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Topics in Art

Trompe l'oeil/Illusion

Ever go to an art museum as a child and have your "adult supervision" patiently lecture you almost before you ever got in the door about "don't touch anything"? I once went to the rest room in one such hallowed hall and was afraid to wash my hands afterwards for fear of leaving fingerprints on the shiny silver faucets. The worst part of it all is that about ten percent of all the art one sees in just such an establishment simply screams out to be touched, whether it is the marvellously shiny surface of a piece of carved marble or rough, painterly texture of an Impressionist masterpiece that Monet or Renoir simply loaded with thick, seductive globs of sensuous, buttery oils that, even today, simply plead to be touched and fondled.

But to me, shiny sculptural textures or impasto paintings were never the greatest temptations. I was always a sucker for trompe l'oeil. That's French. It's one of the first French terms I ever learned. It means "fool the eye". Actually it more accurately translates as: "It's real and I dare you to reach out and touch it to prove otherwise." I must confess (first time I ever told anyone), I once reached out and touched a William Harnett. The painting was part of a travelling exhibition and was called After the Hunt. I remember, I felt sooo naughty afterwards. It wasn’t real, and to this day I still have trouble believing that incredible powder horn in the upper left section of the picture was just an amazingly slick layer of oil paint on paper-smooth canvas.

Harnett wasn't the only American painter of the late 1800s to tempt me into such antisocial behaviour, just the only one I ever succumbed to. I was always especially fond of John Peto's many "rack paintings" as they are called, canvases painted to look like wooden bulletin boards. Did you ever wonder how they fastened things to bulletin boards before they invented thumbtacks? No, probably not. Well, anyway, according to Peto at least, they tacked up a geometric pattern of tightly stretched ribbon behind which was slipped the various flotsam and jetsam of daily life like artwork on refrigerator doors today. It's all there for posterity in his painting, Old Souvenirs, painted between 1881 and 1900.

contributed by Lane, Jim

4 July 1998
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