Naturalism in Art and Literature
As Zola's novels gained an international following, a large number of imitators appeared who helped promote the naturalist aesthetic in popular literature that was available to the masses. Writers such as Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893) based their stories on Zola's methodology. At the same time, Zola's best-known novels were turned into plays: Nana was one character who dominated the French stage in productions of L'assommoir from the 1880s onward; Zola's mining novel, Germinal, provided additional evidence of his influence when performed in popular theaters. During the 1890s, a series of printmakers furthered the appearance of visual naturalism in posters and lithographs published by the ever increasing socialist press. Théophile Steinlen, an avowed radical, saw that such types as the print "The Barge Man" provided an opportunity to comment on the implied threat found in disgruntled wanderers; other images, for the periodical Gil Blas, stressed that those who were out of work and destitute could be found everywhere. The plight of the poor became a naturalist battle cry that many artists, in varied artistic media, answered. By using these themes, writers and visual artists enlarged the social dimension of the naturalist movement, which had first brought these types to the fore.
But it was the haunting impact of the environment and of the social milieu on life that remained one of the most trenchant aspects of the naturalist heritage after the turn of the century. In America, in the novels of Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945) or Frank Norris (1870–1902), the influence of Zola's brand of naturalism was paramount. In Vandover and the Brute or in the cataclysmic McTeague: A Story of San Francisco, Norris's characters were flawed, often overwrought, brutes whose nature was determined by genetic and environmental factors. Their pursuit of money underscored uncontrollable drives; naturalism was now focusing on obsessive traits. Significantly, Norris's novel McTeague led to another level of naturalist appeal: the influence on early cinema. When Erich von Stroheim completed his extremely long film Greed, based directly on McTeague, in 1924, he revealed that the naturalist aesthetic could be transferred to another medium, where it was used as a means of revealing fatal character traits that cast light on the lives of troubled people. In effect, Zola's idea of making art understandable for the masses by creating a detailed narrative had come full circle with the motion picture.
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Gabriel P. Weisberg
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