NO TENDENCY in painting has inspired as much experimentation among succeeding generations of modernist artists as Cubism. In the face of this legacy, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition” seeks to divert that future-oriented momentum by bending its trajectory backward—toward trompe l’oeil painting, a minor Western tradition that was practiced between the mid-seventeenth and nineteenth centuries and later devolved into a form of decoration. This curatorial thesis, launched with slim historical evidence but delivered in a seductive spectacle of gorgeous old-master paintings alongside striking Cubist works by Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso, cancels itself out from the start. In their introductory text panel, curators Emily Braun and Elizabeth Cowling acknowledge the obvious contradiction at the heart of their historical proposition: “One of the oldest forms of Western painting, trompe l’oeil . . . would seem to have little in common with the anti-illusionism of the Cubists; this exhibition reveals otherwise. A self-referential art that calls attention to its own artifice, trompe l’oeil, like Cubism, involves the viewer in perceptual and psychological games that complicate definitions of reality and authenticity.” Such a dependence upon self-referentiality as a point of comparison proves specious, since trompe l’oeil is not self-referential in the same way as Cubism. As part of a multipronged strategy of formal self-referentiality or recursiveness, Cubist works may (for instance) disengage the technique of shading from its traditional charge of evoking volume, while trompe l’oeil depends upon a seamless mimetic faithfulness that is precisely what Cubism sought to systematically deconstruct. If trompe l’oeil is self-referential, it is on the level of its content—e.g., an artist might include witty allusions to their own everyday life in the painted simulation of a letter rack. In short, in trompe l’oeil, self-referentiality occurs in the register of iconography, but for it to succeed in its deception, its execution cannot be formally self-referential, because that would ruin the illusion. Cubism, on the other hand, depends upon an explicit recursive formalism in which one visual language contradicts and erodes another.
In relation to the different modes of address that trompe l’oeil and Cubist paintings establish toward their presumed viewers, the curators’ recourse to self-referentiality is equally flawed. The pleasure of viewing a trompe l’oeil painting does not lie in being deceived for long. Even in the unlikely case that a spectator is authentically taken in by the visual conceit that a hyperrealistic painting is the represented thing itself, this misrecognition can hardly last forever, nor is it meant to. On the contrary, the pleasure of trompe l’oeil is the pleasure of being deceived while simultaneously knowing better—it is a pleasure of the perfect simulation that a viewer can master by recognizing that this illusion of reality is nothing more than a dazzling performance of virtuosity. If the viewer of a trompe l’oeil painting enjoys being at once deceived and not deceived, the spectator of Cubist paintings must suffer the discomfort of not knowing and not mastering what is in view. Unlike trompe l’oeil, Cubism does not merely stage a miscellaneous collection of ordinary things on a wall or tabletop. It performs the collision and confrontation of many distinct visual languages at once—including an occasional trompe l’oeil device such as faux bois, which Braque had learned as an apprentice in decorative painting, or an illusionistic nameplate. Such devices are certainly present in Cubist works, but if one implies that their inclusion “solves” the formal irresolution of Cubism, then one has lost the whole point of this modernist practice, which lies in the impossibility of adjudicating among the contradictory visual languages of, for instance, pointillism, advertising, newsprint, chiaroscuro, and trompe l’oeil. Cubism always flirts with the void through the disappearance or collapse of form. Trompe l’oeil, on the other hand, depends upon an absolute plenitude, a simulation of a rich material world over which the presumed owner feels a proprietary pleasure. To use the term self-referential is to paper over the fundamental structural differences between the pleasure of being deceived as a pleasure of possession in trompe l’oeil (possession, that is, of both a painting and the kinds of things represented in it) and the disabuse (or abuse) of the eye’s capacity to discern truth, which is the dispossession from proprietary vision that Cubism performs. Braun herself quotes Picasso’s preemptive rebuttal of this thesis in her catalogue essay. She reports that in the mid-1940s Picasso told Françoise Gilot that the purpose of his papiers collés was “to give the idea that different textures can enter into composition to become the reality in the painting that competes with the reality in nature. We tried to get rid of trompe-l’oeil to find a trompe l’esprit. We didn’t any longer want to fool the eye; we wanted to fool the mind.”* Indeed, collage is the very antithesis of trompe l’oeil, as it replaces an illusion with the thing itself.
Election deniers and climate-change deniers and those who vote for or support them are engaged in their own form of trompe l’oeil.
THE IMPLAUSIBILITY at the heart of “Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition” causes one to wonder why this revision of modern art’s enduring disruptive capacity would be launched by a major New York museum in 2022. In other words, it calls for an old-fashioned ideology critique. To this purpose, it is useful to recall the last major instance of an exhibition purporting to demonstrate the affinity between modern painting and an “alien” tradition—the notorious “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and Modern” organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1984. The exhibition was roundly and justly criticized in this magazine and elsewhere for, first, deploying the slippery notion of affinity (based on formal resemblance and often indirect or incomplete evidence linking a tribal object with a modern painting) as an analytic tool and, second, disregarding the historical and cultural contexts of traditional objects from diverse societies of the Global South. In the rhetoric of their display, the “tribal” objects included in the “Primitivism” exhibition were made subsidiary to Western modernism in a stunningly tone-deaf act of cultural appropriation. Like this precursor, the Met exhibition depends upon affinities that, as I have argued, are based on superficial and generalized forms of comparison that mask the profound gulf between trompe l’oeil and Cubism. But in the end, it is more disturbing to reflect on the differences between the two exhibitions. While the “Primitivism” show was deeply problematic, its intention was to open Western painting to a global universe of form in which the arts of Africa, Native America, and Oceania were acknowledged as significant contributors to European modernism. While this effort was flawed, it generated important debates and further historical work on Europe’s aesthetic debt to the Global South, not least in relation to the legacy of imperialism. The Met’s exhibition, on the other hand, positions Cubism as a fully European phenomenon, suggesting that it is nothing more (or less) than a revision of a minor old-master tradition.
But we need to press further to understand the ideological specificity of this exhibition, because there are many alternate ways to claim Picasso, at least, as a European artist embedded in the Western tradition. His reanimation of harlequins reminiscent of Watteau, or his embrace of the realism of Ingres and a ponderous lumpen classicism following the moment of Cubism, are just the most obvious examples of a consistent citational strategy. Why take trompe l’oeil as a privileged historical forebear? One possible answer is that in 2022 we are mired in a toxic politics of trompe l’oeil. I have defined this aesthetics as a means of taking pleasure in being deceived while knowing better all along. In other words, election deniers and climate-change deniers (like David H. Koch, who donated $65 million for the lovely fountains and plaza one passes by when entering the Met) and those who vote for or support them are engaged in their own form of trompe l’oeil, the master of which is of course Donald Trump. To lie, and for everyone to know that one is lying—whether about lost elections or the effects of global warming—is precisely how American politics works right now. Why the Met would want to exalt this strategy as the key to one of the foundational tendencies of modernism is beyond me. Or perhaps the reason is as obvious as any other counterfeit illusion.
*Quoted in Emily Braun, “Visual Mischief,” in Emily Braun and Elizabeth Cowling, Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition, exh. cat. (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2022), 33.
David Joselit is Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Art, Film, and Visual Studies at Harvard. His most recent book is Heritage and Debt: Art in Globalization (MIT Press, 2020).