by Roderick Conway Morris

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What Is Real, What Isn't?

By Roderick Conway Morris
FLORENCE 21 November 2009
Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan
'Dead Christ' by Giuseppe Molteni, 1855



All figurative art contains an element of trompe l'oeil, while the essence of the 'true' trompe l'oeil is that it sets out to deceive us into believing that the objects we are seeing are not the result of artifice but real.

The fifth-century B.C. artist Zeuxis, so the story goes, painted grapes so life-like that birds flew down to peck at them. But even such an artist as Zeuxis was fooled by his rival Parrhasius: When Zeuxis tried to push aside the cloth covering one of Parrhasius's paintings the trompe-l'oeil fabric turned out to be the painting itself.

'Art and Illusions: Masterpieces of Trompe l'Oeil From Antiquity to the Present Day' at the Palazzo Strozzi here presents a thought-provoking array of more than 150 works from Roman frescoes to contemporary works that to varying degrees force 'the limits of verisimilitude,' in the words of its curator, Annamaria Giusti.

The tale of Zeuxis and Parrhasius, related by Pliny the Elder in his 'Natural History,' threw down a challenge to Renaissance painters who were trying to surpass the ancients. A curious painting in the first room of the exhibition, Titian's 'Portrait of Archbishop Filippo Archinto,' in which the subject is half obscured by a finely painted diaphanous curtain, while reflecting Archinto's checkered career, may well also have been a response to Pliny's anecdote.

Giotto was notable for his playful experiments with trompe l'oeil - a term only coined as late as the early 19th century. Not only do his frescoes include such devices as illusory views into neighboring spaces but, according to the architect and sculptor Filarete, 'he painted flies that fooled his master Cimabue, who believed they were alive.'

A regular, consciously trompe-l'oeil feature began to appear in northern Italian painting from the 1440s onward, in the form of trompe-l'oeil slips of paper appended to the image bearing the artist's signature. But it was Flemish, German and, later, French painters who became especially fascinated with the depiction of illusionistic everyday objects, in due course turning them into full-blown trompe-l'oeil compositions designed to surprise and amaze.

The important second section of the exhibition, 'Still-life or Trompe l'Oeil?' illustrates, primarily through examples from these northern schools, how problematic it can be to define the frontiers between sheer virtuoso mimesis and an intention to dupe the viewer. A useful juxtaposition here is of the Flemish Willem van Aelst's 1652 'Still-life With Pumpkin, Fruit and Tableware' and Pierre Gilou's 'The Pumpkin' of 1938. Both demonstrate extraordinary skills, but only the latter, by making the pumpkin seem to project into the room from the ledge on which it sits, emerges as an intentional trompe l'oeil.

Although Italy gave rise to some accomplished trompe-l'oeil artists in the 17th and 18th centuries, northern painters continued to produce many of the most spectacular works. The appropriately elusive Domenico Remps, from Antwerp but active in Italy in the second half of the 17th century, is credited with the celebrated 'Cabinet of Curiosities' and 'Faux Board With Knightly Mementoes,' both on show here.

An Italian art historian described in 1719 how 'this charming painter' simulated on canvas 'wooden boards, on which he painted cities, landscapes, letters, printed cards and playing cards, glasses, boxes, drawings, combs, knives, inkwells, quill pens, animals & other things, everything so life-like, that the eye was deceived, and the mind tricked, into deeming real what was in fact painted.'

Illusory cabinets and wooden boards displaying typical objects became a favorite framing device for trompe-l'oeil painters. And it is one that has been found perennially useful into modern times, as is manifested here by some arresting works: among them Henri Cadiou's 'Factory Locker' (1970), where the illusion is enhanced by a fake open locker door, with a trompe-l'oeil cut-out of a pin-up girl seemingly stuck onto it, and Jacques Poirier's 'Artnica' (1997), an astonishing, visually and linguistically ingenious, modern cabinet of bric-a-brac, in which the objects, depicted with photographic accuracy, form an intricate crossword puzzle.

William Michael Harnett (1848-92) is represented here by 'Still-life With Pipe and New York Herald' and other key pieces that highlight the vitality of 19th- and 20th-century American trompe-l'oeil painting, which became a genuinely popular art form often displayed in bars and hotels. Harnett attracted the attentions of the Treasury Department with his convincing image of an old $5 bill stuck on a wall. He was accused of forgery and his dollar paintings seized.

Harnett considered himself a still-life rather than trompe-l'oeil artist, but he inspired a rich crop of American illusionistic followers, and depictions of dollar banknotes - often with ironic and satirical intent - became a staple of the local genre. This lack of confidence in the economy is most elaborately expressed here in Otis Kaye's 1937 'D-JIA-VU? (The Stock Market),' in which the rise and fall of the markets is traced in a graph composed of trompe-l'oeil dollar bills and busted bonds, the title punning on DJIA (Dow Jones Industrial Average) and the French phrase 'deja vu' to drive the point home.

The later sections of the show include a diverting array of three-dimensional trompe-l'oeil pieces: a first-century Roman 'Torso of a Barbarian,' of a rare, banded marble that takes on the appearance of an exotic striped garment; a second-century statuette of a 'Boy in a Toga,' that seems bronze, but is carved out of green basanite rock; Viennese porcelain painted to look like a wooden coffee service; a fake antique bronze head of Venus by Vettor Pisani cast in chocolate; and an Isabelle de Borchgrave Elizabethan costume created out of painted paper.

The exhibition concludes with some memorable pieces. Among them illusory Renaissance marble low-reliefs, painted on canvas, of the 'Dead Christ' by Giuseppe Molteni, and of Desiderio da Settignano's 'Young St. John the Baptist' by another, unknown, 19th-century Italian artist; and Etienne Moulineuf's late 18th-century, minutely realized painting of an engraving of Chardin's 'Le Benedicite,' with its trompe-l'oeil glass shattered and looking alarmingly as if it might fall out of its frame to the ground - master works of both painting and this intriguing genre.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024