Trompe-lil is distinguished not just by its realism after all, still life, perspective painting and photography can all claim to be realistic but by its wit. In the best trompe-lil the artist deliberately sets out to trick you, and then lets you know you have been tricked. The exhibition "Genuine Illusions: The Art of Trompe-l'il" celebrates the charm, irony and sometimes irreverence of trompe-lil, from antiquity to the present day. This is epitomized by the very first work that the visitor will encounter, Pere Borrell del Casos painting of a young boy escaping from the rigid confines of a gilded frame.
The major international exhibition "Genuine Illusions: Masterpieces of trompe-lil" from antiquity to the present at the Bucerius Kunst Forum
, from February 13 is exceptional for the extent to which it invites the visitor to explore both the art and the neuroscience behind the fabulous illusionistic artworks on display.
Some 140 exhibits cover the entire history of trompe-lil from classical Rome to the present day and, while painting predominates, the art of optical illusion is explored through other disciplines in which it has played a major role throughout European art history, including sculpture and the applied arts such as inlaid furniture, pietre dure and ceramics. It will also be notable for looking at the ways in which the senses sight, touch, hearing, even smell can be deceived by misleading the brain.
The first section of the exhibition follows "In the Footsteps of Zeuxis and Parrhasius" illustrating the origins of painterly illusionism in Greek and Roman art, in particular the famous anecdote recounted by Pliny the Elder of a competition between two famous Greek painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis painted bunches of grapes that looked so real birds pecked at them while Parrhasius deceived even the trained eye of Zeuxis himself who, when confronted with a curtain painted by Parrhasius, tried to draw it aside to see the painting which he thought lay behind it. The popularity of this story in the 16th and 17th-centuries prompted many painters including Titian to try their hand at intriguing variations on the theme.
The mimetic tradition in ancient art is represented by several Roman wall paintings but the main focus of the exhibition begins with the 15th-century when the inspiring spirit of ancient art was reborn and the revolutionary innovation of scientific perspective was devised by theoreticians and artists in Italy. The encounter between Italian 15th-century perspective and the meticulous rendering of reality that Flemish artists were developing at the same time led to the birth of true trompe-lil, a painted image intended to deceive. The Flemish masters in the late 15th and early 16th-centuries were the first to adopt the still life as a subject for their painting and paved the way for the popularity and spread of a genre that was to reach new heights in the 17th-century.
When does naturalism in painting cross over into optical deception? Still Life or Trompe-lil? attempts to answer by juxtaposing pictures of similar subjects from both perspectives. A classic 17th-century still life with fruit is hung beside one painted by Cornelis Gijsbrechts, a 17th-century Flemish painter who was a master in the art of deceptive painting. His canvas with its still life is not the subject of the painting, it is in the painting itself, where we see it hanging on a wall in the artists studio, a corner of the canvas peeling away from its frame.
In the section "Outside and Inside the Painting", the artists probe the ambiguity of the relationship between painted and real space. The painting absorbs real accessories from the space around it such as the paper it is wrapped in or the picture frame, as seen in a panel by Francesco del Cossa (c.1435-c.1477). In a still life with birds by the Flemish painter Michael Bechtel, the label with its caption has become part of the picture. "St. Mark the Evangelist" by Andrea Mantegna (c.1431-1506) is one of the very first instances of this technique and four centuries later the distraught-looking boy painted by Catalan artist Pere Borrell del Caso in 1874 is clutching the frame as though he were trying to escape from the canvas.
The next section is devoted to "Wunderkammer: the Cabinet of Curiosities", cabinets that open their illusory inner spaces to hold everyday objects or sophisticated collections of objets dart and natural curiosities. These include a masterpiece of the genre, a painting of the scarabattolo or glass cabinet which belonged to Grand Prince Ferdinando de Medici. Painted in Florence in the second half of the 17th-century by Domenico Remps, it depicts both naturalia and artificialia from the Medici collections. Some of these objects have been traced and are also on show in the exhibition including a bizarre skull with coral branches and various turned ivory objects on loan from the Museo degli Argenti.
