Why Trompe l’Oeil? The art of deception across the boundaries of time and space

Stacey Pierson, SOAS University of London, sp17@soas.ac.uk

Chih-En Chen, SOAS University of London, c_chen@soas.ac.uk

Trompe l’oeil, meaning ‘deceiving the eye’, describes works of art and objects with illusionistically beguiling surfaces and forms. The production of such works can now be identified as a global historical phenomenon, with a broad array of examples ranging from the familiar Palissy wares, to Edward Collier’s writing implements painting, to Chinese jade cabbages that have been challenging the material experience of visuality and countervisuality for hundreds of years. However, despite its long history of production, the ontology of trompe l’oeil artistic production and the reasons behind this illusory invention remain unexplored. Engaging with the concept of trompe l’oeil in expanded art-historical and visual fields of enquiry, across time and space, would allow us to probe the evolution of the pursuit of deceptive visual representation and the consumption of deceitful things in relation to both heuristic and contextual frames such as politics, religion, society and the economics of production.

Accordingly, ‘why trompe l’oeil?’ will be the fundamental question addressed in this session. Papers might explore how different types of global trompe l’oeil art production have shaped the ways in which such art is produced, dispersed, consumed and conceptualised. Moreover, other artificial approaches to representing reality that developed alongside the concept of trompe l’oeil, such as Skeuomorphism, Cubism, Indeterminism, Naturalism, might also be considered. The primary aim of the session is to expose the rationale and motivation for trompe l’oeil art production by considering its different forms from a trans-historical and trans-spatial perspective and we invite papers that explore this through a range of different perspectives and methodological approaches.

Speakers & Abstracts

Narcissus’ Pool and the Reflection of Deceptive Art in Pompeii

Abigail Walker (King’s College London)

In the modern world, the myth of Narcissus has been subsumed into psychoanalytical narratives of narcissism; in antiquity, though, the story had an abundance of meanings, one of which concerned the art of deception. My paper will concentrate on the myth’s depiction in 1st-century Roman wall-painting from Pompeii, where the rivalry between art and nature, which lies at the heart of trompe l’oeil, was consciously theorised through the figure of Narcissus.

My paper will begin with an outline of the Narcissus paintings from Pompeii and the interaction between art and nature in the Roman townhouse. It will then look at a few examples that interrogate Narcissus’ delusion and the pool’s deception. In the Casa dell’Ara Massima, for instance, the Narcissus image, which is surrounded by an illusionistic, wooden frame, is reflected in the real water of a nearby fountain, just as Narcissus’ face is reflected in the painted pool. A visitor to the house, therefore, confronts Narcissus and his deceptive reflection, within a watery pool that also reflects their own face.

My research investigates the potential Narcissus provided to Roman artists for thinking about the interaction between art and nature in the pool’s illusionistic reflection. In the examples discussed in this paper, I will illustrate the clash between Narcissus’ belief in the mimetic reflection, and the natural, fluid element of the water itself. This paper will consider how Roman wall-painters mocked Narcissus for believing in the illusionistic image and, simultaneously, dared the viewer to fall into the same trompe l’oeil trap.

Sight, Presence and Feeling: Trompe l’oeil and the evocation of empathy in late Medieval and early modern art

Susan Barahal (Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Massachusetts, USA)

Elizabeth Pugliano (University of Colorado Denver College of Arts & Media, Colorado, USA)

The shift towards ever-increasing illusionism across artistic media features prominently in narratives of late medieval and early modern art in Europe. Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, painting and sculpture adopted – in whole or part – an aesthetic of illusionism that both visually captivated viewers and played with boundaries and notions of representation and reality. Considering late medieval and early modern examples of trompe l’oeil in a transmedia perspective, this co-authored paper positions the adoption of trompe l’oeil within the broader empathic concerns of the period. Trickery and illusory deception, which both demonstrated skill and delighted viewers, seem likely motivations for the astounding examples of illusionism preserved from these centuries (and no doubt played some role in trompe l'oeil's appeal and re-emergence at this time). However, we contend that trompe l'oeil also served as a means to evoke empathic responses in viewers, and thereby operated as one strategy among many employed to foster emotional engagement with the work of art.

