Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
History of Art
This dissertation explores intersections between trompe l'oeil painting and photography. It began as an interest in contemporary photographers, such as Thomas Demand, whose photographs of constructed paper models encourage viewers to discover the nature of his interventions. His strategy resonates with a centuries-old strategy in trompe l'oeil painting, but now in the terms of photographic, rather than pictorial presence. That is, most of Demand's photographs do not compel the viewer's belief in the tangible presence of the object represented; instead, they exploit photography's indexical promise of delivering the world as it once appeared, in order to temporarily trick viewers about the terms of that indexical delivery. Beyond intersections in artistic strategies, I track reception accounts of trompe l'oeil painting and photography for their reliance on a credulous spectator. Pliny's Zeuxis, who is tricked by Parrhasius's painting of a curtain, remains the model for this errant credulity. In their efforts to reveal the manipulation of photographs, historians and theorists assume that the natural attitude for viewing photographs is wholly credulous and recast postmodern viewers as contemporary Zeuxises. Instead of admonishing spectators for such credulity, I argue that trompe l'oeil facilitates a pleasurable experience of oscillation between belief and disbelief. I also suggest that these trompe l’oeil deployments of oscillation tend to coincide with historical moments of perceived change in visual technologies—changes due to digitalization, as well as mechanical or other forms of reproduction. Trompe l'oeil artists play upon our supposed willingness to accept reproductions for the objects they represent. The inclusion of photographs and/or engravings in these trompe l’oeil paintings simultaneously stages and reprimands our desire for the aura of the actual object. Finally, I suggest that a contemporary renewal of trompe l'oeil in the medium of photography reveals an interest in recuperating belief in photographs—a belief not unlike that which Roland Barthes narrates in Camera Lucida. Just as Barthes can discover something of photography's indexical promise, even after decades of his own scholarly efforts to unveil photography's rhetoric of construction, so might we, even while heeding the postmodernist lessons of disbelief, recuperate a moment of belief in a skeptical age.
Robbins, Carrie. "Credulous Spectatorship from Zeuxis to Barthes" PhD diss., Bryn Mawr College, 2013.