During the latter part of the thirteenth century, the great Medieval painter, Cimabue, one Monday morning came to work in his studio and picked up his brushes to continue his work on a large altarpiece, his famed Madonna Enthroned. Climbing up the scaffolding to the top of the nearly thirteen-foot-tall painting, he found a fly on the nose of the Madonna which he'd painted just a few days before. Given the fact that the painting medium was made from egg yolks, flies and other insects were often a problem when the paint was fresh. He tried three time to frighten it off, only to realise finally, that one of his apprentices, the painter Giotto, had painted the fly on the Madonna's nose as a practical joke.
That may or may not have been the beginning of what the French dubbed "tromp l'oeil" (fool the eye) painting, but there's no doubt such work has been a persistent presence in art going back nearly that far. Today we see it in what's variously known as "Super Realism" or "Photo Realism" and of course traditional and non-traditional still-life paintings. It's a type of painting that, while not spectacular, is something of a spectacle, beloved by realist artists as a means of showing off their technical virtuosity, and by viewers for its magic in fooling their eyes, if only for a moment, into confusing reality with illusion. It's an area of art I've recently played with though I'm no match for the likes of Cornelius Gijsbrechts (don't ask me how to pronounce that).
Magic is a good word for this type of art. Gijsbrechts, one might say, was almost as much magician as painter. Don't be surprised if you've never heard of him, he seems to have magically appeared in Copenhagen at the court of King Frederick III in 1668. He played the royal audience for four years then just as mysteriously as he'd appeared, he vanished in 1672, never to be seen again. But during those four years, he certainly wowed the crowd. And when the king died, his show was booked for a second run during the first two years of the reign of his successor, Christian V. This king even built a museum with an entire room, the perspectivekammer, devoted entirely to Gijsbrechts' astonishing images.
So, what did Cornelius paint that so enamoured the Danish royal court? The National Gallery in London recently displayed his talents. On a shelf in the gallery sits a framed painting, leaning against the wall, facing it. Oops, sorry, don't touch, it's not a framed painting at all, but an unframed canvas depicting the back of a framed painting.
Elsewhere in the exhibit stands an artists easel, on it, a still-life in progress, another painting leaning against the legs of the easel, again facing away from the viewer while on the base tray are the tools of the artist's trade. You guessed it, the whole thing, easel and all, is a ruse, painted in one piece on a single wooden panel, complete with rear leg and holes cut in the appropriate locations over and under the painting. Damn, wish I'd thought of that.
The Dutch loved their vanitas still-life paintings, and judging by his style and name, Gijsbrechts may have been Dutch. Several of his more traditional (if you can call them that) fool-the-eye still-lifes have the typical vanitas elements (burning candles, flowers, bubbles, food, insects, etc.) of this type of painting, though often with a twist, such as an illusionary torn spot in the canvas, edges painted to look frayed, even some painted dirt and grime to make them look old. In one case, a painted tack is posed opposite the real thing.
One of Gijsbrechts more remarkable works features a small cupboard with what appears to be glass in its doors. One door is a painted illusion, an identical one to its right is real. And when opened, it reveals the painted contents of the cupboard just as they appear through the illusionary glass. On the inside of the "door" several letters and momentos (which appear from the front to be tucked inside between the glass and frame), are painted as seen from the back. Closer inspection reveals the hinged cupboard door is nothing more than a stretched canvas painted on both sides. I love Gijsbrechts work, but in discovering it, I've become somewhat disillusioned. Just when you think you're onto something new, you discover some Dutch genius was doing it over three hundred years ago. Damn!