Artful Lies

August 22, 2010

A Goddess of Knowledge carries her golden books in the magnificent library designed by Baroque-architect Christian Wiedemann. It was completed in 1744 inside the Wiblingen Abbey near Ulm, Germany

It’s next time again.

Don’t you love it when an idea just sort of grabs you and will not let go? I suppose, if you know me, the attraction of the following idea is sort of a no-brainer. Of course I would love this concept to death. It is in my nature to glom onto the seduction of visual paradox.

The idea comes simply stated. An innocent little phrase masquerading as not much. It comes from Andy Grundberg who is the chair of Photography at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, and also a columnist for the New York Times. He has a new book out, Crisis of the Realand this quote was slipped into a review of it in the Weekend Arts section of the Financial Times (which is a newly found highly recommended love).

“The most intriguing contemporary photographs are those where everything is ‘simultaneously true and false, authentic and artificial’.“

So what’s the big deal? We’ve all sort of heard this before, haven’t we? We are blase to the miracles of Photoshop. No one believes centerfold skin is real. Avatar in 3D is yesterday’s news. With enough time and money you can pretty much do anything you want. The Lord of the Rings on film comes to mind. Special Effects have become so perfect who knows anymore what is “special” and what is real?

The paradox Andy Grundberg states so clearly cuts deeply into the core of art itself and I found myself thinking about it for most of the summer.

I know you love this idea as much as I do. When you think about the photographs you really love you undoubtedly find Truth in them. Photography can be a billboard for deception and it can also be a preserved moment of reality. But we know there is Art lurking back there behind the shutter in the genius of the photographer or behind the gaussian blur of the skillfully applied Photoshop layer. If all Art is magic, surely photography is the trickiest art form of them all. Does the seductive clutch of this idea go beyond Photography?

One of the doorways in the the Grimani Palace in Venice. This palazzo was closed for 25 years and has now re-opened. The precious marbles are worked into the architecture and displayed like abstract paintings.

The adventure, for me, started in an incredible time machine of a 16th century palazzo near the church of Santa Maria Formosa in Venice. The Grimani Palace, after being closed for 25 years, is newly restored and open only by appointment. I was lucky enough to tour it with a hugely impressive Venetian decorative arts specialist and although most of the discussion with one of the tour guides happened in Italian so far above my linguistic clearance that it made my head swim; just seeing their excitement and feeling their focus made the tour unforgettable.

Detail of a marble cornice inside the Grimani Palace

In one of the many splendid rooms, the discussion turned to the precious nature of marble. This room was a treasure vault but all the treasure was stuck on the walls in roundels and mantles and figureheads. This marble was from all over the world and it was treated architecturally like a holy relic.

Venice is home to some of the most significant marble in the world. The interior and exterior walls of the church of San Marco are festooned with Byzantine marble brought back from many Crusades. The most valuable marble, I think, is a deep purple and is called porphyry. Once you start to see this, you see it everywhere in Venice and it is so valuable they build (usually round) frames for it and work it into the architecture of the building.

You know how when something finally gets on to your radar screen and you suddenly see it all over the place? Well, marble on this trip was like that for me. Later in the summer we went to Germany and toured many churches and palaces of the German high Baroque and Rococo. Marble is everywhere in this and the exotic colors and their splashy, over the top use of marble pretty much blows your mind.

The bland exterior of the Weiskirche south of Munich, Germany surrounds a creamy Rococo filling

The tiny Weiskirche is a Rococo masterpiece designed by Dominikus Zimmermann in the late 1740s. It is located way out in the forest in southern Germany and gets over a million visitors a year.

I was jaded by the splendors of Venetian marble in Grimani palace, and then the legendary Rococo splendor of the Bishop’s palace in Wurtzburg and the masterpiece of the Weiskirche south of Munich so when my jaw hit the floor in the Wiblingen Abby library outside the city of Ulm, I thought I had finally gone to heaven and it was not paved in streets of gold but in old books and exotically colored marbles.

The ornate library of the Wiblingen Abbey near Ulm Germany is a bibliophile’s flamboyant dream. It has been included in a few of the top ten lists of the world’s most beautiful buildings. The Benedictine monastery of Wiblingen describes its famous library as a glorification of human knowledge and heavenly wisdom.

I was photographing like a mad man with this huge grin on my face and finally put the camera down. Since we were in this incredible room totally by ourselves I just could not help it. I know you’re not supposed to but I reached out to feel the cold marble of a particularly gorgeous round piece of porphyry and as my fingertips caressed the surface, the dream I had been living was suddenly shattered. It was completely fake! It was just painted wood! Was everything in this room phony? Yes it was. It was all painted wood and only because we were in there alone and could get so intimately close did we realize the deception. I was duped. Or was I?

