Gotcha: Why Trompe L’oeil Painting Is Better Than Sliced Bread
For everything 3.3


Why Trompe L’oeil painting is better than sliced bread

Still Life has always been the lowest of the genres of painting. The Greeks had a word for it: rhyparographer, the painter of waste or filth. Still Life is clustered around everyday objects and routines: food; tables; vessels; cooking; eating; writing; etc. To some extent it is tainted by its association with the ordinary. But, as Norman Bryson puts it:

“... how these activities are viewed and appraised - what value is placed on the life of creaturely routine - is very much a matter of culture, and of history. Whether these activities are respected or dismissed, valued or despised, depends on the work of ideology;{...} the painting of what is ‘mundane’ or ‘sordid’ is negative only from a certain viewpoint, in which the ‘lowness’ of a supposedly low-plane reality poses a threat to another level of culture that regards itself as having access to superior or exalted modes of experience.”1

So the traditional heirarchy of genres places Still Life at the bottom because, by the depiction of mere things, Still Life is incapable of tackling the exalted realms of morality and purity. Still Life cannot completely leave behind the material world, however allegorical and symbolic it gets. Like a domestic chicken, it can flap its wings and dream of the tree tops but its feet stubbornly refuse to shake off the ground. But it could be worse: it could be Trompe L’oeil painting.

Trompe L’oeil is treated as a kind of side-show freak, that has little to do with real art history: gently patronized when not completely ignored. But this is not the only reason it is interesting. Whereas Still Life is forever tainted by the proximity of the real, quotidian world, Trompe L’oeil is up to its neck in it. Wallowing. Trompe L’oeil doesn’t depict aspects of a mundane and sordid reality: it needs to be part of it. Trompe L’oeil is itself mundane and sordid. and unabashed about it, to boot.

Of course it is impossible to show an historical Trompe L’oeil painting in its original context because that would be one of cultural familiarity and historically specific. But if you imagine a Trompe L’oeil painting at home, so to speak, it would cease to be a painting and become part of the everyday world surrounding it. That is to say, it would be intended to be seen in the same way as everything else and not with an exulted moral gaze. Or any gaze, for that matter.

Art History is not all one way traffic. A lot of art has not been on the side of “superior or exalted modes of experience.” A lot of art has sort to be experienced with mundane, sordid, everyday modes of attention, whether it be Pissarro’s pictures of peasants; most of Dada; or Minimalist denials of anything ‘exulted’ to look at. Some of the best of contemporary art, I would argue, is interested in being experienced in a similar everyday way (amongst other things). Trompe L’oeil is a resource because it inevitably embraces the profane over the sacred.

I’m going to concentrate on 17th century Trompe L’oeil painting by Dutch artists, inspired by the recent small exhibition of Cornelius Gijsbrechts’ Trompe L’oeil paintings at the National Gallery. The National did its best to forget that the paintings were practical jokes and turn them into ‘pictures’, that is, objects of contemplation. Of course there is a sense in which going to see a Trompe L’oeil exhibition is bound to be disappointing. Like the T.V. presenter telling you what’s about to happen in Coronation Street, the potential for surprise is ruined. You’re denied the pleasure of falling for the illusions because you already know what to expect. Instead, all you can appreciate is the analysis of how the trick was done. It’s like going to a magicians workshop to be shown how the tricks are done rather than going to a magic show: however pleasurable the cerebral insight, the baccharian thrill of falling for something, of being tricked, is lost. I forget who said that nobody reads Freud’s “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious” for the jokes; but the display of Gijsbrechts’ paintings at the National Gallery is similarly analytical and lacking in humour. The difference is that whilst Freud made no pretence at trying to represent the jokes fairly, on their own terms, the National, funnily enough, does not point out its disingenuous display of Gijsbrechts’ paintings.

In order to get these paintings to fit the conventional art historical mode, The National has to reconstruct the conventional explicatory links between virtuoso painter, unique paintings and appreciative spectator. In other words, exactly what Trompe L’oeil is not about. The attempt is ridiculous but delightful. Obviously any virtuoso handling of paint in a Trompe L’oeil painting would dispel the intended illusion, so Gijsbrechts is praised, in effect, as a virtuoso of non-virtuoso painting. The paintings are then hung on walls, as if they were pictures to be looked at, so that we can look carefully at what we are not intended to look at, from a position in front of the work that we were never intended to have.

