Trompe-l’œil: a metaphysics of observing

Fantasmagorie095After visiting the exhibit, “Une image peut en cacher une autre” at the Grand Palais yesterday, I realized that the the popularity of “The Mysterious Urn” (posted on 5/13/09) relied not only on political sympathies, but also on a way of seeing.  This imagery rewards the observer who looks beyond the obvious for vestiges or hints of other realities.  Like the exhibit artworks, the trompe-l’œil invites and in fact trains the eye to reverse black/white and scrutinize the contours, the blank spaces, the silences, for what might lie behind them.  The “Mysterious Urn” points to a metaphysics of observing, as well as a politics of mourning.  Note how the sunrays backlighting the “Mysterious Urn” illuminate the otherwise static seated figure and cast an expectant air on the scene, as if the Almighty were effecting some kind of miracle before our eyes.  Hopes for the king’s eventual martyrdom relied on a leap of faith (or credulous imagination) similar to those hopes that buoyed the heartbroken people who attended popular fantasmagoria shows after the Terror, and paid to bring loved ones back to life, if only for a moment, in a flimsy flickering image on a poorly-lit wall…

The fantasmagoria show pictured here is from Etienne-Gaspard Robertson, Mémoires récréatifs, scientifiques et anecdotiques d’un physicien-aéronaute, tome 1 : « La Fantasmagorie ». Éditeur : Cafe Clima (2000), where you will find many accounts of such events, and their effects on the spellbound audiences.  For an eloquent analysis of our attraction to this kind of image/spectacle, see Max Milner, La Fantasmagorie : essai sur l’optique fantastique, Paris, PUF, 1982.  A good, short account of this phenomenon is in Marie Lechner, “Les médias disparus,” Libé (August 2008).

Memory, spectacle, wishing, and grief… in a society wracked by trauma these words and feelings  interpenetrate and saturate the imaginary.  The codified genre of mysterious urns and weeping willows  functions like the literary genre of  “élégide”: “C’est un récit poétique, nécessairement plaintif et possiblement merveilleux, d’une passion, c’est-à-dire d’une souffrance.” [a poetic account, necessarily plaintive and possibly marvelous, of a passion, that is, of suffering.  –J.J Regnault-Warin, L’Ange des prisons (1817).]

What other kinds of codified, trompe-l’œil, layered memorials existed in the post-revolutionary period?

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