- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

When visitors enter the exhibit "Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l'Oeil Painting" at the National Gallery of Art, they might be tempted to ask the guard for directions until they realize he can't answer. He's a life-size sculpture. After a double-take, they laughingly realize that artist Duane Hanson is fooling them, effectively demonstrating the exhibit's theme with his super-realist "Security Guard" (1990).

The National Gallery, the exhibit's only venue, is the first to trace trompe l'oeil's origins in classical antiquity and illustrate its influence on 20th-century artists. Surprises like Mr. Hanson's continue as viewers wander through the 10 galleries of 100 superb trompe l'oeil works from five centuries. ("Trompe l'oeil" is the French term for "fool the eye.")

Such visual trickery began in classical times and exhibit curator Franklin Kelly first illustrates it with handsome mosaics of fruit grapes were a favorite from the buried Italian city of Pompeii (1st century, B.C.).

The exhibit continues with all-too-familiar paintings of hunted game, beginning with Pompeiian images (an anonymous artist painted the tender "Three Dead Birds Hanging from a Nail," a piece from a 1st-century B.C. fresco), and continues with later images by the American William Michael Harnett (1848-1892) and the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Oudry (1720-1778).

Next come illusionist works that beckon the visitor to enter the painting, as with Charles Willson Peale's "Staircase Group" (1795).

It ends with 20th century artists such as Pablo Picasso, who found other new and exciting ways to explore trompe l'oeil.

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Mr. Hanson bent these long traditions to show just how "real" and deceptive current interpretations of illusionistic art could be. Of course, the materials of "Security Guard" were different and contemporary. He used auto body filler (a kind of putty) to construct the figure, along with oil pigments and other mixed media (clothes, a watch and a wig).

Jumping back several centuries to trompe l'oeil's beginnings, the Roman historian Pliny the Elder was one of the first to write about the complex connections between reality and art. He related the pleasures of paintings that deceive the eye when he described the trompe l'oeil work of the 5th- to early-4th-century B.C. Greek painter Zeuxis. Pliny wrote in his "Natural History" that Zeuxis was reputed to have painted grapes so realistically that birds tried to eat them.

Hence, the "Still-life with Fruit" from Pompei, displayed in the introductory gallery, that overflows with bunches of the delectable fruit. The National Gallery's exhibit design staff admirably provided the requisite Pompeiian ambiance, expertly reproducing a floor "mosaic" containing grapes near the "Still-Life." The public is invited to walk over it.

There's also a section of "Xenia and Trophies of the Hunt" that illustrates this trompe l'oeil staple of painting over several centuries. "Xenia" is the ancient Greek term for gifts. Early Greek hosts were famous for providing their guests with gifts of game, poultry, fruit and vegetables.

Many of the exhibit's artists liked painting dead game: partridges, hens, birds, hares, ducks and the like. As seen earlier in the show, the practice began in Italy in the first century, B.C. Romans were also fond of painting images of xenia on their villa walls to advertise their wealth and generosity.

Although Jan Baptist Weenix hung his "Dead Partridge" on a single nail, other artists' hunt trophies became more and more elaborate. Harnett made his "After the Hunt" into full-blown theater two centuries later.

It was the third in a Harnett series of hunting equipment and dead game hung on large wooden doors. He demonstrated his full powers of illusionism by painting this arrangement that combined such unlikely materials as metal, bone, leather, feather and fur.

The show skips lightly over Renaissance observations of nature with Sebastiano Del Piombo's 1516 portrait of a Venetian cardinal (the irreverent housefly sitting on the cardinal's long white surplice is a high point here) and Jan van KesselI's explicit "Study of Insects and Reptiles" (c. 1660). All kinds of works with fool-the-eye techniques come next. The show is large and it is in these sections that the exhibit picks up steam.

A grouping called "Temptations for the Hand" shows works with a totally different approach. Renaissance artists had conquered mastery of perspective and shading that gave them new ways to trick the eye. They rendered objects life-size to make them seem "real" and appear to be the objects themselves.

One of the innovations was vanishing point perspective. The critic and painter Leon Battista Alberti believed that paintings are windows that can present a true picture of the world through a rigorous use of perspective. He described what was then the exciting discovery in his 1435 "On Painting," the first modern treatise on the subject: "First of all, on the surface on which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle which I regard as an open window through which the subject to be painted is seen." This kind of perspective, the linchpin of the next four centuries of painting, makes all imaginary lines in a picture converge in a point.

Paintings with "racks" fill in for Alberti's rectangles or "windows," and "letters" replace his "subjects" in the "Letter Rack" paintings that became popular with 17 century Dutch and Flemish painters. Cornelis Gijsbrecht's "Letter Rack with Christian V's Proclamation" (1668) is particularly intricate. The painter pulls back a simulated curtain to reveal combs, brushes, folded papers, quill pens and drawings that threaten to spill to the floor. Gijsbrecht became King Christian V of Denmark's court painter and featured the king's name prominently in the handsomely calligraphed proclamation at dead center.

Artists created everything from pistols to pictures, placing them in simulated niches and cabinets so that viewers would want to reach in and take them. They also invited visitors to step into their works, as Charles Willson Peale did with "Staircase Group." In one of the most charming pictures of the show, the elder Peale painted two of his sons mounting a circular staircase from a carefully constructed, wooden first step. They seem to have been willing models. Raphaelle, Peale's eldest son, holds palette and brushes as he pauses to look at his father. Titian Ramsay, the third son, looks around the newel post. Another artist, Samuel van Hoogstraten (17th-century Dutch), painted a succession of receding doorways in "View Down a Corridor" for just this purpose. He evidently wanted viewers to "enter" the house through the arched doorway. A parrot, alert dog and an amazed cat announce a visitor's arrival at the elegant waiting room. A map and chair await him as well.

Illusionist works showing figures entering and exiting spaces became popular. In Pere Borrell del Caso's scraggily dressed young man avoiding danger in "Escaping Criticism."(1874), the pop-eyed teen-ager pulls himself through a gold frame that takes the place of Alberti's window. He's so "real" that visitors should find him unforgettable.

Picasso and other Cubists attached parts of painted papers to their works. In Jasper Johns' "Painted Bronze" (1964), it's almost impossible to distinguish real Ballantine Ale cans from Mr. Johns' simulated ones.

Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein's "faking" of the Benday dots used for halftones in newspaper printings successfully evokes a frame surrounding and intersecting with the dots in "Stretcher Frame with Cross Bars III" (1968). By incorporating images from American consumerism in other works, Mr. Lichtenstein thumbs his nose at what he must have considered Alberti's tame "windows." Andy Warhol's huge pile of "24 GIANT SIZE PKGS." of Brillo soap pads, titled "White Brillo Boxes," are actually images he silk-screened on plywood boxes. Mr. Johns' and Mr. Warhol's creations are close to earlier trompe l'oeil works as they, too, play on perceptions of reality.

Every one of the artists in the exhibit, from the first-century artists of Pompeii to Messrs Warhol and Johns, experimented with and played upon what humans usually consider one of their most valued abilities their visual perceptions.

Artists know people will look at these humorous games and intellectual challenges to the eye in the same obsessive way the painters created them. The National Gallery's exhibit is the most comprehensive survey to date of trompe l'oeil and its seemingly endless fascination to artists and viewers alike throughout history.


WHAT: "Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l'Oeil Painting"

WHERE: East Building, National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street at Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sundays, through March 2

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

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