We've all encountered trompe l'oeil at one time or another, even if we don't know how to spell or pronounce it. Roughly "to fool the eye" in French, it is a painting technique used to make an object look real rather than painted. One encounters it frequently at homey Italian-American restaurants decorated with red and white buffalo-check tablecloths and votive candles in red glass jars--the prerequisite lattice-work archways affixed to the walls framing charming rustic landscapes. You've eaten there. Their house specialty is spaghetti and meatballs and everything comes with a side of garlic bread.
Trompe l'oeil can be executed so skillfully that it elicits a gasp from the viewer upon discovery of the deception. I don't know a thing about art, and therefore make no claim as to the merit of any art employing this technique. I will say that at its best trompe l'oeil can display a painter's technical virtuosity (though its trickery and unsettling quality takes away from any purely decorative enjoyment I would gain from it); at its worst, trompe l'oeil is utterly depressing.
It's a struggle to put into words what feels so wrong about bad trompe l'oeil. It's really architectural trompe l'oeil that I hate the most. Something in my human nature wants a real doorway, a real window with a real view, a real plaza. These contain mystery. Where does the door lead? Is there a breeze blowing in the vineyard? Who will walk across the plaza?
How can the failure of the door to open be anything but disappointing? This is why I hate Cinderella's castle at Disneyland. I hate things that pretend so earnestly to be real but aren't, things that should have moving parts but don't, things I should be able to use but can't.
Don't get me wrong--I have no problem with building facades (as long as they're admitting that's all they are), decoration for decoration's sake (I love a good pattern and another and another), and "realistic" books and movies and art. But things that should work and don't make me crazy. Miniatures. Ugh.
I wish I could think of more examples of purely decorative flourishes in buildings that pretend to be functional. I'm drawing a blank, so I will have to use one from the house I grew up in. When my parents remodeled our house, they added on a beautiful porch with a gazebo-shaped roofed area off the dining room. The perimeter of the gazebo's roof was edged with a very architectural, sturdy-looking wood fence. Very excited, I thought there must have been a change of plans and that there would now be a balcony on the second floor. No. No access to the roof. What looked like one of the most delightful locations in the house was actually a place no one could ever go. Well, not without a ladder, anyway. And certainly not to sip lemonade on a sunny day.
I was bitterly disappointed. In the bookish reality I inhabited, places and objects were always MORE than they appeared, not less. One could step through a wardrobe or a puddle into a different world. In the bed-time stories my step-dad told us, my sisters and I would descend a stair-case in a tree to a hidden passage-way. We were captivated. There is something so magical about a fort, a tree-house, a tunnel, a planet whose surface is covered entirely with water where the "ground" moves in waves. These places, real and imaginary, send off little sparks of "other place-ness" in us, a place we can't quite put our finger on and can barely dare to hope to see.
To make things that look real but aren't is the antithesis of this world of possibilities. "Ha!" these things say. "I might look like something, but I'm really just a wall. This is all there is. There is nothing more." Well, OK, they don't say anything of the sort. It's just the way they make me feel.
Fortunately for me, I have an in-house antidote for "this is all there is." His name is Nels, and in his able hands an exercise step becomes a pirate ship, a cardboard holder for a six-pack of beer becomes an airplane, and a metal spring becomes an auger. Two nights ago Nels' dad fashioned him a rocket ship out of two boxes. It is hinged in the middle so Nels can climb in and out, and has a handle so he can pull it shut once he's inside. It has windows, a steering device (it doesn't move, but it IS 3-D), and drawn-on controls. When Nels settled in, drawing the top closed and peering out the windows at our family room from his new perspective in outer space, it was obvious that he was enjoying a glimpse into an "other," wonderful place.