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Less than meets the eye

A Trick of the Eye: Trompe L'Oeil Masterpieces
By Eckhard Hollmann and Jürgen Tesch
Prestel, 96 pp., illustrated, $35

Museumgoers are often taken aback when encountering rather frumpy proletarian types in galleries, overweight and underdressed folks who don't look as if they belong.

Duane Hanson intends to create precisely that effect. Since the 1960s, he's been turning out astonishingly lifelike figures, sculptures made of cast polyester resin.

Polyester wasn't around in the fourth century BC, when, according to Greek myth, the artists Zeuxis and Parrhasios competed to see which of them could make the more naturalistic image. Zeuxis's grapes were deceptive enough to fool birds that swooped down to eat them. Parrhasios offered what appeared to be a painting draped in a cloth. When Zeuxis tried to pull the cloth aside, it was clear who had won.

The tradition of trompe l'oeil dates back to ancient Greece; took a hiatus during the Middle Ages, when religion, not realism, ruled Western art; came back strong in the Renaissance; and hasn't stopped since.

In their book ''A Trick of the Eye," German authors Eckhard Hollmann and Jürgen Tesch take us on a romp through trompe, more than two millennia's worth covered in just 96 pages, starting with Zeuxis and Parrhasios. Many of the 40 works they discuss are shown twice: first as visual truth, then giving up their secrets. So Laurent Dabos's circa-1801 ''Peace Treaty Between France and Spain" fills a two-page spread with what appears to be a collage of portraits of Napoleon and Carlos IV, with a copy of the treaty, all under a shattered pane of glass. The shards of glass create a convincing greenish tinge. None of these elements is real. On the following page, all it takes is a margin of blank space around the rectangle to dispel its illusion. The painting is at once a tour de force and a symbol of the treaty's failure. There's wit here, too: The name and address on an envelope in a corner of the picture are those of the artist.

This book is populist art history, as entertaining as it is enlightening. Hollmann and Tesch take the broadest possible view of their subject. They include artists not usually identified with trompe, Robert Rauschenberg and René Magritte among them, and a few whose names are virtually synonymous with the form, a list led by John Frederick Peto. His 1905 ''Toms River" is a battered wooden door with rusty hinges, with a photo of his grandfather nailed to the wood. A dangling piece of string and a tattered note are among the other elements of the composition, none real.

The authors divide trompe into four categories. One is illusory objects, like the violin on a door at Chatsworth, one of England's great country houses. The musical instrument that Jan van der Vaart painted isn't actually there. Neither is the door.

Next is simulated artworks, including framed canvases hung on the wall with nails: The ''canvases" are really painted directly onto the wall, as are the nails.

Third is illusory architecture, which peaked in the Baroque era, when virtuoso artists made cathedral domes seem open to the skies, and believable balconies appear on what are really flat walls.

Last is the believable human or animal. The authors speculate that passersby may have greeted the monk leaning out of a window in a monastery in Padua, Italy, unable to tell he's just part of a fresco done by Ambrogio da Fossano in the 16th century. And they report that more than one museum visitor has asked a Duane Hanson security guard for directions, only to find the guard as silent and immobile as those at Buckingham Palace. When the queen gets her mind off Camilla and Charles, perhaps she'll consider the cost efficiency of plastic guards instead of real, salaried ones.

Everyone who looks at this book will have a favorite among its examples of trompe. Mine is Warren Johnson's lifesize painting on a bank facade in Columbia, S.C. It looks as if the stone wall has exploded, revealing a tunnel with blue sky beyond. Would customers be taken aback by a bombed wall painted on a building that's supposed to protect their money? Even though it's just an illusion, it seems an odd choice of subject. Perhaps the meaning of that blue sky is that money isn't everything.

The book is sloppily edited, alas, with errors and inconsistencies. The date of the Van der Vaart is listed as circa 1700 and 1674 -- on the same page. Still, in the age of Photoshop, ''virtual" this and that, and seemingly limitless special effects in film, how delightful that a work of art can be so meticulously crafted, by totally traditional means, that it can make you consider walking through a nonexistent door.

Christine Temin is a member of the Globe staff.

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