Anamorphic Art, an Unconventional Way of Seeing

Anamorphosis (from Webster's Dictionary)

A distorted or monstrous projection or representation of an image on a plane or curved surface, which, when viewed from a certain point, or as reflected from a curved mirror or through a polyhedron, appears regular and in proportion.

Anamorphosis (from Wikipedia)

a distorted projection or perspective requiring the viewer to use special devices or occupy a specific vantage point to reconstitute the image. The word "anamorphosis" is derived from the Greek prefix ana-, meaning back or again, and the word morphe, meaning shape or form

Anamorphosis is pronounced like "metamorphosis", the plural form is anamorphoses (pronounce " ...oh-sees"), and the adjective anamorphic. The word is based on the Greek for "to form again".

Hidden Images Book Slideshow

General Images Slideshow

Some Reference Books Slideshow

There are two main types of anamorphosis: perspective (oblique) and mirror (catoptric). Examples of perspectival anamorphosis date to the early Renaissance (fifteenth century). Examples of mirror anamorphosis were first created in the late Renaissance (sixteenth century).
With mirror anamorphosis, a conical or cylindrical mirror is placed on the drawing or painting to transform a flat distorted image into a three-dimensional picture that can be viewed from many angles. The deformed image is painted on a plane surface surrounding the mirror. By looking uniquely into the mirror, the image appears undeformed. This process of anamorphosis made it possible to diffuse caricatures, erotic and scatological scenes and scenes of sorcery for a confidential public.
Anamorphoses may seem "magical" but a much better word for them is
unconventional. They are based on precise mathematical and physical rules – the same rules that apply to the construction of all two-dimensional representations of the three-dimensional world - but the rules are applied in ways that are a deliberate break from the usual and conventional.

So the anamorphic images seen on this webpage are mostly reconstructed in the cylindrical mirror. The image plane in the mirror has a peculiar shape too - it is nearer the front of the mirror at the base and then recedes to the center higher up. This has given the images a certain three dimensional quality not found in other plane images.

The art of perspective, the representation of 3-dimensional space on a flat surface, was certainly known in ancient times, but this knowledge became lost for centuries. Byzantium had been the artistic center of Christendom for 1,000 years, and in Byzantine art the third dimension (from ancient times) was eliminated. Figures and objects were simply flat abstract symbols set on flat neutral surfaces.

During the Italian Renaissance, in Florence, over a period of about a hundred years, artists rediscovered the art of perspective, and learnt its geometrical rules.  Leonardo's Da Vinci’s sketch of a child’s head and one of an eye (both c. 1485) are cited as the earliest known definitive examples of perspective anamorphosis in modern times. Albrecht Durer in Germany also made some fine illustrations of the idea of perspective.

The most famous example from the 16th century painted by Hans Holbein the Younger is contained in the portrait known as The Ambassadors. This exists on display at the National Gallery London. A strange gray-smudged shape lies diagonally across the bottom of the frame. This is actually a distorted skull stretched anamorphically at the feet of the two men pictured in the full of life. The skull is a traditional symbol reminding us of the inevitability of death. This anamorph is a type of optical illusion, actually like a distortion of perspective. 

http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/hans-holbein-the-younger-the-ambassadors includes an excellent podcast which discusses this particular artwork. The reader is encouraged to go to that website and hear the podcast.

Textbooks describing the techniques of anamorphosis were first published in the 1600s.  The 17th and 18th  centuries became the golden age of anamorphoses. Cylindrical anamorphs became valued decorations among the wealthy. Some famous paintings were even copied as anamorphs for the aristocracy. These distorted pictures were used with a cylindrical mirror, which, when placed over a distorted picture, revealed a recognizable image.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, anamorphic images came to be used more as children’s games and as toys and as parlour games.More recently works by Salvadore Dali and István Orosz and others have attracted great interest. In the past, anamorphoses have been created using grid templates. As you might imagine, this was artistic and labor intensive. Today with advance computers, anamorphic distortions are more easily made.
Everyone is invited to investigate the art, the history and the techniques of anamorphosis. There are many academic and scholarly books, well-written articles, interesting videos, prints, imaginative paintings, and websites (below). Exhibitions have been held in the past. Computer programs like Anamorph Me (Version 0.2) are currently available . Anamorph Me! is copyright © Phillip Kent, 2001.
It really is quite a fascinating subject.

Here are a few excellent websites and with a search others can be found:    

  1. www.anamorphosis.com  
  2. http://www.physics.uoguelph.ca/morph/main.html     
  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anamorphosis
  4. http://www.anamorphosis.com/links.html
  5. http://www.anamorphosis.com/exhibition/index.html

On a personal note, I was first attracted to the book Hidden Images in the late 1970s. This book then stood out in my personal library and it became the stimulus to develop this topic into a major page for our website.  The first slideshow above is therefore devoted solely to some of the very best anamorphs presented in the book. Enjoy seeing all of the cylindrical anamorphic images which have been created for our visitors. They are fun.

DAF


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