Art: Trompe l'oeil as more than visual trickery

Artists have enriched the tradition, as a Brandywine museum show demonstrates.

Posted: October 17, 2010

Trompe l'oeil illusionism goes back to antiquity, so its conventions are well established. Yet it has evolved from the straightforward visual trickery of the 19th-century variety to a more substantive imitative realism that can resonate emotionally and historically.

This is the impression one takes away from the exhibition "Reality Check" at the Brandywine River Museum, which owns a substantial collection of earlier trompe-l'oeil painting (French for "fool the eye").

Through 45 works by 23 artists, "Reality Check" shows us how artists working today have extended and enriched what is usually thought of as little more than technical sleight-of-hand.

Technique remains the core of contemporary trompe l'oeil; if anything, these artists are even more meticulously proficient than historical masters such as William Michael Harnett and John Haberle, whose work was featured at the museum earlier this year.

Some artists in the exhibition continue to use established formats such as the rack picture, which is essentially two-dimensional, and the niche picture, which introduces shallow depth and allows depiction of objects rather than flat images such as postcards, letters and photographs.

Among the former, for example, are Otto Duecker's simulated photographs of Salvador Dalí and the Dalai Lama, painted in oils as if taped to a wall, and Madame X Desk Blotter by Michael Theise, built around a reproduction of a famous portrait by John Singer Sargent, which is flanked by envelopes addressed to the artist and his subject.

Among the niche compositions, Scott Fraser's Catenary Curve also relies on art-historical references, beginning with a painting by Jacques-Louis David called Death of Marat. This image leads us to a portrait of an aristocratic woman by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, which Fraser links to Henri Matisse's Lady in Blue.

All these re-creations are arranged in a niche against a black background similar to that used by David, which brings the chain of association back to its source. There is more to contemplate in this painting than Fraser's ability to mimic the masters.

The single work that most dramatically reveals the complexity of contemporary trompe l'oeil is a bulletin-board picture by Steve Mills called Krista. A commissioned memorial to a college student who died in a car crash, the painting re-creates the student's life through a dense collection of ephemera that she had pinned to her bulletin board.

The careful layering and juxtaposing of items as diverse as a varsity letter, a birth certificate, a bumper sticker, and a ribboned medallion is both technically amazing and poignant, as intended. The technique stops you in your tracks, but if you take the time to read the images you begin to sense the emotional current that flows through the painting.

Grabbing viewers by the lapels is the essence of trompe l'oeil. One can cruise through a show of landscapes or portraits pausing only briefly, if at all, before each picture, but trompe l'oeil insists that you stop and investigate.

Sometimes it's just to marvel at the artist's skill, but in "Reality Check" one frequently finds deeper layers of satisfaction.

For instance, Janet Monafo's slightly mysterious Silver Cluster (East) appears to be a pile of miscellaneous silver holloware viewed from above. One can't make any narrative or symbolic sense of it, yet the lush surfaces, rendered in pastel to suggest faintly reflected blushes of color, are mesmerizing.

Charles Pfahl achieves something similar, if far more exuberant, in his oil Revolution, which looks like a sculptural relief assembled from discarded molds for industrial castings.

The brilliant color scheme of red and bright orange imparts vitality, but it also encourages a viewer to consider the history and utility of these objects, as something more than a powerful design. The illusionism is almost incidental.

Some allusions and symbolism in "Reality Check" are subtle, while others, such as Debra Teare's painting Persistence of Vision, which refers to Piet Mondrian and Rene Magritte, require some knowledge of art history. It helps to have read the online catalog before visiting; it's on the museum website.

One can always respond to this exhibition the old-fashioned way, as delightful visual prestidigitation, but the more nourishing food for thought comes with studied analysis. Don't just skim.

Desert Jewels. The cultures of North Africa fascinated 19th- and early 20th-century European artists, especially the French, from Delacroix to Matisse. A small exhibition called "Desert Jewels" in the Perelman building at the Philadelphia Museum of Art suggests what attracted these artists to the Mediterranean's southern coast.

The show consists of exotic, colorful, and highly sculptural jewelry made in what Arabs call the Maghreb, primarily Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. It comes from a collection formed over three decades by Xavier Guerrand-Hermès, a member of the Paris-based company famous for luxury goods, who lives in Morocco. The show was organized by the Museum for African Art in New York City.

The jewelry represents a variety of formats, including head ornaments, bracelets, earrings, fibulae, and necklaces. Three characteristics generally define the collection.

The pieces are often large and ornate, and they're created from a wide variety of materials, from gold and silver to coral, shells, enamel, coins, gemstones such as amazonite, glass, even plastic. Also, they're often constructed to be taken apart and recombined in different ways.

The jewelry is large, and apparently heavy, because it functions as part of a woman's dowry, as a way of storing wealth. Aesthetically, it's eclectic, reflecting cultural influences not only from Africa but also from Europe and Asia.

The mix is more Asian than European, but this mildly alien quality is seductive because the jewelry's combinations of luscious colors and striking material contrasts, often organic against metal, is so tactile and sensuous.

The jewelry display is augmented by a group of period ethnographic photographs, some of which depict women and men wearing examples of objects in the show. The Art Museum has added several North African textiles from its collection as further context.

One can appreciate this material, not represented in the Art Museum's permanent collection, in several ways, either as spectacular ornament, as superb and imaginative folk artisanship, or even as sculpture. Whichever way you take it, "Desert Jewels" is a treat.

Art: The Eyes Have It

"Reality Check" continues at the Brandywine River Museum, Route 1, Chadds Ford, through Nov. 18. Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Admission: $10 general, $6 for visitors 65 and older, students, and visitors 6 through 12. Information: 610-388-2700 or www.brandywine

"Desert Jewels" continues in the Perelman building of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fairmount and Pennsylvania Avenues, through Dec. 5. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission: $7 general, $6 for visitors 65 and older, $5 for students with I.D. and visitors 13 through 18. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500 or

Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or Read his recent work at


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