Our investigation ties instances of trompe l’oeil in manuscript borders and panel painting to being like illusionism in both three-dimensional production and practices of engaged piety such as passion plays and Sacri Monti tableaux that challenged, blurred and collapsed distinctions between images, objects, representation, reality and performance. Within this context that prized affective engagement and personal connection, we argue that trompe l’oeil, as an artistic device that both links and transcends representation and presence, fulfilled the empathic interests of late medieval and early modern patrons and artists.

Beyond Trompe l'Oeil: John Singleton Copley's vital portraits in enlightened Boston

Caroline Culp (Stanford University, USA)

Many observers described the uncanny human presence of John Singleton Copley’s (1738-1815) hyper-real portraits in near-speaking terms during the artist’s lifetime and long after his death. Since the Grecian age, illusionism of this kind had been a standard aim in representational art. But the wonder inspired by Zeuxis’s painting of grapes so real that birds pecked at them is not, I argue, the class of success accomplished by colonial America’s preeminent portraitist. This paper investigates the ways in which Copley’s uncanny works move beyond realism’s trope of trompe l’oeil illusionism to capture a true index of a sitter’s presence. As a self-taught painter working in 18th-century Boston, Copley developed a technique called ‘tint matching’ in which he would use his palette-knife to match pigments to every part of a sitter’s face. Combining this indexical method with saturated blocks of colour and abrupt shifts in hue enhanced the presence and vivacity of his sitters. Considering these and other facets of the painter’s training and technique, I argue that the artist’s methods were motivated by a local belief in portraiture’s magical - even supernatural - powers. Painting in an age when the Enlightenment’s rationalising impulses developed alongside lingering occult beliefs in the universe’s order, Copley copied faces and fabrics with piercing intensity, labouring to pin down the fleeting effects of light. By reconsidering Copley’s portraits within an indexical framework, this paper explores the connections between trompe l’oeil painting and cultural belief in magic and idolatry during the revolutionary period of the 18th century.

Re-Mediation and Feminine Space in High Qing China

Chih-En Chen (SOAS University of London)

The current research fills the gap in the historiography of the manufacture and collecting activities of the works of art and the survey of Europeanerie, particularly, Long-18th-Century China, which could also be referred to as the High Qing era (1683–1839 CE). Europeanerie, or Occidenterie, which carries the account similar to its parallel term, Chinoiserie, in the Western context, is yet understudied in present scholarships. As the connection between Chinoiserie and feminine space has been demonstrated in numerous studies, this research will unveil a likewise fact that collecting Europeanerie was, surprisingly, not only a playful trend for the Qing imperial women living in the Forbidden City as enjoyment but also created a knowledge channel for them to the world of material culture and the science related to intermediality.

By attending not only to the nomenclature but also the characteristic of the Europeanerie objects, based on a process of re-contextualisation built upon Qing primary textual sources from the Archives of the Palace Museum Beijing and the National Palace Museum Taipei, this research aims to examine the connoisseurship and acceptance of the non-authentic, the Europeanerie assorted in High Qing China, and their female patrons behind the scenes.

Artificiality in the 18th-Century British Country House Dinner

Alyssa Myers (The Royal College of Art and the Victoria & Albert Museum)

The 18th-century British country house dinner operated as a consistently formal and unique ideological event. Designed through hierarchical rituals and an aesthetic precedence perpetuated through the à la française manner of dining, the formal dinner served as a stage of social conformity and artificiality. Through a material culture perspective rooted in consumption, trompe l’oeil Chelsea porcelain serves as a tool in which to explore these broader themes present in the dining room. For one, porcelain acted as a social agent in which to control and perpetuate elite behaviours through its delicate materiality. A materiality that reflected the elite ideals of polished politeness and Taste. Trompe l’oeil porcelain in particular, was typically used for the dessert course. In the case of the popular plaice tureens, for example, the savoury exterior would be in direct opposition to the sweet interior contents, adding an additional layer of artificiality and trickery. Secondly, trompe l’oeil dining ware reflected elite ideals of consumerism and the fetishisation of ‘things’. This is especially seen in the commoditisation of the liveried footmen present in the dining room and in the depiction of young African slaves in contemporaneous paintings of dining. Eighteenth-century letters and diaries, paintings and works on paper serve as the primary materials in which these ideas and concepts are explored. And a close engagement with the Chelsea trompe l’oeil porcelain underpins this research.

