Pere Borrell del Caso and trampantojo

Pere Borrell del Caso
Pere Borrell del Caso

“…Everything that deceives may be said to enchant…

                                                                                                     – Plato

Have you ever heard of the word trampantojo in relationship to art?  Maybe if you are Spanish you will have come across this Spanish word, which means “sleight of hand” or “trick”.  If I had asked you whether you knew what trompe-l’œil meant then maybe there would have been more hands up as this is a more common artistic term but similar in meaning to trampantojoTrompe-l’œil is a French phrase which literally means “deceives the eye” and, in painting terms, refers to an artistic technique that deliberately has in mind to hoodwink the viewer into thinking that he or she is seeing the depicted object or person in 3-D when of course it is just a two dimensional representation of it.  One looks blearily at the work desperately trying to fathom out the boundaries between the real and the imaginary.

Still Life  by Pieter-Claesz
Still Life with Oysters by Pieter-Claesz (c.1633)

The English artistic term often used for this technique is illusionism, something which creates an illusion of reality in a work of art.  We often see such an illusion in still-life works, such as the Still Life with Oysters by the 17th century Dutch Golden Age painter, Pieter Claesz, in which we see the rind from a peeled lemon lying over the edge of a silver salver which itself overlaps the table, giving the painting a sense of depth as if it was a 3-D image.

This artistic trickery is not a new phenomenon as it is said to go back to around 5th century BC.  Pliny the Elder in his AD 79 book, Naturalis Historia wrote about a myth involving an artistic contest, which happened around that time between the two greatest Greek painters of that era, Parrhasius and Zeuxis.  Zeuxis was born in Heraclea sometime around 464 BCE and was said to be the student of Apollodorus, a painter who lived at the end of the 5th century BC and introduced great improvements in perspective and chiaroscuro.  Parrhasius of Ephesus was a contemporary of Zeuxis. Both artists produced works on both wooden panels and frescoes on walls.  Each of the painters believed that they were the greatest artist of the time and so they decided that once and for all to settle the matter with a painting contest, a kind of painting duel!    They assigned themselves two areas of a wall, each invisible from the other, so that they might work in private. Each artist was then set the task of painting a mural.   They also arranged for a set of knowledgeable people to become judges for the competition.  The contest was all about producing a realistic depiction and the one thing they had in common they were both skilled in the technique we now refer to trompe-l’œil.

The competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasius
The competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasius

The artists completed their works, each of which was covered by a curtain.  Zeuxis work was to be viewed first and he drew back the curtain.  On the wall he had painted a simple bowl of mixed fruit.  It was a beautifully painted still life work. Sunlight shone down on the pale green surface of the pears and made them seem moist and firm. The pomegranates Zeuxis had depicted were so well painted that the judges and onlookers could almost taste them.  The audience was stunned by Zeuxis’ artistic mastery and whilst they stood before his work a bird, which had been perched on the wall above, flew down straight into the painted bowl of fruit, from which it had hoped to fly off with one of the succulent-looking grapes.  The bird hit his head on the wall and fell to the ground, a victim of illusion.  His work was the height of realism and Zeuxis was sure he had won, notwithstanding what his fellow artist, Parrhasius had conjured up.

The judges and the crowd, now led by Zeuxis, moved towards the curtained wall on which Parrahasius had painted his work.  The people stared at the curtain, behind which they believed hid Parrahasius’ work.  Zeuxis asked his rival to pull the curtain aside and so all could see the work behind it.  Parrahasius told him and the crowd that it was not possible.  His words baffled the onlookers.  He then turned to them to say the curtain was actually the work he had completed.  Although the work by Zeuxis fooled the bird by its realism, Parrahasius’ curtain had been so real that it had fooled Zeuxis, the judges and the crowd.  Parrahasius won the day.

My blog today looks at a Spanish artist who used the trampantojo technique in a number of his works.  He is the nineteenth century painter Pere Borrell del Caso.   He was born in 1835 in the Catalonian village of Puigcerdà, which lies close to the Spanish-French border and some twenty kilometres south east of Andorra.  His father was a carpenter and he taught his son the art of working with wood.  He eventually left home and went to Barcelona where he attended art classes at the Escola de la Llotja, the prestigious School of Fine Arts in BarcelonaTo earn some money for food, lodgings and to pay for his education he worked part time as a carpenter making wooden chests.

Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso
Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso (1874)

Although he was a portraitist as well as an accomplished painter of religious scenes, many of which are housed in the Museu Nacional d’ Art de Catalunya in Barcelona, he is probably best known for his trompe-l’œil works.  Borrell was a great believer in realism in art and felt that the Romanticism genre of art, which was the cornerstone of art education at the Llotja in Barcelona, was not the way art should be taught.  He set up his own academy of drawing and painting, the Sociedad de Bellas Artes, in which he sort to introduce his students to the world of realism in art and sought to influence his students with the works of the contemporary Catalan painters such as Romà Ribera, Ricard Canals and the muralist, Josep Maria Sert.  He encouraged his students to leave the confines of the school and paint en plein air.  Pere Borrell fervently believed in his teaching methods so much so that he turned down offers to become a professor of at the Llotja.   It is thought that his rejection of the chair at the Llotja with its rigid academic stance to art tuition and its ruthless critique of the work of its students was foremost in his mind when he created one of his most famous paintings, the oil on canvas work, Fugint de la critica (Escaping Criticism) which he completed in 1874 and which is now part of a collection owned by the Bank of Spain.

Cropped image
Cropped image

This painting is a classic example of trampantojo.   So how has the artist “converted” this work into a 3-D image?  It is simply the way in which he has positioned the boy’s hands, feet, and head outside the painted canvas area and continued the depiction on the surrounding frame and it is that which makes it look like the boy is climbing out of the painting in a desperate attempt to escape.  It is that which heightens the illusion.   I have cropped the image (above) so that only the depiction on the canvas is shown and one can now see it becomes more of a normal two-dimensional image rather than a 3-D one.  The depiction of the poorly dressed, bare-footed boy with his dishevelled hair, and terrified expression desperately trying to escape out of the picture is so realistic and the effect is further heightened by the trampantojo technique.   Many believe that Borrell’s depiction  mirrored his own desperate attempt to free himself from the confines of official academic training methods of art and the art critics of his day who championed the Romantic art of the time, with all its heroic figures and who were highly critical of art which depicted the not so pleasant “real” world.  The title of the work is Escape from Criticism and this probably indicative of the struggle young artists had to go through with the constant bombardment of criticism from so-called knowledgeable art critics.

Two Laughing Girls by Pere Borrell del Caso
Two Laughing Girls by Pere Borrell del Caso (1880)

The second work of Pere Borrell I wanted to feature is one he completed in 1880 entitled Two Laughing Girls which can be found at the Museu del Modernisme Català (Museum for Catalan Modernism)In this painting, Borrell has ingeniously depicted the two girls partly entering our space.

Two Laughing Girls by Pere Borrell del Caso (detail)
Two Laughing Girls by Pere Borrell del Caso (detail)

He has achieved this effect by depicting the girl in the green dress leaning her elbow on the ornamental picture frame.   The girl with a blue ribbon in her hair, in the background, extends her hand right hand towards us and her index finger almost seems as if it is coming out of the painting.

Supper at Erasmus by Caravaggio
Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio

The elbow of the girl which seems to be extending out of the painting reminds me of Caravaggio’s work Supper at Emmaus in which the elbow of the man in the left foreground, with his back to us, seems to “come out’ of the picture.  The effect is enhanced by the small splash of white on his green coat sleeve in way of his elbow.   The 3-D effect is also enhanced by the positioning of the basket of fruit overhanging the edge of the table.

People are fascinated by the trompe-l’œil technique and there have been many exhibitions of works of art featuring works that have incorporated this method.  Borrell’s Escaping Criticism featured in many exhibitions such as the Deceptions and Illusions, Five Centuries of Trompe l’ Oeil Painting, exhibition in 2002 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  Again it was shown at the 2008 exhibition Lura Ogat at the National Museum of Stockholm.    The following year the painting was exhibited in Japan at the Visual Deception exhibition in the Nagoya City Art Museum and at The Bunkamura Museum of Art in Tokyo. In 2010 the painting was displayed in the exhibition Täuschend  Echt. Illusion und Wirklichkeit in der Kunst, held in the Bucherius Kunst Forum, a private art gallery in Hamburg.

Pere Borrell del Caso is probably not a household name outside of Catalonia but there is no doubt his trompe-l’œil paintings have, for many years, fascinated many observers.