The deception of the Art
Understanding the perception of reality

by Jizaino, 12 April 2010


Many people know that famous anecdote about the fourteenth-century painter Giotto, who one day, still a student at the bottega, painted a fly on the nose of a figure frescoed by the teacher Cimabue; the fly was so much well painted that the teacher acknowledged the trick only after having tried to send it away with the hand several times.
Cimabue fell in the deception of his student, and for this he considered him an already skilled artist superior to himself.
This anecdote is perhaps the most classical example that remembers us that the Art manifests itself as deception, and that the artist is the one who realize this deception to the best.

To say the truth, the Artist is just an accomplice of this deception, because the deceiver is in primis the image in itself: the image is deception, it is a virtual, partial, relativistic and interpretative representation.
In fact, with the word artifice we also intend a mystification.

Anyway, as we will see, the deception given by the Art offers a positive opportunity in favour of the observer.

In the history of the Art, the deception has been a constant presence and there are examples even in the frescos of ancient Greece.

In the same epoch, the philosopher Plato was posing the question about the deception given by the image, and of how the sensorial perception can deceive our sense of the reality.
In his "myth of the cave" he hypothesizes the condition of a person confined since the birth in the bottom of a dark cave, and chained in such a way that he can see only a wall of the cave in which his jailers, hidden behind a wall, are projecting the weak shadows of shapes, animating them in front of a fire.
This person, having never seen the world outside, would believe that the reality is made of those shapes and the resounding echoes. This person, if brought out of the cave by that time in advanced age, he would have an unbearable trauma in denying his "reality", and in front of the opportunity to opt for a world of blinding light he probably would prefer to return to his "normal" condition of segregation.

The myth of the cave let us to understand that man is naturally given to the belief in his sensorial perception. Plato, as the artists, cares to warn the people from this deception.

The deception in the visual arts was called with the term Trompe-l'œil (deceiving the eye) only starting from the Baroque period, epoch that saw the triumph of this kind of paintings and frescoes, which were the fruit of the studies about perspective divulged starting from the Renaissance. The Trompe-l'œil had various intents: to make rooms to seem wider or to simulate openings on the ceiling toward the sky thanks to false sights; to enrich the architectures with decorations cheaper than the sculptural ones, like false friezes, columns, statues and windows (technique used still nowadays that takes the name of quadraturism); or as jokes of giottesque kind; and obviously as simple demonstrations of one's own pictorial virtues.


Andrea Mantegna
Fresco in the Camera degli Sposi
Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, 1473

Johann Heinrich Füssli
Trompe-l'œil, 1750
49 × 36,5 cm

Today the pictorial art of deceiving the eye is a little old-fashioned, because the advent of the photography (and then of the three-dimensional graphics) has vanished the last goal of the hyper-realistic painting, relegating it in the purest technical virtuosity.

In a period that has seen to grow the interest for the photography, the famous surrealist painter René Magritte, remembers us the teaching of Plato, that the image is a deception. Magritte, and all the Surrealism, founds his Art upon this concept of mendacity of the image; a concept expressed in a direct and emblematic way by his most famous painting "La trahison des images" (The betrayal of the images), which brings the attention of the beholders on the fact that the represented one on the canvas is not a pipe (but it is the image of a pipe).


René Magritte
"La trahison des images", 1928-1929
Oil on canvas, 63,5 x 93.98 cm

Again, about the middle of the XX century, another artistic movement was devoted in a more specific way to the visual deception: it was the Op Art or Optical Art, which uses true optic illusions to put the observer in front of the dimensional paradoxes.
Again the Art puts us in front of the deception of our senses, but above all of how even the brain is fallacious.


Victor Vasarely
"Vega - Tettye", 1976

Bridget Louise Riley
"Cataract 3" (detail), 1967


Anyway the Art and the artists, as Plato too, care about making the beholder conscious of this deception; and to do this it uses the same deception. It is not therefore fate if today the contemporary Art does it not only visually, but also conceptually, using that "intellectual spurs" proper of the philosophers.

In the modern Art this will to unmask the deception of the image is present more and more, just like it was almost a self-criticism, a denounce of its own capability to deceive.
This happens in all the artistic disciplines, for example in the sculptures of people that seem true, created by artists like Duane Hanson, before, and then Ron Mueck: in a technological evolution started with the wax statues, these artists realize human figures of fibres or polymers of the extraordinary realism, even being subjects that are evidently false and surreal.