Relics and Replicas: John F. Peto’s Reminiscences of 1865

Hélène Valance (Université de Bourgogne Franche-Comté)

Reminiscences of 1865, John F. Peto’s 1904 homage to Abraham Lincoln, epitomises late-19th century America’s take on illusion, images and memory. The painting, displaying images, newspaper clippings, and currency affixed to a worn wooden door, stands at the convergence of two contradictory impulses. On the surface, it is a humble-looking monument to the memory of the assassinated president, made of everyday images and artefacts – a kind of democratic vanitas, eliciting nostalgia, and even sentimentality. Yet at the same time, this trompe l’oeil playfully admits the meretricious nature of these souvenirs: cheap, widely circulated images that are themselves reproductions of reproductions (the painting centres on an exact copy of a lithograph created after a photograph of Lincoln). Both truthful in its sentiment, and playful in its form, the painting oscillates between depicting ‘the real thing’, the relics of a bygone era, and debunking them as worthless replicas, images whose substance resides only in their appearance – or the copy thereof. It explicitly engages with the visual and material culture not only of its recent past, but also of its own time: 1904 is also the year when Lincoln’s log cabin was spectacularly recreated at the Saint Louis world’s fair, giving the national hero’s memory a tangible form, available to the crowds. Peto’s Reminiscences both alludes to and distances itself from this merging of relic and replica, at once indulging in and deriding the illusion that the past can remain accessible, to ‘all the people, all the time’.

Wassily Kandinsky and the Gestalt Laws of Visual Perception

Anne Grasselli (Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh, Scotland)

Wassily Kandinsky is an artist who is not typically associated with trompe l’oeil. However, concepts of optical illusions present themselves in his artworks and played a prominent role in his theories about abstraction. Kandinsky was developing these theories during the first decades of the 20th century when ideas about visual perception were being formulated by experimental psychologists and philosophers. These were also being tested by artists who were devising novel conceptions about abstraction as an optically and psychologically expressive means of communication. Kandinsky, who stands as a nexus where art and visual perception meet, relied on the use of optical manipulation and notions of trompe l’oeil as a means to structure his works of art and advance toward total abstraction.

Kandinsky’s artworks and writings ally him in many ways with works by Gestalt psychologists Max Wertheimer, Kurt Koffka and Wolfgang Köhler. The triumvirate’s theories on visual perception were developed whilst Kandinsky extensively studied in his own art and writings the optical effects of shapes, lines, colours and planes. There are resemblances between some of the diagrams he drew to illustrate his theories and those used to demonstrate Gestalt hypotheses about visual perception. What will be studied here is how, through the use of similar theories espoused by the Gestalt psychologists, Kandinsky produced a deeply intellectual art that was rich in visual and psychological sub-matter. He challenged how the viewer interprets spatial relationships, and his brilliantly wrought abstractions stand as an inimitable intersection of optical experimentation, illusion and art.

A Contemporary Take on Trompe l’Oeil: Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Mirror Paintings

Roberta Minnucci (University of Nottingham)

Since the 1960s, Italian artist Michelangelo Pistoletto has developed a personal interpretation of the pictorial genre of trompe l’oeil through his Quadri Specchianti (Mirror Paintings), mirroring surfaces of polished stainless steel with life-size photographic reproductions. Placing the mirrors on the floor, attached to a wall, the artist creates the illusion of an augmented space where the viewers suddenly find themselves immersed in an illusionist representation with which they are able to interact, in a ‘live’ dimension.

This paper aims at answering the panel’s question ‘Why Trompe l’Oeil?’ by investigating the reasons behind the choice of the visual deception in its contemporary interpretation by Pistoletto. It will explore the overlapping of different temporal and spatial dimensions as well as the tension between reality and representation, focusing on how different kinds of figures on the mirror relate to different reactions provoked in the beholder. An analysis of the Mirror Paintings will also address the challenges encountered by the genre of trompe l’oeil in the 20th century, when the visual illusion was no longer depicted using the traditional medium of painting, but by merging different expressive means including photography and performance.

As a consequence, my paper will analyse the innovations of the genre in combination with contemporary practices that enhanced its illusionistic potential from an optical dimension to a sensorial one, including the active participation of the viewer and the incorporation of the surrounding reality into the artwork.  






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