactionary sense, tinged with modern sensibilities, Brackman remains one of the classic “painterly painters,” artists whose passion for the craft drives the Great Work past mere technical precision and prowess, well into the realm of true emotional inspiration.
Young Lady of 1933, pictured above, is the finest example of Brackman’s work, and perhaps his most metaphysical. Given the title and the exacting attention to fashion, there may have been a conscious attempt on his part to capture a sense of the era. The detail given to her hat and dress is such that it is sufficient; he could have very well taken the detail much further, but wisely kept it quite subtle in an almost impressionistic way.
The strict positioning of the subject on the chair, her straightforward gaze toward us, the positioning of her arm and her hand holding the red scarf, or rather pulling it through the loop in the collar of her dress, suggest an idealist motif emanating throughout the work as a whole, as if he were viewing her through a cinematic lens. The crooked positioning of the chair makes it quite clear she is sitting upright, her attention focused squarely on us. Her expression adds to the metaphysical atmosphere, being neither overtly this way or that. Yet, at the same time, it cannot be considered to be vague, but rather we feel that she is holding something back. It is one of those expressions that can only be captured at a perfect moment in time, as if everything has suddenly come to a standstill and there is only a single, lingering thought foreshadowing the next moment to come.
The colours are quiet and fluid, giving a sense of warmth, but not necessarily of comfort. In his use of pinks, purples, and reds, the artist is setting a tone of subdued anxiety, further reflected in the hallucinatory gaze of the subject being directed toward us. The bowl of fruit in the background behind her, a brilliant and concise juxtaposition of still life against portraiture, a common theme throughout many of Brackman’s paintings. The inclusion of the ubiquitous bowl of fruit in portraiture is never by chance, and always a deliberate choice of symbolism on the part of the artist.
Rêverie, a later painting from 1957 pictured to the right, continues the metaphysical exploration with the juxtaposition of still life subjects against a human principal. As with Young Lady of 1933, there is the sense of a waking dream unfolding in the moment, that strange, dissonant instance when routine daydreaming dissolves into an outright subjective reality and the previously mundane surroundings seem like a scene out of surreal imaginings.
The combination of a top hat, violin, freshly wrapped flowers, and bottle of wine on the table add a melancholy feeling to the proceedings, with the ever present fruit offering neither solace nor comfort. In their familiarity, they conversely bring about a sense of alienation and jaded sorrow.
On the wall we can see various self-referential examples of Brackman’s own work, from his self-portrait on the left and Reclining Nude Woman on the right, adding a nostalgic dimension to the whole, indicating a longing for the novelty of the past. With the woman resting her head against her arm, gazing out listlessly in a direction away from us, adding ever deeper to the melancholia. In her eyes we see something of the infinite sadness that often accompanies brooding moments of nostalgia, considering all that has happened and has come before, and all lost except within fragments of bittersweet memories.
As it is, Robert Brackman remains one of the great masters of 20th century American Realism, an underrated talent who certainly deserves far more exposure and credit than he has thus far received.