Perspective is put to the test in the new exhibition Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
By James D. Balestrieri
Cubism, like Trompe l’Oeil painting, with which it is paired in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition, “Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition”, seems like a magic trick, fooling the viewer’s eye. The magic of Trompe l’Oeil—which is French for “trick of the eye”—rests on the use of deft techniques to create an illusion of reality so real that the eye believes a painting of an object, or group of objects, to be those objects in actuality. The magic of Cubism, on the other hand, lies in its intentional denial of representation at the exact moment when the viewer’s eye expects and looks for it. In other words, where Trompe l’Oeil painting fools the viewer’s eye into a mode where “seeing is believing,” Cubism takes the opposite tack—“now you see it, now you don’t”—exposing the tricks of perspective while replacing them with its own legerdemain.
Despite these differences, with a wide variety of seminal, splendid artworks and a meticulously researched catalogue, “Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition” makes a persuasive argument for Trompe l’Oeil painting as a crucial antecedent of Cubism. What’s more, the exhibition also links three principal pioneers of the form—Pablo Picasso, George Braque and Juan Gris—with the artisanal tradition of decorative house painting, in which skilled artisans painted faux wood grain, marble, mouldings and fixtures.
The origins of the Trompe l’Oeil tradition lie in the still life, which came into its own in the late Renaissance when the plastic arts in Europe began to detach from the church and become part of the culture of the nascent bourgeoisie. In the academies, still life was relegated to the lowest rung of the aesthetic ladder, below heroic and mythical painting, portraiture and landscape, and still life painters straddled the fine and decorative arts. This ambivalence about the genre opened the field to some of the first women painters whose names we know: Fede Galizia and Clara Peeters, to give two examples. Yet, as the exhibition makes clear, Cubism’s formative period, despite its rebellion against representation and the academy, was an all-male preserve.
The last vestige of Christian spirituality in the still life can be found in the vanitas, a popular sub-genre of 16th– and 17th-century painting. Often featuring a skull, dead flowers and the trappings of worldly life: money, gold and silver objects, and rich textiles, globes, these paintings move still life in the direction of Trompe l’Oeil painting. Artists strove to render these objects with absolute fidelity or employed optical illusions to distort them—thus revealing their essence as illusory and sinful snares. The transition to pure still life painting can be seen in French painter J. S. Bernard’s 1657 painting Still Life with Violin, Ewer, and Bouquet of Flowers. Dead flowers, half-peeled and half-eaten fruit, and half empty glasses recall the vanitas, as do the sundry sumptuous objects. But the overall effect suggests that perhaps we should enjoy life’s abundance while we can rather than dwell on the evanescence of life and the eternal peril of our mortal souls. The work is more formal invitation than cautionary tale. Tellingly, Bernard’s painting features many of the elements that will occupy the Cubists: musical instruments, grapes, tables, beverages.
In a bid to elevate the status of the still life, painters developed techniques that would make viewers think they were seeing actual objects. Stories abound of patrons reaching out to grab letters, pens, coins and other objects, only to find that they had been taken in by very artful deceit. Trompe l’Oeil added the sense of touch to vision. Cubism restores this possibility, but in a different way. Consider Braque’s Violin and Sheet Music: “Petit Oiseau”, from early 1913; Gris’s 1914 construction Still Life: The Table; and Picasso’s Still life with Compote and Glass, composed circa 1914-5. The eye wants to direct the hand to confirm its perceptions of objects that appear to have some dimensionality. You want to run your fingers over the wood grain in Braque’s Violin. You want to pull the book and key from Gris’s Table. You want to pull Picasso’s stippled papers from his Still Life. You want to tilt the works to see if three-dimensional contours reveal themselves. But the objects don’t resolve into any reality we know. They overlap, transform and morph before we can correlate their parts into discreet objects. “Now you see it, now you don’t” is the operative phrase.
Cubism makes your eye extend your hand, then withdraw it. The picture plane only seems folded, wrinkled, rounded; its elements only seem to jut out at the viewer in bas-relief. In this, Cubism and Trompe l’Oeil share a great deal. As Emily Braun writes in her catalogue essay, “Visual Mischief”: “The Trompe l’Oeil apparatus projects outward from the background plane of the canvas into the space of the viewer, [in] a spectacular reversal of the principal convention of Western illusionism.” In contrast, however, Gris, Braque and Picasso build downward, as it were, from the imagined space above the support to the support itself. Actual textures or dimensionality—sand, say—represent the artist’s desire to add tactility to the work—which is almost never the case with Gris, who was more in line with the Trompe l’Oeil painters in his insistence that his precise illusions come to rest on smooth surfaces.
