New YorkThe Metropolitan Museum Of Art
Cubism and the Trompe l'Oeil Tradition
October 20, 2022 – January 22, 2023
Since I’m reviewing the show of artworks that self-consciously tell seemingly convincing lies, let’s begin with a short (one paragraph) fictional story. 1
The planning committee at the Metropolitan Museum of Art faces a tough decision. Two good shows have been proposed, an exhibit of old master (sixteenth to nineteenth century) trompe l’oeil paintings and a display of Cubist collages. But there is only enough gallery space and catalogue budget for one exhibition, and so a hard choice has to be made. At that point a young curator proposes a brilliant solution: let the Met do just one presentation, with only one catalogue, “Cubism and the Trompe l'Oeil Tradition.” As she quickly notes, this show will be something more than the sum of its two parts.
Here is the true point to this little fiction. Cubism and the Trompe l'Oeil Tradition reveals important, far reaching parallels between trompe l’oeil paintings and Cubist collages. The subjects of these two kinds of pictures include a great variety of handicrafts, all of them small enough to be hand-held: sheets of wallpaper, notated music, chair caning, newspapers, mirrors, musical instruments, bits of picture frames, letters, small pictures within pictures, calling cards, drawing instruments, counterfeited money, advertising materials, and real or fake postage stamps. And often these pictures depict food and drink. But they never include human figures. Mostly these paintings are small enough to fit in a piece of carry-on luggage. But there are a few exceptions, including the miraculous Evaristo Baschenis, Musical Instruments (1665-77), which is almost five feet wide.
Already in antiquity this art form was theorized. According to the very well known story told by Pliny the Elder, when one Roman artist painted grapes that fooled a bird, his rival triumphed by making a tromp l’ceil curtain that fooled this rival painter, who took the mere painting for reality. Some of the works on display allude to that story. Juan Fernández “El Labrador”’s Still Life with Four Bunches of Grapes (1636) shows grapes, and Juan Gris’s The Watch (1912) depicts a curtain. And all of the pictures in this exhibition share one crucial feature. Where traditional old master pictures open a space behind the picture plane, trompe l’oeil paintings and Cubist collages project their contents outwards towards the viewer into our space. And so you have the illusion that the violin in Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts’s Trompe l’Oeil with Violin, Music Book, and Recorder (1672) or the picture in Gris’s Violin and Engraving (1913) face outward and hang on real nails. But unlike trompe l’oeil painters. the Cubists didn’t pretend to deceive the viewer’s eye. Their goal, so Pablo Picasso said, was to fool the mind.
What is real, and what is fictional in visual art? That question was tackled by these painters from two very different eras. Given the compelling parallels, how then are we to understand the connection between trompe l’oeil paintings and Cubist collages? The paucity of direct evidence from the cubists themselves makes this question difficult to answer. In the early twentieth-century the only trompe l’oeil paintings hung in the Louvre were Chardin’s still lifes. In general, this art form was marginalized because the illusions it created were thought to be mere tricks. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what precedents the Cubists saw, since Braque, Gris, and Picasso could readily have discovered these works on their own. Braque was a third generation artisan, and Gris’s father a stationer. And so their training was perfect preparation for making Cubist collage paintings. More exactly, although the three men were aware of each other’s concerns, often as rivals, they developed this trompe l’oeil tradition in highly personal ways.
This exhibition is concerned with demonstrating how the old master trompe l’oeil artists and the cubists employed the same devices, and often similar subjects, in pictures that look very different. Thus no one could ever confuse an old master trompe l’oeil painting like Wallerant Vaillant’s A Board with Letters, Quill Knife, and Quill Pen behind Red Straps (1658) with Braque’s Homage to J. S. Bach (1911-12), with its drawing of a violin and tabletop on cubist planes, and the name of the composer inserted. Jan Jansz van de Velde III’s Still Life with a Pipe-lighter (1653) looks very unlike Gris’s Bottle of Rosé Wine (1914). And Edward Collier’s A Trompe l’Oeil of Newspapers, Letters, and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board (1699) is readily distinguishable from Picasso’s Still Life with Glass and Playing Cards (Homage to Max Jacob) (1914).
Clement Greenberg’s famous essay, “The Pasted-Paper Revolution” (1958), cited and critiqued in the catalogue, doesn’t offer anything like this radical revisionist analysis. He was mistaken, we can now see, to think that the Cubists’ use of literal flatness and adaptation of materials from popular media defines a modernist break with the past. Rather, Cubism recapitulated some concerns of the trompe l’oeil tradition, which were unfamiliar because that art form had been marginalized. What follows, I believe, is that the history of modernism needs to be rewritten, again.
With this exhibition the Met does what a great museum ought to do: present a radical revisionist account of major artworks. I found it astonishing that Cubist art, already extensively written about, can now be interpreted in a wholly new way. This exhibit, which is very much driven by the catalogue, changes dramatically how we will view cubism. And scholars dealing with contemporary art who are interested in understanding the massive inheritance of cubism are sure to build upon the results of this exhibition.
- My first paragraph is inspired by Christine Coulson, Metropolitan Stories. A Novel (New York, 2019). The Met catalogue Cubism and the Trompe l'Oeil Tradition (New York, 2022) is by Emily Braun and Elizabeth Cowling. Clement Greenberg’s essay on collage is: http://www.sharecom.ca/greenberg/collage.html