An article written by Caroline Levine for The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in 1998, a bit dated especially because it largely reflects on a text by John Ruskin in 1843. I still found it very interesting and I think the issues are still relevant today. The original article can be found from the link above, my notes/selected quotes and reflections on the text with regard to my own practice can be found below. (note this posting is still in progress)


“On the one hand, it is an art so faithful to the real that it seeks to duplicate lived experience.” “

“mocking our grasp of the visual world, offering painted images that we mistakenly apprehend as realities”

“In this capacity, trompe l’oeil teaches us that the world of appearances is fraught with epistemological traps and illusions. It is, therefore, both the most realist of artistic projects and the most ironic of antirealisms.”

“imitative art always has “some means of proving at the same moment that it is a deception.” (Ruskin)

“Ruskin argues that imitation deliberately unveils its pretense so that we may appreciate the skill of the deception.”

“Referential mimesis”

“trompe l’oeil emerges as a peculiarly powerful reflexive project, a mimetic enterprise that leads its viewers to a critical self-consciousness about the construction of representation.”

I find the idea of a self-referential device interesting and something that has potential to be explored in my own work. It could be a good way of guiding the reading of the work, including something in the work that refers to itself as an illusion points to the reader that the work is not about the artist trying to ‘trick’ the viewer using the work but rather that the work is about understanding that a ‘trick’ exists and the process/devices that allow that existence.

As far as tromp L’oeil is concerned there has to be a reference to itself as a painting/sculpture or whatever form the work takes otherwise would simply be the real thing. I guess the difference is whether that reference is naturally inherent in the work or if has been intentionally placed there.


“we derive our enjoyment from the disjuncture between the illusory image of space and the flat corporeality of the canvas; we appreciate the skill of the trompe l’oeil artifice, and take satisfaction in having detected the fraud”

“[Trompe l’oeil] extends only to the sensation of trickery and deception occasioned by a thing’s intentionally seeming different from what it is; and the degree of pleasure depends on the degree of difference and the perfection of the resemblance, not on the nature of the thing resembled. The simple pleasure in the imitation would be precisely of the same degree (if the accuracy could be equal) if the subject of it were the hero or his horse.”

“Our pleasure in imitative art entails focusing our attention on the difference between the real and its image.”

Upon discovering the deception the work itself loses importance and there is a shift in focus to the artist/processes used to generate the work

“The significance of the painted object disappears, and we move back and forth within our own minds to revel in the split, the gap, that divides our initial, mistaken perception from our later understanding”

“It is thus a quintessentially mimetic project, in its imitation of the real, and, at the same time, it is a project that draws attention to the work of art as such, to the technique and materials of the artifice.”

“Whenever painting pretends to be the object it represents, the pretense itself becomes the sole subject-matter of the work. At its most referential, painting becomes self-referential, and in pretending to inhabit the real, painting–paradoxically–draws attention to itself as painting.”

I suppose with my work at the moment I am exploring these ideas from the other side, can something that is ‘real’ pretend to be a painting? Drawing attention to itself as real or referring to itself as real by using the surface of the objects as a ‘canvas’ to paint a 2D image of itself.

2: Stable truths of the ratio

Levine describes ruskins ideas about ‘imitative art’ and ‘truthful art’ the first being art that attempts to create the illusion of nature and the later being art that accurately translates an aspect of nature, which in Ruskins view is more truthful and accurate representation of nature. BY the way when I say nature I don’t mean birds and bees I mean any things that 3D things that exist around us.

Ruskins examples is as follows: “a marble figure does not look like what it is not: it looks like marble, and like the form of a man, but then it is marble and it is the form of a man. It does not look like the form a man, which it is not, but like the form of a man, which it is.”

“a chalk outline of the bough of a tree on paper, is not an imitation; it looks like chalk on paper – not like wood, and that which it suggest to the mind is not properly said to be like the form of a bough, it is the form of a bough.”

Levine elaborates, “The viewer, when confronting such a drawing or statue, does not confuse art and life…” seeing instead a ‘true’ representation. Levine then compares this idea to a road map, “it is descriptive and representational without offering a rendition of actual visual impressions. Conventional maps document not impressions but relations, points of reference on a relational diagram.” Levine goes on to suggest that for Ruskin ‘truth’ can be found in through creating ratios that align with nature within “the confines of its own materials.” Truth becomes cloudy if the artist creates “an image that to closely resembles the real” drawing attention instead to the skill of the artist and confusion between art and life than to the “truths of real form as they are in the world.”