An allegorical goddess of Architecture holds a golden compass under a frescoed ceiling painted by Martin Kuen around 1750.

We’ve all seen faux marble. I have some in my living room and I thought the guy who painted it was never going to leave. But this marble painting was on another level. It was outrageously risky. There was nothing tentative about it. It carried off its illusory mission with a bravado that left you gasping.

Oliver Stone had to defend his artistic vision of current events in his 1991 film JFK. On the right is a painting by the cubist painter Georges Braque – Man with a Guitar [Ceret, summer 1911] Oil on canvas 45 3/4 x 31 7/8 in. courtesy The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

I remember the uproar about Oliver Stone’s movie JFK. People were screaming, “But young people are going to think this is what actually happened!” Well, guess what? It’s a movie. It’s not a history book. What also comes to mind is that great quote of perhaps Gertrude Stein? When someone complained that a newly painted modern painting didn’t even look like a woman, she said something pithy like, “Well, it’s not a woman – it’s a painting.”

Where does this leave the search for Truth in art? Where is that positive core that seems timeless and reaches for something universally authentic? I can’t wait to hear your thoughts about this. I prefer the real marble in the Grimani Palace to the fake marble in the intricately painted Wiblingen library. I like the real Venice – which everyone complains is a “stage set” to the modern replica Las Vegas. But one of the most fascinating things about Art is after all the artifice. The cubist painter George Braque maybe said it best: “Art is made to disturb. Science reassures. There is only one valuable thing in art: the thing you cannot explain.”

Until next time with much love,


  • Martina says:

    The idea of the trompe l’oie in these painted copies of marble intrigues me– how you have caught the paradox and tension between truth and lies in what is presented to be seen. How amazing to not realize until TOUCHED, that the porphyry is painted!

    I have been remembering the room in the palace in Bavaria of “Mad Ludwig’s”, where the whole room is of stained glass to look like autumn leaves. Being inside it is like being inside a Tiffany window of autumn leaves, dappled colors changing with changing light; amber, golden, russet, alizarin crimson, and even midnight blue, and some chartreuse and lemon yellow. And, without rain falling, or crunching leaves under foot. I was thinking about people who said that the leaves weren’t as brilliant back east this year, because of the climate change. Those stained glass colors are infinitely brilliant, and do not disappoint. The paradox of the real, the illusion, the gift of art, which is somehow drawing us into the core experience of the really real.

    Great reflection, Tom, thanks again!

  • Martina says:

    Wow, Sarah, that is a beautiful discussion of the illusory and the real. And I like the way the intersection of geography, autobiography and metaphor helps make what is at the core most vital, most interesting, least likely to be trivial or dubious or boring. When you said that line about the affection for life, I thought of Vincent Van Gogh, who said “the best way to know life is to love many things.” Recently I was listening to a tape about the enneagram, and the way of knowing through the 9 character types who each filter reality through their main axis of character. It is very interesting to think that to get to truth there are 9 points of view to consider. And of course, we know other systems which use different filters which may at any one time seem even more compelling.

    How beautiful the works are which draw us deeper into our own hearts, our own affections! To know life more deeply, loving many things!

  • Tom–thanks for a wonderful tour into the cool and wooden worlds of real and faux marble! I have a book to recommend on the subject of the elusive “positive core” and its multifarious reduplications: Phantom Communities: the Simulacrum and the Limits of Postmodernism by Scott Durham (Stanford University Press, 1998). Here’s the description from SUP’s website:

    “The author pursues two interwoven levels of analysis. On one level, he explores the poetics of the simulacrum, considered as a form that internalizes repetition, through close readings of a number of exemplary literary texts, paintings, and films from both the Anglo-American and French traditions, including works by Jean Genet, Pierre Klossowski, René Magritte, Andy Warhol, J. G. Ballard, Balthus, and Raúl Ruiz. Through his readings of these works, the author follows the transformations of the simulacrum, showing how its vicissitudes provide an optic for remapping the postmodern canon.

    On another level, the author offers an account of the role played by the simulacrum as a theoretical concept that assumes varying analytical and ideological valences in the writings of such theorists as Jean Baudrillard, Fredric Jameson, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze. In so doing, Phantom Communities intervenes in ongoing interdisciplinary debates concerning the historical and ideological limits of postmodernism, as well as the utopian possibilities of art, literature, and philosophy in a postmodern context.”