Just as trompe-lil objects can be stored away in cupboards or cabinets, they can hang on the wall as they would in real life. This is another of the more common themes in trompe-lil art which began with the wall decorations in the Roman domus. The section entitled "Suspended Between Reality and Illusion" explores this genre, showing false walls or doors from which hang the sumptuous accessories of court life, or the more modest accoutrements of everyday working life. Cabinets and hooked panels with objects hanging from them continued to test the skill of artists throughout the centuries, appearing in more everyday versions, many of them tinged with irony, by painters of the American school in the late 19th-century. Their number includes such masters as John Frederick Peto, William Harnett and John Haberle and the exhibition offers visitors a rare opportunity to view their work in Europe. A deliberate provocation and a masterly piece of deception is the cabinet painted by French realist artist Henri Cadiou (1906-1989) who counters the sophistication of his 17th-century forerunners and the bourgeois self-possession of his 19th-century predecessors with the proletarian reality of the cabinet/wardrobe of a laborer, whose objet dart is a pin-up.
As far back as the 15th-century, painters were fond of depicting paper objects hanging on walls. Indeed the theme enjoyed such currency that a whole section entitled "Playing with Cards" has been devoted to it. Letters, bills, folders, etchings, printed sheets and playing cards lend themselves to imaginative combinations and simulations not only in paintings but also in tables in wood, scagliola or semi-precious stones portraying an assortment of papers and documents lying on them to trick the viewer who is prompted to reach out and seize objects that cannot be grasped.
In the section entitled "Domestic Mirages", the ultimate illusional challenge of portraying people and animals is addressed. Two-dimensional Sculpture identifies another thematic vein in illusionistic painting. Over the centuries, artists have used monochrome figures painted on canvas or wood to deceive the viewer into thinking that he is looking at sculptures or marble bas-reliefs.
The largest section of the exhibition "Self-Portrait of an Illusion" is devoted to easel painting, the ultimate art of deception. There are still lifes showing the tools of the painters trade in keeping with the laws of illusory artifice and more explicit vanities where, amid the brushes and palettes, we can perceive skulls which are sometimes directly displayed by the artists in their trompe-lil self-portraits. In reflecting on its own nature, painting smugly enjoys its ability to deceive but at the same time strikes a note of regret over the vanity of mere appearances. The frequency with which the theme of an empty framed picture or one seen from behind occurs from the 17th century onwards is very telling.
"Beguiling Reading" is a small section devoted to the illusionistic effect of decoration in manuscripts and the theme of the manuscript per se. This is exemplified by a 15th-century painting that opens the pages of an illuminated codex and a wooden choir lectern with an inlaid choir book open and ready for the choristers to take up their positions.
Three-dimensional "Deception" comprises sculptures and objects which share a penchant for camouflage. They include the hyper-realism of wax portraits of members of the aristocracy in all their finery, a fashionable genre up to the 19th-century, and the plastic humanoids of contemporary American sculptors as well as the anatomical and botanical wax sculptures devised under the Enlightenment for teaching purposes and the playful artifice of containers shaped to resemble their contents, fashionable in the golden age of European porcelain.
The section called "Materials in Disguise" presents a selection of these marvels. Sumptuous embroidered silk altar frontals are really made of scagliola gypsum, stone slippers are as tantalising as they would be uncomfortable to wear, and rustic wooden buckets are as fragile as the porcelain from which they are made. Starting with classical Roman sculptures that use the natural colors of stone to imitate bronze or folds of cloth, the display also includes later pieces of porcelain that appear to be carved out of wood, and leather tiles carved in stone.
The exhibition ends with a section entitled "Architectural Illusion". While architecture played a crucial and spectacular role in the art of deception, it can only be briefly evoked in this exhibition. A detached fresco in which the wall has been erased, offering a view onto lush gardens, represents a form of illusionistic decoration that originated in Rome and was behind every subsequent development in the genre. It is echoed by several detached Baroque frescoes, large-scale sketches and mock-ups for the decoration of indoor areas as well as the absorbing experiments of a number of contemporary artists.