Which ratio is translated depends on the nature of the medium being used “ a drawing in line will represent the line of real objects, a sculpture in shape will replicate the shape of real objects.” Ruskins suggests that this directs the viewer towards the object of reference rather than the materiality of the medium. This brings up the idea of what has the most importance: the materials of art or the content, which impression does the viewer attend to? Is it possible for both to be embraced? Can the painting be an object in and of it self, as well as be a representation of something else? Levine likens this sensation to Wittgentein’s rabbit/duck picture in which the mind slips between the image being of a rabbit or duck.

“truthful art invites us to ignore the medium and to have a tranquil of the true proportional relations of the world. These signs of truth, unlike those of imitation, generate a stable, serene experience: they “have no pretense … there is nothing to be found out … they bear the message simply and clearly… no split occurs no surprise.” Medium is forgotten and the “mechanics and artifices of language are ignored. At its most truthful painting effectively vanishes, dissolving into direct experience of the real.”

“Painting therefore is a ‘being for another,’ wholly referring to objects in the world and calling no attention to its own materiality. This is realism at its most purest.”

3: The subject of self-reflexive art

“Ruskin’s truthful art is also, in its own way, a self-reflexive representational practice, self-conscious about the materials and conventions by which it is made.”

The alternative to Ruskin’s ‘truthful’ art is ‘imitative’ art “painting that produces a perilously pleasurable double consciousness: the viewer enjoys a double experience, conscious both that the work of art could be mistaken for the object it represents, and that it is, in fact, a flat canvas covered in paint. Thus, in the case of trompe l’oeil art, painting proclaims not only that it is a being-for-another, but that it is also a being-in-itself, an object in its own right that differentiates itself from nature. By flaunting the skill of the artist, parading its capacity to imitate the real, the picture, while looking very much like the reality it represents, actually compels us to recognize its status as painting, “The mind, in receiving an idea of imitation, is wholly occupied in finding out that what has been suggested to it is not what it appears to be: it dwells not on the suggestion, but on the perception that it is a false suggestion” (p. 108)

“the mind, in receiving an idea of imitation …derives its pleasure, not from the contemplation of a truth, but from the discovery of a falsehood” (p. 108).

What I have found most interesting about this article so far is this: “It is not only that the mind is deflected from its proper object, but that it is split, divided from itself. Switching back and forth between alternate moments of understanding, the viewer engaged in the pleasurable experience of imitative art undoes the notion of a universal vision tied to a common subjectivity, suggesting that there are in fact two conflicting ways of seeing the object–either as the real or as the representation…”

“Where the double-ness of trompe l’oeil appears, there a faith in our capacity to know the truth dissolves.”

“Indeed, the eye even takes pleasure in its own capacity for misapprehension, treasuring its own capacity to be duped. Seeing imitative painting, the subject has three moments of understanding (rather than one): the real is confused with, and then distinguished from, painting; the experience of the perceptual subject is divided with respect to its object, caught between moments of apprehension, enjoying an irresolution about the nature of the object; and finally, if the subject is satisfied that she has established the true nature of the object as artifice, she nonetheless plays with the moment of her own credulity, taking pleasure in the perceptual doubleness of her own impressions. As Carol Armstrong argues, trompe l’oeil always compels us to focus on the blurring and confusion of boundaries: it is “where the threshold between the two-dimensional and the three-dimensional is explored and where the appearance of becoming-real is the name of the game.”[9] If such equivocation is itself the stuff of subjectivity, the perceiving subject is hardly a stable locus of perceptual knowledge.”

So essentially you see an apple, you realize it’s a painting of an apple, you muse on how you are able to slip between impressions of the real/the image. Levine goes on to say that the pleasure we get from looking at a trompe l’oeil isn’t that we could be fooled but that we could “detect the illusion.” Better the illusion the more satisfied you get at discovering it.

“The mind takes a perilously repetitive–potentially unending-pleasure in the temporal difference, the movement back and forth between its discovery of a falsehood and its prior moment of belief, turning in on itself by way of painting.”

