by Robert J. Hughes
Trompe-l'œil is that rare subset of art and fine arts where part of the fun in seeing it is in realizing you've been had.
Fakery rules. Wit is rewarded.
The museum of Decorative Arts in Paris – Les Arts Decoratifs – is running Trompe-L'œil: Imitations, Pastiches and other Illusions, a survey (mainly through the decorative arts) of this art that doesn't take itself seriously, one that only wants to deceive.
The craft of trompe-l'œil has always had something about it that we might now consider postmodern: it makes us aware of the unreality of our regard; it implicates us in the nature of what we're seeing, daring us to suspend belief at the same time as asking us to appreciate the illusion for its illusory quality.
Trompe-l'œil also demonstrates an artist's skill at representing life, perspective, artifacts with unerring precision. The old Greek story about trompe-l'œil talks about a contest between two painters about which of them could depict something most realistically. The still life that Zeuxis painted was so convincing, the story goes, that birds flew down from the sky to peck at the grapes he'd painted; he then asked rival Parrhasius to pull back the tattered curtains that hid his painting so it could be judged; the curtains, of course, were painted, were trompe-l'œil fabrications – and Parrhasius won.
You won't be tempted to peck at the grapes here, but you will marvel at the variety of illusions on display, in furniture, ceramic, clothing, painting, photography and jewelry, as well as the exuberance of the commercial possibilities for trompe-l'œil, found in the catalogs for flooring of fake wood or fake tile, of wallpaper that simulated much richer materials.
The exhibition is divided into a series of rooms that take on aspects of trompe-l'œil, from optical illusions to playful clothing that toils with reality, to glassware that represents ceramic, to metals that represent other metals.
At Les Arts Decoratifs are samples of trompe-l'œil wallpaper, borders from the 19th century that seem to depict tassels, flooring from the same era and even well into the mid-20th century that evokes tile or wood. Furniture seems to be sculptural representations of itself (a bureau that conceals another bureau, a drawer that's not a drawer).
Then we have the clothing (or not). A photograph from 1973 shows a young man sitting at a café, wearing what could be an open-collared shirt that turns out to be a rendering of a shirt on his skin; it's trompe-l'œil as performance art (trompe-l'œil isn't an art for contemplation: it's a kind of theater of the absurdity of illusion). An Elsa Schiaparelli pullover mimics playfully the colors and details of a blouse. A white Hermès dress from 1952 has "painted" lapels and pockets. This kind of mirage in cloth dates, in France, from the second half of the 18th century, as manufacturing grew more sophisticated, and also as a court of games, appearance and heightened unreality allowed for the kind of visual punning in which trompe-l'œil delights. Trompe-l'œil effects were used for wallpaper, textiles, clothing: illusions on which to sit, to gaze and to wear.
This continued out of court and into the showroom and home. In the room labeled, "À la manière de…" or in the manner of, you can see works from the late 19th century where glass stands in for enameled ceramic, such as a beautiful vase from about 1884 that evokes Islamic art. In another room, "Ça trompe enormément" (it tricks you in a big way), there's a footstool that seems to be three large books, whose "cover" opens up to reveal a beautiful brocaded interior: these volumes are meant for storage rather than reading.
The purpose of these non-reproduction reproductions was to show the difference between real and fake, but also to show that a fake could be just as elaborately constructed (perhaps more so) than the so-called real item. A trompe-l'œil reproduction of an Islamic vase might lack the originating spark of creativity that drove the Islamic artisan to create the object, but the reproduction has its own energy. You wouldn't feel cheated were you to own the glass enameled vase in place of the ceramic one.
Some trompe-l'œil, though, works better as an idea than otherwise. The plate of asparagus, a head of cabbage are shiny like porcelain, and don't gleam with the fresh dew of actual vegetables: this is not a green bean. They're not really that real, and are rather like representations of food in the manner of some of today's molecular gastronomy that tampers with, say, a tomato to arrive at some sort of platonic ideal of a tomato (though you can't get better than a real summer tomato, so the point is mere culinary fussiness rather than actual artistry, just as in this case the trompe-l'œil is more amusing than rewarding).
Some of the clothing, such as a shirt from Jean-Paul Gaultier that seems to depict a naked torso under a tight t-shirt, are more for the runway than the street, rather like a video installation one might regard for a few moments at a gallery than a film a moviegoer might pay money to see in a theater.
But overall, the fakery is a delight. When artists seek to deceive, they do so to trick us out of our awareness that the world around us is real. Who's to decide, after all, what is or is not?
—Robert J. Hughes
(Image at top right: Plaque murale en forme de cage à oiseau recouverte d’une tente verte, Delft, vers 1780 ; © Les Arts Décoratifs / Photo : Jean Tholance; All images courtesy Les Arts Décoratifs)