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  Art thrives on illusion when it attempts to convince that what is factitious is real. A painted landscape on a wall is a real landscape; the figures in the dome of a church are part of a real vision of Heaven vouchsafed to the viewer; a portrait actually breathes; the fly which the apprentice paints on the work and the teacher tries to brush away; the bunch of grapes is so lifelike that a bird tries to eat them. Such trompe l\'oeil work is characteristic of all areas and of all periods: the examples above, for example, are based on anecdotes from ancient Greece, Mogul India, Edo Japan and medieval Europe.

In a sense, all artists are magicians, because when they ‘imitate nature’ they conjure up a new world which has many features of the ‘real’ one. Hence works of art have often been the subjects of miraculous claims: wooden Madonnas cry, Ganesh\'s image dictates answers to a studying schoolchild, a statue comes to dinner and leads Don Giovanni to Hell. Such stories testify less to the existence of the supernatural than to the power of art or to the beholder\'s willingness to suspend what in theatrical circles would be termed disbelief.

The viewer\'s ‘consent’ with a work of art, his or her willingness not merely to enter into its world but to surrender to it, is a feature of our human eagerness to play, to make believe. We may believe entirely (as people do who see Christ\'s wounds bleeding as he hangs sculptured on the cross), or we may take a kind of ironical delight in pretending to believe, colluding with the artist. Artists have taken diametrically opposing views of their role in the process. Some claim, high-mindedly, that the ‘illusion’ of art is in fact a kind of meta-reality, that no kind of deception is practised. Others gleefully admit and parade their sleight of hand: the range is from Mantegna\'s use of sotto in su in the Renaissance (‘from below upwards’, painting figures on a church ceiling so that they look foreshortened), or the fake doors (sometimes half open, sometimes with servants disappearing through them, or gardens or other rooms just visible beyond) painted on the panelling of Baroque palaces such as Versailles, to those present-day portraits of spaniels and horror-film characters whose eyes ‘seem to follow you round the room’. PD MG KMcL

Further reading M. Battersby, Trompe l\'oeil; the Eye Deceived.



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