The merry art of deceiving the eye

There is a corner at the very back of the artwork heaven where wrists and illusion rule. Few works of art can dispense with them entirely, and yet critics have consistently preached and abused them since the seventeenth century. Depicting paintings with a few pennies on the table or letters on a letter shelf in such a way that the viewer wanted to reach for them: that was wrong, they thought. Only shallow minds would indulge in that kind of enjoyment.

Nevertheless, there was always a market for enthusiasts willing to pay a lot of money for such small miracles. Specialists such as Wallerant Vaillant, Samuel van Hoogstraten and Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts were commissioned by international courts to supply art chambers and wonders with these examples of illusionism unpretentious, perfect in themselves. Trompe-l’oeil became the name by which they were referred to since the nineteenth century, a deception of the eye, after the title of a work which caused such a stir at the Paris Salon of 1800 that a barricade had to be built around it.

The creator was Louis Leopold Boilly (1761-1845), who had previously made a name for himself as a painter and chronicler of the changed social reality before and after the French Revolution. During the Terror of 1893 this became dangerous and he concentrated on paintings in which the viewer was deceived. The audience loved it. Criticism was exhausted in contempt for the vulgar vulgarity of this imitative art.

Subject group

It is a good example in the appealing exhibition catalogue Cubism and the trompe l’oeil tradition by Elizabeth Cowling (and others). In this, the old trompe-l’oeil art is juxtaposed with the works that Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris made between 1911 and 1915. In that period there was still a profession called peintre-decorateurs, painters who were good at creating decorative patterns, marble and wood imitations for the benefit of lavishly decorated interiors that you still encounter in the paintings of Vuillard and Matisse.

This professional group, including courses, factories and workshops specialized in a form of decoration, was quickly and decisively whipped from the temple of good taste precisely at the time when Picasso and Braque were operating. If one reads the terms in which it happened now, one can wonder at the hatred that was poured out on this innocent craft, so that the marble and wood imitations, the wrought iron scrolls and enamel tiles disappeared from the picture.

But Georges Braque came from a family business of house painters. He trained in Le Havre in the noble art of imitating wood grain and veined marble. Juan Gris started as a technical draftsman and illustrator for newspapers and magazines. Of the three, only Picasso had formal art training, from his father and at the Academy of Fine Arts in Barcelona.

But Picasso was very interested in it trouvailles as he called it. Since 1909, when he had the space in his studio on the Boulevard de Clichy, he collected commercial prints, so-called chromolithographs such as an advertisement for Pernod that could be found in all cafes. From Braque he learned some skills in making imitation materials. Braque probably had a collection of pattern books and manuals for the peintre decorator himself. Both collected postcards, as well as trompe-l’oeil paintings, which at the time were sold for little money in antique shops.

And so cubism emerges from this book as a kind of swan song of craftsmanship in the visual arts. All the Cubist works that are now among the greatest treasures in museums seem to have much in common with the despised genre of trompe-l’oeil. For example, when it comes to optical illusions and decorative patterns. In the book, Cowling continues as a detective to trace the motifs that appear in the early Cubist paintings. Grapes, guitars, playing cards, newspapers with half-broken text. In addition, the book offers an exhaustive amount of knowledge and worth knowing about typography, shadow play, wallpaper and all the others tricks of the trade who take part in this cheerful branch of art.

“We all know that art is fraud,” Picasso once said. “The artist must find the way to convince others of the truth of his lies.”

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