From the moment that Courbet (1819 – 1877) decided to show the less aesthetic side of life in his paintings, the word ‘realism’ is associated with the rough side of our daily existence. This realism is not covering up the inadequacies in this world but consciously shows the poverty, dirt and human failings. Consequently a positive image of the world became suspect. A beautiful and charming representation would evoke associations with sentimentality and dishonesty. The ‘real’ is presented as the opposite of the ‘ideal’ as well as the ‘unreal’.
However, the first wave of realism in western art has its roots in the representation of the ideal world: the revaluation of the physical as a reflection of the metaphysical, ideal world. In the early renaissance the influential Neo-Platonist Marsilio Ficino describes the world as a work of art, the most radiant creation of God.
For centuries the focus in art is on the ‘ideal’. Modern realism reacts with a reassessment of the ordinary and the reality of the unexceptional person. The ‘Stone Breakers’ by Courbet shocks its viewers: ordinary laborers are shown in non-heroic poses. The artist takes on the task to show the harsh side of life to his public. Starting with Courbet, realistic painters reveal more and more, that life can be sad, heavy, disgusting and filthy. In photography Stephen Shore (American Surfaces) and Boris Mikhailov (sad vagabonds) are good examples.
With the emphasis on the unpleasant side of life, the balance is fully upset. Realism shows the unvarnished darker side of society. Exactly as in renaissance realism, this modern realism shows a distorted view on the world. The world is not only beautiful, but neither only sad and dirty. The world is infinite.
The singularity of the works of Peter Gerritsen is his ability to show the whole spectrum of beauty and misery in his photography. He shows man as a city-dweller with an eye for vulnerability, unexpected moments of poetry, brutal facts and idyll. The abandoned hallways and alleys of Caïro are shown as a mysterious state, the bare doors do not show poverty but stimulate curiosity to find out what’s behind.
With his detached approach Peter Gerritsen gives his images extra connotations that can turn out ironic, enigmatic or lightly surreal. Uncertainty of meaning makes the images ambivalent. The viewer could see it all.
Judith Heeres, 2011