Every work of art contains a calculated element of deception. But the art of trompe l'oeil pushes deception to extremes. It is flagrant, almost hubristic in its wish to deceive, like some conjuror whose final hand is a risky act of sheer bravura at which he simply cannot afford to fail. Trompe l'oeil, in short, is optical illusionism overlarded with attention-grabbing special effects.
This big show, staged in a 16th-century palazzo in Florence, tells the story of trompe l'oeil from Roman times to the modern day. It is a stagily staged show about an art of pure staginess. As we pass from gallery to gallery – which are often false galleries set within larger galleries – we find ourselves twisting, turning, doubling back, wondering whether at some point we will meet ourselves, perplexed, coming the other way. The gallery entrances are often tricked out to resemble picture frames. One long corridor looks like the three-dimensional re-enactment of a particularly effective piece of trompe l'oeil. Many of the paintings hang in recessed spaces, as if the framed object is being framed by the gallery itself.
The exhibits – most of them are paintings, but there are also books, medical specimens, sculptures, fabrics, decorative wall tiles and much else – are often quite small and very often they look smaller still because of their fussy attention to detail. What is more, the paintings often show objects which are comfortably familiar and relatively unchallenging. A game bird hanging from a hook. A vase of begonias. There are too many game birds reeking, upside down, in this show. We get a little tired of seeing them. There are also works which should not have been here at all – the medical specimens from the 18th century, for example. What have they to do with trompe l'oeil?
The show's most interesting works are by Americans. The paintings of a little known artist called Otis Kaye, who died in 1974, are particularly fascinating. The subject matter of Kaye's works is American money – the greenback, pinned to a board, hanging by a thread, tangible enough to be snatched at. Given the illusory nature of money, and what a deception it often proves to be, it is perhaps not surprising that trompe l'oeil should be employed to show it off at its slippery best. So real. So trickily unreal.
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