Trompe L’oeil paintings are not pictures, despite the fact that museums and galleries routinely show them as if they were. These paintings were not painted as pictures. Indeed they were not painted to be seen. Or rather they were painted to be not-seen. That is, if a picture is a representation that is intended to be looked at as a representation, then Trompe L’oeil paintings are not pictures because they are not intended to be looked at as representations. On the contrary, they are intended to fool you into acting as though the things represented were there. For example, if you go to pull back a Trompe L’oeil curtain you are treating it like a curtain rather than looking at it as a picture of a curtain. Which is the whole point. If you look at it after you have been fooled, then you art looking at something which has fooled you, which still makes it not a picture. If you notice that the painting is a painting before you’ve been tricked, then the painting has failed: even so, it is something intended to fool not to be looked at.

Trompe L’oeil painters, it seems, had to get more devious as their audience became more adept at spotting illusions. Thus they started painting Trompe L’oeil paintings of Trompe L’oeil paintings pinned to a Trompe L’oeil wooden panel. Thus the victim could spot the Trompe L’oeil painting on the panel whilst falling for the panel itself. This double bluff is emphasised in one of Gijsbrechts’ paintings, where the ‘internal’ painting is easy to spot because it has been painted roughly, thus making the panel ‘behind’ even more devious. Or, they would make use of the curtains that regularly protected paintings in 16th century Dutch merchants’ houses, by having a Trompe L’oeil painting of a Trompe L’oeil painting with a Trompe L’oeil curtain carelessly left open in front of it. Then they started painting Trompe L’oeil cupboard doors on real cupboard doors that opened, perhaps, to reveal the actual objects depicted inside.

And then there are Chantourné paintings. These are shaped paintings: the shapes cut out of wooden panels with a fret saw. These were apparently pioneered by Cornelis Bisschop,2 who left cut-outs of shoes under chairs; cut-outs of dried herring hanging in the larder; and even guests standing in the corner of his living room. The intention to fool visitors is most explicit. Gijsbrechts’ most audacious Chantourné is a free standing easel with painting on it; another leaning against it; pallet hanging down with dripping paint; and hand rest sticking out the side. All painted on a cut out panel. In a gallery this monster is like a beached whale: it is completely out of place and the audience gawp at its strangeness. But in a hectic artist’s studio at the Royal Court in Copenhagen (its natural habitat), one can easily imagine the King’s guests trying to pick up one or other of the paintings.

It is interesting to note that Gijsbrecht developed his range of tricks, and more or less dropped vanitas painting, after he had moved from the Netherlands to Copenhagen. In the Protestant, mercantile world of the Netherlands paintings hung in domestic interiors of merchants’ houses; in this context, painting helped to reinforce the values of production, trade and order upon which the Dutch merchants flourished. This ethical aesthetic cannot have been absolute, given the popularity of the Trompe L’oeil trickery of Bisschop and others. I don’t know whether the same patrons bought Trompe L’oeil paintings as well as more serious paintings, or not. Anyway, it seems that under the royal patronage of the Kings of Denmark, Frederick III then Christian V, Gijsbrechts escaped what social constraints there were and developed bigger and better tricks.

Gijsbrechts repeats the Chantourné trick in a painting of the back of a painting. Propped up against the studio wall, the unsuspecting visitor turns it round to be confronted by, not a picture but... the real back of the painting! This is the only Trompe L’oeil painting where the National Gallery literature admitted the possibility of a practical joke: the intention of the painting to make a victim look silly by doing something. However, it showed the painting on a shelf at eye level, presumably because had it been shown on the floor the illusion might have worked and the temptation been too great for someone to turn it round.

So, Trompe L’oeil is routinely patronized by ‘proper’ art history when not ignored altogether. Even the term Trompe L’oeil is an ideological disservice to the paintings it describes. As the back of the painting painting shows, these paintings aim to deceive the body rather than the eye. They work if they make you behave towards them in a certain way, not just see them as something they are not. Deceiving the eye is a pre-requisit, or a tool, for deceiving the body but it is not the goal. If I remember correctly, there is a scene in Derek Jarman’s film ‘Wittgenstein’ that goes something like this:

Student (exasperated): But it looks like the sun goes round the Earth!

Wittgenstein (equally exasperated): But what if the Earth went round the sun: what would that look like?

The Earth going round the sun and the sun going round the Earth would look exactly the same. The eye would see the same things. The (perfectly reasonable) assumption that the sun orbits the Earth is based on a seeing that has learnt expectations from experience. This seeing is ordinary and committed rather than exalted and reserved: it is an embodied kind of seeing. Wittgenstein’s fictional student was not deceived by his eyes but by his experience of the world. His body has learnt that the world does not move, that things move in relation to it. It is his inability to conceive of the world outside of this bodily experience that deceives him. In this sense, his eyes are innocent: it is his body that is deceived.

