Artists in Western countries have a long tradition of using design elements in careful ways to create illusions. By subtly manipulating these elements they have been able to transform a mundane flat surface into what appears to be a window into another space and time altogether. A stretched canvas, for example, becomes a portal through which we see a famous battle taking place or an orderly domestic scene.
Artists have also used their skills to create curious and mysterious images that we would never find in the natural world. When these images are rendered with care they become as believable as any other scene, still-life object or landscape element.
Throughout history some artists have pushed this ability for creating magic to an extreme degree – building illusions that completely fool viewers’ eyes and minds or give credibility to odd and mysterious objects – requiring viewers to look twice and maybe three times until they can figure out what they’re actually seeing.
Today’s blogpost looks at some of these artists and their captivating images.
Our first artist is Andrea Pozzo, a 17th century Italian painter/architect/stage designer. Although he was by no means the first or only artist to paint spacial-enhancing scenes on architectural surfaces, he was a master of the craft and even wrote a book on the subject.
Pozzo’s most celebrated work is the ceiling of the Church of St. Ignazio in Rome, painted in the late 1600s. Original plans for the church included a dome and vaulted ceilings, but when the construction money ran out those two features were scrapped. Pozzo volunteered to paint scenes on the flat ceiling that would create the illusion of both a dome and high vaults.
In addition to creating a convincing illusion of space, Pozzo depicted a highly symbolic image of a dynamic Catholic church spreading its message to the corners of the earth. The illusion of deep space is, however, what initially captures our attention. His finished work is incredibly convincing when viewed from specific points on the church’s floor.
The technique Pozzo employed – where the illusion needs to be viewed from a specific angle or vantage point – is referred to as anamorphic perspective. It is similar to the technique used by many of today’s sidewalk chalk artists.
Another artist who used anamorphic perspective in one of his most famous paintings is the 16th century master Hans Holbein and the painting we’re referring to is titled “The Ambassadors.”
At first glance the painting appears to be a straightforward scene of two men standing in front of some shelves containing a variety of objects. There is, however, an odd distorted shape that streaks diagonally across the bottom of the image.
In addition to being a portrait of the French ambassador and his friend, Holbein’s painting is loaded with symbolism that reflects the young ambassador’s world view. The top shelf behind the two men is filled with objects that reference the sun and stars. The lower shelf is filled with items that reflect the temporal world with its limitations and discord.
And finally, if you get very close and look directly across the painting’s surface – up from the vantage point of the grave or down from heaven – the odd diagonal shape is revealed to be a human skull.
This painting’s message is clear. The celestial realm is about knowledge and discovery, the temporal world around us is divisive and imperfect, and death is an inevitable lurking presence.
Both Pozzo and Holbein used anamorphic perspective to create their illusions and symbols. In future blog posts we’ll look at artists who have used other devices to challenge our perception and convince us to believe in the impossible.