Im not so sure about the ‘unending pleasure in the temporal difference’ in some ways the constant back and forth is a dizzying trap, if both impressions exist in the same place but contradict each other and there is no answer as to which has precedence, there would be a shift away from either impression and more of a focus on how the artist caused the perceptual experience to occur. In my work I want to integrate information of the process into the work, its my thought that grasping the process allows the to contradicting impressions to simultaneously exist but in a state of rest because the viewer sees what came first and how it was then transformed. There is a danger that by revealing the process in the work the viewer, upon detecting it, loses interest because the question of what they are seeing is seemingly answered. The object was real then it was painted to ‘look’ like a flat image of itself. My question is, does knowing the process tell us whether the work is a painting or as Ruskin put it is an ‘object of nature’ is there not still a contradiction? They are real objects but they are also painted representations of those objects both impressions existing together in the same place. My challenge is to generate and push this line of questioning with my works. Also to keep the balance that makes the works interesting, I have found that some of the works become to much about illusion and detecting the trick (and subsequently losing interest, cool but pretty one note ie. Fruit still life’s) I was looking through my work book and the image that drew me in the most was the chair/on canvas/in scene because I gathered depth information from the other objects in the room and I could see that way the light was creating shadows on the chair revealed it was a real object but at the same time the chair persistently looked flat like some kind of weird photo shopped image, but it also didn’t make sense that it had been photo shopped because the shadows were perfect alternatively if the image was flat and painted on the canvas behind it, the image of the chair would be distorted because the canvas clearly curved. The information was all there but it still didn’t add up to make me see the chair as a real object, despite that I knew it was and had spent hours painting the bloody thing. It’s this collection of visual cues that I mean to play around with. 

“Self-reflexive art is not a self-divided object, but an object that divides the subject, by offering us two mutually exclusive moments of experience–one of perceiving art as a reference to the real, the other of perceiving it as an artificial object”

“With imitation we have “the sensation of trickery and deception occasioned by a thing’s intentionally seeming different from what it is” (p. 101, emphasis added). But, if representation is always both an in-itself and a for-another, then even the most truth telling of mimetic objects is always capable of generating the double vision of trompe l’oeil, an alternating attention to the materials of art and to the world to which it refers. Indeed, if there is always a difference between representation and its object, then that difference can always become the focus of our attention. Reflexivity does not belong only to deliberately disruptive works of art. It is a fact of representation.”

This is a bit of an aside but it sprang to mind after reading this and my understanding of memory and how the brain functions: People understand the world and communicate through symbols, a collection of information that we have linked to a certain thing; lets say an apple, which allows us to recognize an apple. Also to communicate representations of an apple, so that others recognize links between what they are perceiving, and there own representation of what an apple is. Once general classification is reached elements of that particular apple can be catalogued and filed in the mass of connections that is everything you know about apples, what apples mean to you, your understanding of apples, how you communicate your representations about apples and how this differs from how the apple you have just perceived is being represented. Most of this happens unconsciously within a couple of seconds, with everything.

Levine continues by talking about how even Ruskin’s truthful art acknowledges itself as paint/canvas, it is Ruskin’s expectation that this acknowledgement will lead viewers to dismiss the information in preference to the object of representation.  Levine argues though that Ruskin’s theory demands a certain kind of viewer one that is accustomed to the conventions of painting so much so that they are dismissible. Similar to how when viewing a painting the frame/backing is largely ignored or to chuck another metaphor in there a teacher marking a bunch of essays ignores the exercise books they are written in paying attention instead to the content.

“In order for the spectator to ignore the medium, that viewer must find the materials thoroughly familiar, or conventional. Ruskin requires a subject who assumes the naturalness of particular materials so completely that they seem irrelevant. The only way of generating a stable experience, untroubled by the dislocation of the subject, is by using materials so familiar to that subject that they are, quite simply, uninteresting … it is not the media that allow themselves to be ignored, but rather a set of contingent, historical conventions, whereby some materials are so common that they fail to draw attention to themselves. The difference between referential and self-referential art is a difference generated by the subject, and located in history. Our capacity to disregard the medium is contingent on the familiarity of that medium. For a late-twentieth-century audience, a Polaroid photograph might be such a commonplace that we are likely to attend more to the scene it represents than to the act of photographing.”

 I suppose this may have something to do with my decision to play with traditional forms of painting in particular still life, to explore my theories. The strong historical foundation and wealth of associations around this art form help create that feeling of confusion/amusement/curiosity. The sensation of the familiar being jostled about has more impact than playing with the perception of something that’s already unusual. I also think it is appropriate given that its something a lot of us do when we are first learning about art, we study how to draw and paint by creating still life’s, portraiture and landscapes. Essentially how to take 3D visual cues and apply them to a flat 2D image to generate an illusion of depth and form (i.e. occlusion, perspective, shading, and aerial perspective), techniques that have been developed over many years through exploration of visual perception and visual communication of concepts and symbols. Seems appropriate to step back to those learning processes when discussing perception of the 2D/3D and asking questions about representation.



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