The difference between a Trompe L’oeil painting and what it mimics is precisely not what they look like but what they are. It is the viewer’s experience of the world that leads him or her into being duped and it is the body that reaches for what is not there. Trompe L’oeil engenders an ordinary, embodied seeing which punctures the attempt to maintain a distanced and receptive gaze. This is another reason why Trompe L’oeil is anathema to conventional art history: an art history that has its stakes on a discerning eye that resists and denies the distractions of the body cannot countenance the seduction of the body and displacement of the gaze.

Trompe L’oeil cuts the ground from under the idea of a disinterested, distanced and disembodied way of attending to painting. Instead it claims the moral low ground by placing seeing in the context of humour and deception. The psychoanalyst Winnicott, used to help patients who feared the loss of a coherent, unified self by saying, not that it would never happen, but on the contrary it already had happened. The catastrophe the subject feared had happened long ago. It was too late: the self was always divided and incomplete. Thus, perversely, the patient has nothing to fear! With Trompe L’oeil painting, if it works, it is also always already too late. In being deceived, you have missed the painting and ended up in the real world, with a jolt. If you subsequently look at the painting not only it, but you too, are tainted by the mundane, unable to escape the knowledge of your falling for the trap. Trompe L’oeil must exist in the same world as everything else and it forces its victims to do the same.

Norman Bryson describes something like this effect as a threat to the centred, knowing subject. He says:

“Trompe L’oeil painting unfolds in exactly this area of insufficient control, where instead of the objects obeying the subject’s sovereign gaze, they slip out beyond it and usurp the visual field: they ‘look back’ on the observer, as though there were no right by which human observation takes command of its surrounding world and imposes its own order upon it from a position of visual centre. The veiled threat of Trompe L’oeil is always the annihilation of the individual viewing subject as universal centre.”3

This is to say that Trompe L’oeil was a heterodox practice in the Dutch 17th century not just because it located itself in the mundane world but because it placed the ‘viewing subject’ there too. The dominant genres of Still Life and domestic interiors presented their merchant owners, for the most part, with a reassuring picture of the world, which, moreover and unsurprisingly, placed them, as ‘viewing subjects’, at its centre. Dutch flower painting, for example, embodied a picture of a trading empire and the values of manufacture. The flowers are not ‘natural’, typically showing one specimen from varieties gathered from all over the world. Such variety shows the sheer reach of the Dutch empire, whilst placing the Dutch at its productive centre. To get these blooms to flower simultaneously required immense horticultural know how and effort. In other words it shows the Protestant ethic of production in action. So these are pictures of a particular kind of hard won luxury: a luxury gained by conquest, control and ordering of what was natural: bringing the natural into the register of manufacture. The intended spectator (or owner) of such pictures, had a secure place in front of them.

If such pictures provided ideological reassurance, this position of centredness was reinforced formally, by perspective. The dominant system of Albertian perspective gives the ‘individual viewing subject’ a privileged position in front of the picture: a ‘correct’ viewing position. It also gives order and coherence to the picture. Regardless of whether systematic perspective made painting more ‘realistic’ or not, it provided both a principle of organization and composition and a required viewing distance for a spectator. The viewing subject is thus still and receptive, contemplating a view of the world, at a distance. The viewer’s body is cajolled into position in order that the body might be forgotten, in favour of some kind of transendental gaze. Whether the picture was a Still Life, or an ordered interior, or a morality tale of a disordered household going to pot, the conventions of perspective gave the viewer a secure, reserved and dominant view of the world. That is, the dominant genres of Dutch painting gave their patrons familiar representations of the world in a way that placed them at its centre.

Trompe L’oeil had none of this and had no use for it. The deep space of perspective was no use when you wanted to distract the body immediately in front of the painting; Trompe L’oeil needs to play with the shallow space of objects in the room, in front of the picture plane, not those through some putative window on the world. Any principles of order and composition had to be avoided: instead Trompe L’oeil had to play for its effects with quotidian disorder. And Trompe L’oeil only uses the conventional symbolic objects of Still Life as a double bluff, a conjurer’s misleading gesture: it fools you with the unelevated, impure, mundane things in life. So the whole purpose of Trompe L’oeil is to lead the viewer astray from his or her privileged, reserved position: to give the eye a body.


1. Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting, Reaktion, London, 1990/1995, p.137.
2. According to the catalogue, Painted Illusion: The Art of Cornelius Gijsbrechts, The National Gallery, London. Text by Olaf Koester.
3. Norman Bryson, Ibid, p.144.