Millais's Ferdinand Lured by Ariel (1849-1850), in which the painter combines with such abrasive clumsiness the world of fairy and the world of physical materiality, beautifully embodies Victorian fantasy. In the first place, it reminds us that a realistic style, at least in England, can be infused by a literary motive that appears totally out of keeping with realism. Secondly, it reminds us that fantasy and realistic styles remain joined as long as they exist. Both, for instance, rely upon accurate, verifiable representations of physical existing objects that in turn employ pictorial technologies of description (perspective, tonality, color, portrayal of textures, and so on). One may or may not need evil to have good, or ugliness to have beauty. One certainly needs realism to have fantasy.
Fantasy is parasitic on realism; or, to state this point less pejoratively, one cannot have fantasy without realism. Realism precedes fantasy and provides its point of departure. As William Whewell, the Victorian philosopher, pointed out, "Reality requires things," and to this we may add that realism requires the description of things. Realism depends upon a peculiar view of the world that implies only things exist. Realism, in other words, is a style that embodies philosophic materialism, the belief that only physical materiality exists and that spiritual or philosophical ideas, such as soul, self, and life, all reduce, inevitably, to matter.
Of course, no style has ever been completely realist, in large part because all artistic and literary works function by means of languages or forms —sets or schemata of symbolic forms that in turn convey certain statements about physical reality. Furthermore, since all representational art is not the thing itself but some statement about the thing, it inevitably exists at a remove, for it exists in the condition of language. Since languages that make statements about something must inevitably choose which aspects of the thing to discuss, describe, or re-present, they are always abstract, for something must be left out. One way of stating this inevitable abstraction is that all works in realistic styles —there are, by definition, no realistic works —partake of fantasy. All works in (supposedly) realistic styles are pervaded by the ideology or ideologies that control what is chosen as representative of the real.
Realistic art, therefore, does not present what is there any more than does fantastic art. Nonetheless, we all have to work to perceive the ideologically determined aspects of work in a realistic style, but those in a fantastic one stick out. Why do they thrust themselves upon us? First of all, because, as numerous students of fantasy have pointed out, works in that style directly confront our expectations about reality —one expects, for example, that one cannot fly, that trees do not have faces, and that magic does not exist.
If artists from the Renaissance to the late nineteenth century worked so long to create convincing portrayals of a real world, why would fantasy artists be so perverse as to go out of their ways to create a nonreal one? What would they get out of it? Well, one answers, several things, the most obvious of which is that they gain the ability to confront the positivistic conception of physical materiality that characterizes nineteenth-century and later thought. In fact, an important part of the urge for fantasy derives from this feeling that fact isn't all there is and certainly isn't all there should be in art. Fantasy thus uses certain facts to show that fact isn't all there is.
Last modified 25 December 2004