Lost Illusions: From Trompe l’Oeil to Cubism, Pepe Karmel, δημοσίευση στο Art in America [5/12/2022]Marilena Pateraki
The inventors of Cubism, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, replaced perspective with a new kind of pictorial space: instead of receding into the distance, their paintings seemed to advance toward the viewer in a series of overlapping planes. In 1911 they supplemented representation with simulation, adding stenciled letters and patches of wood-graining to their paintings. In 1912 they glued actual strips of newspaper, wallpaper, and other materials to the surfaces. Their colleague Juan Gris went a step further and inserted old engravings, creating pictures within pictures. The heroic story of how Braque, Picasso, and Gris invented a new pictorial space and a new medium—collage—is a staple of textbooks and introductory courses on art history.
And yet … what art historian, walking through a gallery of American art, has not paused in front of an earlier trompe l’oeil painting by John Frederick Peto or William Michael Harnett and thought, “Isn’t this awfully like a Cubist painting?” Overlapping planes? Check. Wood-graining? Check. Printed lettering? Check. Even the subject matter—violins or other musical instruments suspended from walls and panels—directly anticipates that of Cubist still life. Taking a deep breath, the art historian reflects that there is no way that Picasso, Braque, and Gris could have been aware of these obscure American paintings. It’s a remarkable coincidence, that’s all.
“Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition,” now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, demolishes the assumption of Cubism’s total originality. The curators, Emily Braun (professor at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center) and Elizabeth Cowling (professor emerita at the University of Edinburgh) have reconstructed a European tradition of trompe l’oeil painting beginning in 17th-century Holland and Flanders. The familiar American examples from the 19th century fall into place as late examples of a style then two centuries old. Building a bridge to Cubism, Braun and Cowling include specimens of late 19th- and early 20th-century wallpapers borrowing motifs and devices from the trompe l’oeil tradition. The exhibition also includes an amazing trove of Cubist still lifes: 15 by Braque, 20 by Gris, and 30 by Picasso. Often the Cubist pictures are paired with close antecedents from the old master tradition. Sometimes, in stunning feats of detective work, they are paired with samples of the original wallpapers the artists used.
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