Our hubris regarding realism

[ This paper was written in November 2012 to highlight the central irony of realistic painting. ]

Naively, we artists often expect our familiarity with art to protect us from its tricks; like wise fools, we fall prey to its more disingenuous incarnations.  As a prime example, consider the paradox of realistic painting.  It pretends to be a straightforward record of observable objects, but prevaricates from start to finish.  Hyperrealism,  photorealism, and trompe l’oeil painting are distinct and underestimated art styles which collectively challenge preconceptions about the nature of reality and perception at least as incisively, intelligently, and self-consciously as any other modern or postmodern art style.

Trompe l’oeil [1] is defined by its consistent strategy:  convince viewers that they see something with more substance or depth than a two-dimensional picture plane.  Trompe l’oeil painting takes advantage of what John Berger’s Ways of Seeing describes as unique strengths of oil painting.  He argues that “what distinguishes oil painting from any other form of painting is its special ability to render the tangibility, the texture, the lustre, the solidity of what it depicts” (88).  Jean Baudrillard speaks of “…the intelligence of trompe l’oeil, which is one of seduction” (Simulacra and Simulation, 106).  Artists have often used trompe l’oeil to force viewers to confront their senses’ fallibility.  Of such painting, Baudrillard explains:

It claims to be [more real as it approaches the perfection of the simulacrum], but paradoxically, has the opposite effect:  to render us sensitive to the fourth dimension as a hidden truth, a secret dimension of everything, which suddenly takes on all the force of evidence. (107)

It is hardly hyperbole when he describes such art as transgressive (108).  It overstrains credulity, and thus exhausts it.


Fig. 1. Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts. Vanitas Still Life. Oil on canvas. 17th c. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

With 17th century vanitas painting (Fig. 1), this empty illusion echoed the artwork’s overall denunciation of matter’s substantiality by highlighting its transitoriness and concomitant unimportance.  Skulls, broken instruments, timepieces, guttering candles, and other memento mori frequently symbolized time’s destructive and inescapable power.  A critical aspect of such paintings was to demonstrate the untrustworthiness of seductive materiality and surface appearances.  The paintings must fool us in order to shake up our trust in established value systems; the process of being tricked momentarily by a painting posed a microcosm of how quotidian concerns mislead.

“Yes, yes, we get it,” cries the modern artistic chorus, “trompe l’oeil was relevant in the distant past.”  Trompe l’oeil painting was powerfully employed for religious moralizing several centuries ago, but continues to have profound relevance.  Contemporary artists such as Alan Magee frequently paint in this manner to grapple with the limits and quirks of perception and imagination.  The harmonious gestalt reflects a ruthless inquisition into reality rather than a sentimental paean to pretty things.  Its too-common underestimation stems from the assumption that trompe l’oeil is a mere transcription of reality, which would indeed be redundant to photographs.  Magee’s Primer reads as a straightforward rendering of a used watercolor palette unless and until you notice that it is in fact an oil and acrylic painting.   His watercolor artworks display an equally high level of technical facility, so the contrast of medium and subject matter was clearly calculated.  Many trompe l’oeil paintings are misunderstood as a result of assumptions about the connection between a painting, its subject matter, and the process of its creation.

Throughout Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard contrasts images which have a “real” equivalent and those which are operational fantasies.  The canon of trompe l’oeil oil painting aligns more closely with Baudrillard’s discussions of simulations than simulacra. [2]  In his words, ”it is no longer a question of imitation, nor duplication, nor even parody.  It is a question of substituting the signs of the real for the real” (2).  He describes the “transgressive” nature of simulations as follows:  “What happens on the other side of the truth, not in what would be false, but in what is more true than the true, more real than the real? Bizarre effects certainly, and sacrileges, much more destructive of the order of truth than its pure negation” (108).  It is particularly subversive in its subtlety.

An ironic risk to this approach is that success renders itself invisible.  Competent trompe l’oeil works so smoothly that it resembles a cheap trick.  Some contemporary artists respond to this quality by undermining their own illusions; they are ventriloquists periodically reminding you that their wooden puppets never spoke.  Consider Juan Medina’s Never Quite Erased.  He employs foreshortened forms, casts shadows, and overlaps figures over the chalkboard frame to suggest three-dimensionality.  Flat linear treatment in other segments of the painting contradicts these elements.  Francine Van Hove sometimes depicts both rendered figures and preliminary drawings in the same painting. [3]  The former sometimes appear to interact with the latter, which absurdity underlines the artificiality of the entire illusion.

Berger wrote the following comments about art in general, but his words are particularly apt when applied to trompe l’oeil:

Images were first made to conjure up the appearances of something that was absent.  Gradually it became evident that an image could outlast what it represented; it then showed how something or somebody had once looked…Later still the specific vision of the image-maker was also recognized as part of the record. (10)

The trompe l’oeil painter’s worldview is the aspect of such painting which elevates it from craft to art.   We artists scoff at naive museum-goers who greet abstract expressionist masterpieces with the facile catchprase:  “My five year old could do that.”  Then, in front of trompe l’oeil, we make the same mistake.  To quote René Magritte’s The Treason of Images, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”  Those of us who only see “pretty things painted in a pretty way” need to look (and think) again.

[ 1 ] Illusionistic approaches to realistic painting will subsequently be generalized as trompe l’oeil.  The French denotation of this style as one which fools the eye is its most apt description.

[ 2 ] As Baudrillard uses the terms, a simulacra substitutes for another thing or idea (or masks its absence).  A simulation is purely self-referential.

[ 3 ] “Ces dessins-là ne sont pas du dessin, mais des objets parmi d’autres (chevalet, bols à thé ou lampes)….These drawings are not drawings, but objects among others (easels, tea mugs or lamps)” (Van Hove).

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation. Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. Print.

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. New York: The Viking Press, 1973. Print.

Gijsbrechts, Cornelis Norbertus. Vanitas Still Life. 17th c. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. ARTstor. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.

Magritte, René. The Treason of Images. 1929. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles. ARTstor. Web. 29 Oct. 2012.

Magee, Alan. Alan Magee: Paintings, Sculptures, Graphics. New York: Forum Gallery, 2003. Print.

Medina, Juan. Never Quite Erased. ND. Juan Medina: A Language. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.

Van Hove, Francine. Les trois singes. Private collection, France. 2004. Van Hove. Web. 23 Oct. 2012.

–. “Dessins peints.” Van Hove. Web. 25 Oct. 2012. <http://www.francinevanhove.com/selection/Dessins%20peints.&gt;

2 thoughts on “Our hubris regarding realism

  1. Pingback: More recursion | works and progress

  2. Pingback: What (besides the obvious) do you gain from copying? | works and progress

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s