Seductive Reflexivity: Ruskin’s Dreaded Trompe l’oeil

Notes from Levine, Caroline. “Seductive Reflexivity: Ruskin’s Dreaded Trompe L’oeil.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56.4 (1998): 366–375.

p. 366

“…with Ruskin as my guide, I will consider the significant threat to realism posed by the double, ironic experience of trompe l’oeil. In defiance of its reputation as a low and vulgar art form, 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.”

p. 366-368

“For Ruskin, it is precisely in the moment of passage from one impression to the other that the pleasurable experience of imitative art resides. A temporal split is therefore fundamental to the effect: 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. Thus imitative art generates pleasure ‘not from the contemplation of a truth, but from the discovery of a falsehood’ (p. 108)– painting focused on its own deceptions.”

p. 368

“…the more conventionally ‘realistic’ the image, the less the work of art will tell us about the object it portrays. […] At its most referential, painting becomes self-referential, and in pretending to inhabit the real, painting–paradoxically–draws attention to itself as painting.”

p. 369-370

“In attempting to compel us to ignore the medium, Ruskin embraces a dichotomy that will certainly last through modernism: we may attend to the materials of art, or we may attend to the content of art, but to do both at once is impossible. With modernism, of course, it will be content that is most often abandoned, where for Ruskin it is the materiality of the medium.”

p. 371

“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 representational – both of which are necessarily involved in our pleasurable experience of imitative art.”

“…trompe l’oeil always compels us to focus on the blurring and confusion of boundaries…”

“…imitative art is dangerous because it teaches us to enjoy our own authority. We come to pride ourselves on knowing the score.”


“Thus art is truthful only when it captures a moment of lived visual experience, translating this experiential instant into the proportional relationships appropriate to the medium.”

“Thus the term ‘self-reflexivity’ is itself misleading, disregarding the crucial place of the subject in this process. 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, a skillful fabrication.”


“…the stable experience of truthful art requires a particular kind of subject, rather than a particular kind of painting.”


“The modernist emphasis on the medium is typically generated by the use of new materials, or by the unfamiliar use of conventional ones.”

“…trompe l’oeil can be seen as an intrinsically antirealist mimesis, an art that compels us to reflect on the making of art.”


“Unlike other mimetic projects, it does not seek to be like the real, but rather to seem to inhabit the real, and only then to announce its difference from that world. It is this, for Ruskin, that makes trompe l’oeil unsettling, bewildering, even offensive.”

p. 374

“Trompe l’oeil, consummate art of versimilitude, thus marks both the quintessence of realism and its impossibility.”

(in the endnotes) “…there would be little pleasure in trompe l’oeil if we never paid attention to the fact that it was a trick.” WHY PHOTOGRAPHY WASN’T THE BEST OPTION – this article also talks about the medium that is so ubiquitous that we see through it all the time – today that is photography.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s