Rants & Ramblings

random commentary about culture, media, politics, technology and whatnot.

nov
25
2002

a representation of reality

I went to the Trompe L’Oeil exhibit at the National Gallery of Art this weekend.

The exhibit is a collection of artwork — paintings, sculptures and the like — which in part act as optical illusions that, through tricks of perspective and lighting, make the viewer, however momentarily, believe that what’s being represented is actually a real, three-dimensional object. From the exhibition guide:

This exhibition illustrates the playful and intellectual nature of trompe l’oeil—the artistic ability to depict an object so exactly as to make it appear real. A heightened form of illusionism, the art of trompe l’oeil flourished from the Renaissance onward. The discovery of perspective in fifteenth-century Italy and advancements in the science of optics in the seventeenth-century Netherlands enabled artists to render objects and spaces with eye-fooling exactitude. Both witty and serious, trompe l’oeil is a game artists play with spectators to raise questions about the nature of art and perception.

There were a couple pieces in the exhibit that really stuck out for me, the “illusion” was so convincing. The first was a life-size statue of a security guard. At first glance, especially with so many people around, I mistook him for just another visitor. Only after seeing his “caption” on the wall and looking directly at him did I realize that he was a statue, not a real person.

The other piece that especially caught my attention was what appeared to be a grandfather clock partially covered by a dropcloth. At first, I kind of discounted it, taking it to be what it appeared to be. Its caption read that it was a representation of a grandfather clock covered by a dropcloth, all carved from a single piece of wood. And the illusion was so masterfully done that, at first, I didn’t believe the caption. Only after looking at the piece very closely, looking for those points where the “cloth” touches the “clock,” did I see how this sculpture was a single, unified piece. It was an amazing piece of worksmanship.

My favorite image in the exhibit was La condition humaine (1933) by Rene Magritte (pictured above). In a critical theory / academic sense, the painting is something of a mindfuck. At first, we see what appears to be a green, outdoorsy scene, as seen through a curtained window. Then we realize that at least part of this scene is actually a painting, hiding that which it ostensibly reflects (although we can’t know for certain that what the painting shows is at all an accurate representation of what is outside the window). And on top of all this, the image as a whole is itself a representation: One might at first confuse it for an actual window. Leading to Magritte’s title, La condition humaine (The Human Condition).

Magritte might be saying that human life, in society, is all about representations within representations, all juxtaposed and stacked together to the point where the “real” is hard to locate. What is real, and what is a representation of the real? What is a representation of another representation (a copy of a copy, as opposed to a copy of the original)? What has been lost or added in the process?

To read more about all this from an academic / theoretical standpoint, check out some of the writings of Walter Benjamin (particularly “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“) and Jean Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation.”