Circling back to origins, a 1665 painting by Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts, The Attributes of the Painter, reveals other elements that will preoccupy the Cubists: pictures within pictures; corners of papers—with legible texts—folded over; tacks; nails; strings; wood grain; pipes. Then, Louis-Léopold Boilly’s Trompe l’Oeil, painted circa 1799-1803, looks like a small round tabletop with scattered coins and letters waiting to be snatched up. Boilly’s witty works created a sensation, yet, as Braun writes in the catalogue, “After the genre’s high point of reputation in the Baroque period, when it delighted princely courts, the pursuit of illusion and deception was perceived by sophisticated critics and collectors as a crowd-pleasing stunt, an assertion underscored by press reports of actual reactions to the pictures. Much to their chagrin, people enjoyed being tested or fooled and genuinely admired the mimetic skills of the artist.”
Photography challenged realism in the 19th century and the Trompe l’Oeil tradition receded, except in the United States, where William Michael Harnett, John Peto, John Haberle and others found the genre a fit vehicle to cast shadows on American ideals of solidity and stability, and to satirize everything from bachelorhood to American monetary policy. While the exhibition only mentions the American “hanging game” still life genre (with game birds and animals painted in Trompe l’Oeil fashion on faux barn doors with hunting horns, rifles and the ubiquitous tacks, nails and strings) and the catalogue suggests that the Cubists had little or no knowledge of American Trompe l’Oeil, the connection has been made before. Alfred Frankenstein’s 1953 book on American Trompe l’Oeil, After the Hunt, for example, quotes Edith Halpert, director of New York’s Downtown Gallery in her notes on a 1939 exhibition titled “Nature-Vivre”: “We marvel at the fact that that he [Harnett] anticipated a style practised today by the vanguard in France and in this country… But it is Harnett’s combination of meticulous realism with an arbitrary juxtaposition of unrelated objects that may be said to provide a link between Dutch art of the seventeenth century and surrealism of the twentieth.” There may well be much more to uncover here.
While the progression from impressionism to Paul Cézanne’s Cubism—that is, creating sculpted masses with color—seems organic, the progression from Cézanne to Picasso, Braque and Gris seems explosive.
“Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition”, however, tempers this sense of sudden, radical newness by delving deeply into Cubism’s roots in decorative painting, especially through the figure of Braque, whose family were prominent house painters. Braque trained in the faux techniques of the “peintre-decorateur” and these became central to his Cubist inventions. He, in turn, communicated these to his collegial rivals, Picasso and Gris, who would also adopt and adapt decorative techniques, incorporating faux chair cane, woodgrain and other wallpapers, newspaper texts and ads, sand, mirrors and other objects into their papier collé—collage—compositions.
Where Braque descended from house painters, Gris’s formative years in his family’s stationery shop reveal his love of paper. Gris studied commercial art, and this, in turn, helps explain his interest in typefaces and graphic arts. Of the three, Picasso was the only trained artist, though it is worth noting that he was known for his mimicry from an early age. Against the strictures of the academies, all three sought inspirations in working-class arts and crafts and in readymade materials. Their works lead directly to Joseph Cornell, Louise Nevelson, Robert Rauschenberg and thousands of artists around the world; their collages and assemblages intersect with many folk and self-taught artists.
Mimesis, that is, the ability to imitate reality, makes even meaninglessness appear to possess meaning. Human beings are conditioned to make sense of sensations, to complete what appears incomplete, to correlate and make meaning. Perception itself is a kind of magic trick, one all artists play with and against. Just as the still life and the Trompe l’Oeil had been derided and demoted for their mass appeal, the artisanal origins of Cubism may account both for the initial, academic resistance to the form, and to the public fascination with it, a fascination that has never waned.
No aspect of modernism has permeated popular culture to the extent that Cubism has. When advertisers want to indicate or parody “modern” art in a museum or gallery, they invariably show something they think looks “Cubist.” Of all, the -isms inside modernism, why would Cubism have made such inroads into the human psyche? Perhaps because Cubism deceives in a playful, puzzling way that makes viewers look at these astonishing works again and again. Perhaps Cubism’s roots in Trompe l’Oeil and decorative painting—each of them trading in technical wizardry rather than aspiring to lofty, art-for-art’s-sake aims—formed an unconscious bond with a wider audience interested in design, and in making more—or the semblance of more—out of less. Faux marble is cheaper than the real thing, and the skill to paint an illusion of marble on a plastered wall is an artform, perhaps even more of a conversation starter than Carrera’s finest stone. After all, Trompe l’Oeil and faux painting is everywhere on the frescoed walls of Pompeii. Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition shows us that perception can always be called into question—even in art history. The exhibition reminds us that though we think we know what Cubism is, how it works, and where it belongs in the Western art tradition, that perception is, at best, incomplete, like the edge of a Braque violin. There is always more to see, and more to learn from what we see.