Duane Hanson
"Man with camera", 1991
Detail, ~ 132 x 99 x 79 cm

Ron Mueck
No title (Shaved head), 1998
Detail, height 50 cm


These sculptures do not have just the purpose to deceive the observer to the end, because they represent situations often impossible or in a lower or higher scale than normal, even though visually realistic. These artworks want to vivify intangible ideas, philosophical and metaphysical intuitions, materially putting them in front of us. In this kind of artworks it is evident the will to make the deception of the Art an opportunity of cognitive elevation, of perceptive emancipation. Vivifying the unreality, the beholder, unaware or forgetful of the deception, comes to understand the narrowness of his perception of the reality.

Also the Swiss duo Peter Fischli & David Weiss realizes absolutely realistic sculptures of common objects and whole furnitures reproduced in polymeric fibres and manually painted, in order to then compose them in installations that seem real messy and dirty places: they are sculptural Trompe-l'œil. But in this case, differently from Hanson and Mueck, and apart the conceptual and social values of the proposed subjects, the will to deceive the observer is total: the deception is revealed only by the knowledge to be in front of reproductions, or by the artwork labels.


Peter Fischli & David Weiss
Untitled (Rotterdam), 2000-2004
installation of hand painted reproductions

Also Thomas Demand is another contemporary artist who works with the perceptive deception: his artworks consist in photographs of rooms that seem absolutely real, but that indeed they are photos of models realized with common cardboard. In this case the perceptive deception has two stages: the material reproduction and the photographic one. Also those painters that portray from photographs subject the reality to two different stages of reproduction.


Thomas Demand
"Archive", 1995
photographic print, 183.8 x 230.8 cm


Also the photography and the cinema are arts of the illusion and of the deception. Many believe that the photography is absolutely a truthful medium, that represents the reality as how it is, as much as to be used as incontestable proofs in a trial.
But the photographic realism and the cinema Neorealism do not exist: the cinematographic or photographic device is always a method to do samplings, to mediate the reality, moreover it is used by a human being that has an own vision of the reality, and therefore he will make choices even unwilling.
The most serious lack of these media consists in omitting the totality of the reality, because they are finite windows, they are partial visions, both in time and in space, from which an image of the reality filtrates: the image which is deception.
An evident example of mystifying photograph is the famous case of "Le Baiser de l'Hotel de Ville" by Robert Doisneau, of which i have already talked in this file-card of the Collection.

The important thing is not much if the artwork represents or not the reality of things, but it is the message that brings, even thanks to the deception: the image must be considered for what it communicates, but not pretending that it have a bond with the reality.

In the cinema, which is perhaps the most deceptive of the arts, it is again exposed the classical myth of the cave. Films like "The Matrix" by the Watchowski brothers do not do nothing more than to bring back again the fundamental idea of Plato, modernizing it with situations more suitable to the modern era. In "The Matrix" as in other films of the kind, like "The Truman Show", he who is "took out of the cave" sees the ruin of his own world of imagination which is surely more inviting, perfect and pleasant than the crude reality, and like in the myth he could prefer the cave.

From "The Matrix" it is an instant to reach the latest frontier of the deception: the Virtual Reality, that however today represents that territory in which the Art loses the ability to warn of the deception of the image, being that the special dominion of the serpentine will, fortunately of scarce success, to propose the deception as alternative reality, often to redeem an oppressive real life.
This way, in the Virtual Reality are rising more and more sparkling and inviting worlds, communities of souls that choose their own platonic cave.



Also in the Nature the perceptive and sensorial deception is in use, but in this case we are speaking about mimesis aimed to the survival: the creatures defend themselves with mimicry and camouflage, both to escape the sight of the predator, and to look menacing to frighten it.

By the social point of view, the deception given by the perceptive fallacy is an aspect of our psyche that is academically studied and exploited for commercial purpose: from the advertising, to the subliminal messages, to the multi-sensorial stimulation that instils associations between consumer products and instincts.
Wanting to complete this panoramic view on the mystifying capability of the Art, also the beautician make-up is an example of social practice finalized to deceive the other, improving the look of a person, that is to say creating an artifice, an altered perception of the reality.


Revelation of the artistic deception

The image is deception; we may say: appearances are deceiving.

The Art is fiction, artifice, deception. But this deception is done for beneficent, humanitarian purpose: the deception of the Art is revealing by manifesting itself as what it is, therefore it becomes a warning that reveals the mystification.
The Art serves for this: to go beyond, to break the limits of the Virtual Realities, to shed a light in the cave making it visible to the people that sometimes find themselves imprisoned in it without their knowledge.

Since ever, the function of the Art is the one to go beyond and to bring back; it is the ability to see beyond the limits of our mystifying perception and to know how to prophetically communicate to whom is still trapped within that limits. As the primitive men made, telling to the others what they had seen in the grasslands, drawing it on the walls of the cave.

Jizaino -





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