Cubism and Trompe l'Oeil at The Met

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday October 20, 2022

Georges Bracque, Pablo Picasso, and Juan Gris are the Modernist stars of Cubism and the Trompe l'Oeil Tradition, an exhibition opening today at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Featuring more 14 works by these artists from The Met’s Leonard Lauder Collection, together with masterworks from the 17th to the 19thcentury on loan, the show demonstrates the previously overlooked connection between these two forms of art.

Trompe l’Oeil (to trick the eye) painting was perhaps the most illusionistic form of art, and flourished in mid-17thcentury Europe, making its way to America soon after. Like Cubism, it engaged viewers with perceptual and psychological games that blur distinctions between the fake and the real. Many qualities seen as distinct to Cubism were, the curators say, exploited by trompe l’oeil specialists over the centuries: the emphatically flat picture plane; the invasion of the “real” world into the pictorial one; the mimicry of materials; and the inclusion of print media and advertising replete with coded references to artist, patron, and current events. Above: Juan Fernandez, "El Labrador", Still-Life with Four Bunches of Grapes, ca. 1636

In a contest of creative one-upmanship, the Cubist elite trio of Braque, Gris, and Picasso both parodied classic trompe l’oeil devices and invented new ways of confounding the viewer, in paintings, collages both flat and in relief, and even furniture, that can be seen as the precursor of Pop Art. 

Picasso and Braque, friends and close collaborators who met nearly every day, starting in 1907, began to share ideas about taking materials clipped from newspapers and ads to paste into their collage works in 1912. Braque, who trained as a decorative painter, went so far as to add actual materials like chair caning. Picasso followed suite with a relief made with caning and printed oilcloth, and framed with rope, Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912 (above). In their parodies of classic trompe l’oeil devices in this two-man contest, Picasso and Braque invented new ways of fooling the eye.

Soon they began painting highly realistic wood grained objects along with actual found objects. The guitar also became a signature element, which they often composed in relief. Picasso and Braque were joined by the Spanish artist, Juan Gris, who quickly left behind his work as an illustrator and easel painter for this new form of collage. 

As well as being one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Picasso was arguably one of its greatest tricksters—a notion supported by his memorable quotes on the subject of art. Boldly posted in the exhibition, his statement, “Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth. The artist must convince others of the truthfulness of his lies”, gives truth to the curators’ exploration of their contention that Cubism was, in fact, rooted in the trompe l'oeil tradition.

The three artists used mass produced printed matter together with particular forms of typography that, as the movement gained in momentum, became a foundational element. Using a then prevalent style of stencil lettering clipped from posters and ads, they elevated their bent for trickery by also painting the type with a brush to look identical to the “original” print media. As the contest intensified, they trumped their own inventions by playing off real shadows cast by their collage in relief against believable shadows rendered in paint and charcoal. The handmade and the machine made combined to add new layers of deception. The same idea can be seen in a detail of A Board with Letters, Quill Knife, and Quill Pen behind Red Straps, 1658 by the Flemish trjompe l'oeil artist, Wallerant Vaillant (1623–1677), above left. 

One of the most notable devices of the Cubists is the use of elliptical forms. It might have been their way of poking fun at the Renaissance rondelle, or round painting, which went out of favor almost as quickly as it had arrived. In any case, Glass, Bottle and Newspaper, 1914, by Georges Braque (top) actually began with the cardboard backing from an oval mirror, turned on its side to become an elliptical support for a piece formed with cut and pasted newspaper and printed wallpaper. 

In The Glass of Beer, 1914 by Juan Gris (above), the oval artwork was painted on a rectangular support, then finished with a simple but richly gold-leafed frame with an elliptical opening, creating another level of fakery beyond the image itself. 

Along with Cubist paintings, sculptures, collages, and contemporaneous wallpaper catalogues, the exhibition present examples of European and American trompe l’oeil painting from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries.

Cubism and the Trompe l'Oeil Tradition, curated by Emily Braun and Elizabeth Cowling, continues through January 22, 2023 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY. Info

Above: Pablo Picasso, Guitar, Glass, Bottle of Vieux Marc 1913. Note the wallpaper, and the dressmaker pins that Picasso decided to leave in the finished collage.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by The Met and distributed by Yale University Press. The first volume ever on the subject of Cubism and trompe l’oeil painting, it presents major research and new interpretation in groundbreaking essays by exhibition curators Braun and Cowling, French scholar Claire Le Thomas and Paper Conservator at The Met, Rachel Mustalish.  Info

On Tuesday, October 25 at 6pm, Neil Cox, Head of the Leonard A. Lauder Research Center for Modern Art, The Met will give a talk on Picasso’s Sketchbook No. 26, which the artist kept until his death. Deciphering written notes and Cubist drawings, Cox reveals Picasso’s drawing processes and explores connections with his other sketchbooks, paintings, drawings, and sculptures from around 1913. Free with registration

Photos, top to bottom:
All photos courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art except as noted.
Georges Braque (French, 1882–1963). Glass, Bottle, and Newspaper, 1912
Charcoal and cut-and-pasted printed wallpaper on laid paper. Fondation Beyeler, Riehen/Basel (64.1) 
Juan Fernandez, "El Labrador" (Spanish, documented 1629– 1657). Still Life with Four Bunches of Grapes, ca. 1636. Oil on canvas. Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid (P7904
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973). Still Life with Chair Caning, 1912
Oil and printed oilcloth on canvas edged with rope. Musee National Picasso-Paris, Dation Pablo Picasso, 1979 (MP 36) © 2022 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 
Wallerant Vaillant, (Flemish, 1623–1677). A Board with Letters, Quill Knife, and Quill Pen behind Red Straps (detail), 1658. Oil on canvas. Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (Gal.-Nr. 1232) 
Pablo Picasso, Spanish, (1881–1973). Guitar, Glass, Bottle of Vieux Marc 1913. Chalk, charcoal, cut-and-pasted printed wallpaper, laid and wove papers, and straight pins on blue laid paper Musee National Picasso-Paris, Dation Pablo Picasso, 1979 (MP 376). Photo © Peggy Roalf