Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition exhibition October 20, 2022 – January 22, 2023 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

This exhibition will offer a radically new view of Cubism by demonstrating its engagement with the age-old tradition of trompe l’oeil painting. A self-referential art concerned with the nature of representation, trompe l’oeil (“deceive the eye”) beguiles the viewer with perceptual and psychological games that complicate definitions of truth and fiction.

Many qualities seen as distinct to Cubism were, in fact, 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 new print media and advertising replete with coded references to artist, patron, and current events. In a contest of creative one-upmanship, the Cubists Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso both parodied classic trompe l’oeil devices and invented new ways of confounding the viewer. Along with Cubist paintings, sculptures, and collages, the exhibition will present canonical examples of European and American trompe l’oeil painting from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries.

Exhibition Overview

Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition unfolds across ten thematic rooms, charting the dialogue between Cubism and the past and the three-way competition between Braque, Gris, and Picasso. Viewers will be deeply engaged with the visual conundrums embedded in the works of art. The exhibition includes an unprecedented ensemble of collages and papiers collés (paper collage) by Braque, Gris, and Picasso, most of them rarely seen. Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning (1912)—the first Cubist collage—is displayed in the United States for the first time in thirty years.

Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition demonstrates that many aspects characteristic of Cubism in fact had precedents in historic trompe l’oeil painting: the emphatically flat picture surface piled with music scores, newspapers, and other printed matter; the eye-fooling mimicry of materials; and word and image puns that allude to the artist, patrons, and the art market.

A common conceit of trompe l’oeil painting involved objects that tantalizingly appear to cross the threshold between the pictorial and the viewer’s space, beckoning touch, and the Cubists delighted in similarly exploiting the allure of projecting table drawers, utensils, pipes, and playing cards. Depictions of the studio with paintbrushes, palettes, and easels served as erudite meta-representations of the tools of the trade of visual deception.

Pictures within pictures and signatures embedded in letters, calling cards, and nameplates all formed part of a larger self-referential iconography, shared by earlier trompe l’oeil artists and Cubists alike. The faux-wood grain surfaces so typical of Cubist painting and papiers collés also have a long history in the letter racks, table-tops and board paintings of the trompe l’oeil tradition—as does the playful motif of a nail casting a shadow.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art,  is located at 1000 Fifth Avenue in New York City.

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