    The play between shadow and substance—the illusory and the “real”—takes us back once more to Plato’s cave. The quotation marks I put around the word real signal my suspicion that there is no single transcendent “original”—no one “authenticating source” for all the shadows we experience; I am more inclined to think this fantasy of antecedent is itself the dubious energy source feeding all artistic process and production. Was it Voltaire who said if God didn’t exist we would have to invent him?

    That said, I do like your use of the word, “core” in relation to the real. A core is not separate from an entirety: it is right in the midst of it. A core is immanent, not transcendent. It is geological, horticultural, psychological. It is embedded.

    Core, Coeur, Chord, Accord.

    The mind is built to investigate and evaluate, to discern between copy and original, highbrow and lowbrow, sophistication and kitsch, etc.

    The heart knows what it feels in relation to relations. The heart has its reasons reason knows nothing of.

    Recently I’ve been re-reading Barthes’s Camera Lucida, which offers that marvelous term, “punctum,” for the experience of being “pricked” by a photograph. I have also been reading Robert Adams’s book, Beauty in Photography (from the wonderful aperture series). Adams writes, of landscape photography, “Landscape pictures can offer us, I think, three verities—geography, autobiography, and metaphor. Geography is, taken alone, sometimes boring, autobiography is frequently trivial, and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together, as in the best work of people like Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Weston, the three kinds of information strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact—an affection for life.”

    That last phrase caught me unaware, and I read it over and over, as though discovering its importance for the first time. An affection for life.

    I like this sense of art. Art helps us keep intact our affection for life: un-torn, un-fragmented, un-dissipated. Reintegrated. In the deep acts of attention that good art calls us to perform, we feel connected, we “take heart” in creative reaffirmations of a tenuous faith: we are here to care for the earth, we are here to discover and render its most profound connections. Geography, autobiography, metaphor. Art lives in this triangulated core.

  • abe frajndlich says:

    “Photography, as we all know, is not real at all. It is an illusion of reality with which we create our own private world.”

    ~ Arnold Newman

    “Photography deals exquisitely with appearances, but nothing is what it appears to be.”

    ~ Duane Michals

    “Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever… it remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.”

     ~ Aaron Siskind

    To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

    ~ Elliott Erwitt

  • hello tom,

    it’s taken me awhile to get to this month’s contribution. and i’m sorry i didn’t have time to get to it sooner. as always you so handily manage to tickle both the brain and the imagination.

    the first point, is from the get-go and the 8 hour exposure of niepce in 1826 and those early one of a kind images of daguerre a full thirteen years later, this medium was very seriously and heavily playing with the “real” and the rendering of the “real.” we were all going to go along with this new convention, and those it messed with the most, were the painters who thought they knew what their domain was.

    photographic vision has changed the ways we all look and understand the world, and the better we get with it’s language and the hardware being fine tuned daily to render it, the more this dichotomy will play out.

    thank you as always, tom for stretching each of us a bit further than we thought capable.

    til the next time


  • Henry Adams says:

    Dear Tom—As usual, this is a thought-provoking blog and the photos are just wonderful. I think what’s intriguing is that some fakery gets on one’s nerves while other forms of fakery provide a sort of wonderful vacation trip out of reality. This library is definitely a great vacation trip. It makes me feel that I should redo my living room!



  • Dear Tom,

    Around fifteen years ago I went to see an exhibition of photographs of George Pratt Lynes in NY, where a photo of Gloria Swanson taken in the fifties was displayed. “Yesterday Glamor Queen” was indeed looking very much like Norma Desmond herself. George had asked Gloria what she thought about retouching her pictures, which she replied: “Preserve the illusion darling, but there’s no need to go mad”…well, when I read the introduction to your topic I thought of that. By the way, I went to visit the Getty Villa in Malibu again this year, and I ended up taking pictures of the amazing combination of marbles, treating them a bit like amazing abstracts pieces of art….I enjoyed very much your ARTFUL LIES blog!

    Congratulations Tom!


  • Dana Ivey says:

    This summer I played Winnie in HAPPY DAYS by Samuel Beckett, for 3 weeks at the Westport Playhouse. The hardest thing I have ever done. She is stuck up to her waist (and later up to her neck) in a mound and cannot move. Completely artificial situation. And yet within that there was the reality of feelings and observation, human emotions that ran a gamut, fear and sadness, joy and terror — all very real to the character at the time, and real emotions that all people share. Of course, theatre is ultimately artificial but/and presents real life.

    Regarding porphyry — I have been to the porphyry mine in Egypt where the porphyry was taken for the Roman world. I brought home a piece of porphyry from the site — way into the Eastern desert of Egypt. It is my understanding that porphyry is the origin of the term “born to the purple” because of its purple hue and its use in Imperial Roman palaces.

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