Three-Dimensional Space: Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition

Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 20, 2022 – January 22, 2023

Georges Braque, “Homage to J. S. Bach” (1911-12)

It takes a leap of the imagination, on the part of the curators (of course!) but on the part of the viewers too, to connect Cubism and trompe l’oeil.  Once you start leaping though, it’s easy.

Jason Farago in the NYT* has written about the origins of Cubism, how it was seen as a break with illusionism and a step towards abstraction. He calls this show “an almighty shake-up” of those ideas.
Read his essay here.

Adriaen van der Spelt and Frans van Mieris the Elder, “Trompe l’Oeil Still Life with Flower Garland and Curtain” (mid 1600’s)

Farago also mentions the disdain that trompe l’oeil artists have been held in and disagrees that its object was to fool people, “It was a trickery that showcased its trickery.”
I’ll add that these are the same disdaining snobs who might explain that a Gray’s Papaya hotdog is not “tastier than filet mignon.” They must agree with Socrates that the painter, “if he [sic] is a good artist, he [sic] may deceive children or simple persons.”

The Apollo Magazine Diary** suggests that both the trompe l’oeil artists and the Cubists “trick the viewer into thinking that the image they are looking at exists in three dimensions” and “attempt to distort the viewer’s perception of depth.”
That is crazy talk. There is no single visual reality and our vision has no separate existence disconnected from time and our other senses and feelings. The trompe l’oeil artists show us one thing and the Cubists show us another; neither are trickery or distortion.

Will Harnett, “Still Life – Violin and Music” (1888)

I’m going to limit my remarks to one of the sequences in the show: the hanging violin by Will Harnett and the musical still lives of the Cubists. They share the same coloring: the browns, the ecru, the grays and the black. Did the Cubists ever see this painting? Maybe, because Harnett was painting in Paris in 1885.

Harnett paints a slightly open door (doors are always ajar in trompe l’oeil) on which hang a violin, a bow, a flute, a musical score, a card, and various hardware. I would guess the depth of field to be about 4 inches. The shadows are the most important “clue” that we are looking at something “real”. The score has a thin sharp shadow except where it is torn; it is pressed against the door, the horseshoe is hanging free, the flute is askew, etc.

One of the conventions of trompe l’oeil is that the light will always enter from the top left and the shadows will be on the right. I worked as a decorative painter and we also did it that way. The light in a Poussin painting always comes from the left too, and I hadn’t realized until this show that—almost always—the Cubists use the same convention!
Subliminally, this effect across the entire show supports the curator’s (Emily Braun and Elizabeth Cowling) contention that the Cubists were engaging rather than breaking with the still life tradition.

The other part of tricking the eye is the verisimilitude of the surfaces. In the Harnett, the wood of the violin, the matte black flute and the paper are all amazing, but speaking from experience, I’d say that the hardest thing to pull off would be the painted wooden door.

Georges Braque, “Violin and Sheet Music: Petite Oiseau” (1913)

The Cubists didn’t go for verisimilitude—they went for referring to it. They give you a piece of wood, a scroll and an f-hole—now make your own violin. They also broke with the still life tradition by not emphasizing highlights—just the shadows.

Pablo Picasso, “Composition with Violin” (1912)

The first impression might be that the Cubists were flattening space but actually they were creating three-dimensions in a very different way. They did not work from a single viewpoint; they moved and constructed the picture as if from a series of glances.  Some reviewers have suggested that the cubists used signs and signifiers with their fragments. Maybe that’s true, but it’s not conceptual art—the fragments work in visceral ways to create ambient space.

Juan Gris, “The Musician’s Table” (1914)

Braque is the inventor of Cubism and his work is the most serious exploration of our perception of objects and the lived experience of places. Picasso is the greatest borrower who ever lived, his grasp of the concept is phenomenal; he is so witty that he lightens the genre and made Braque better too—one of the greatest collaborations in art history.
( Am I just seeing things to say that Picasso’s Composition With a Violin can be seen as a man standing?)

In my view, Gris doesn’t really get Cubism. He uses the motifs but he designs them into bas-reliefs. Many of his works prove the point that color and Cubism don’t work. Still, he made some beautiful paintings.

Georges Braque, “Homage to J. S. Bach” (1911-12)

The masterpiece in the music room is Braque’s Homage to Bach. I hear a symphony.

There is so much to see in this show. For example, the large Picasso still life hanging next to J.S. Bernard’s crazy opulence: gold vase, fruit, flowers and a Persian rug. Both have found their ideal hang. They don’t reduce, they enlarge each other—it made me laugh.
I was looking at Bernard’s depiction of the light captured in a grape. My friend said, “But grapes are not transparent like that, are they?” Maybe not at Ideal or even Whole Foods, but I’m sure that somewhere in a vineyard in France they are.I took a picture but I’m not going to show it. Please go see it.

The critics mention how delightful the show is and even suggest that it raises the bar for contemporary artists—I see their point.

This is the entrance to the show.
It fooled John Goodrich in his review in the New York Sun***:

“What is real, and when? It all depends, apparently. The title of this exhibition appears at its entrance in large, stately capital letters that look to have been painted with lighted and shadowed portions, as if chiseled into the wall. Yet touch the letters and you’ll see this isn’t an effect: They’re indeed “real,” painstakingly carved into the surface.”

Yes, but:

AND THE TROMPE L’OEIL TRADITION is carved into the plaster.

CUBISM is all “real” paint.

—CNQ

* Made You Look: The Cubist Art of Deception bJason Farago, The New York Times, November 11, 2022

** Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition, The Apollo Magazine Diary, October 28, 2022

*** At the Met, What You See, and What You Get by John Goodrich, The New York Sun, Saturday, October 22, 2022