Optical or catoptric perspective
1. What is anamorphic perspective?
Artists can foreshorten and angle linear perspective to deform and change the scale of an object. The image becomes incomprehensible when viewed directly but resolves into a clear picture when looked at from a different vantage point.
There are two types of anamorphosis: optical, also known as direct or oblique; and catoptric.
Optical anamorphosis requires the viewer to look at a picture from an unusual angle instead of standing in front of the painting and looking at it straight on.
Catoptric anamorphosis requires the image to be seen reflected in a conical, cylindrical or pyramidal mirror.
2. When did anamorphic perspective appear?
It is likely oblique anamorphosis was developed in about 1420 or pre-Renaissance. During the Renaissance artists experimented with linear and atmospheric perspective. Da Vinci’s Codex Altanticus (1483 – 1518) show the oldest examples of anamorphosis although it wasn’t until the late 17th Century when the word appeared. It derives from the Greek ana – back, and morphosis – a shaping.
Catoptric anamorphosis was used in China where anamorphoscopes were invented and brought to Italy in the 16th century.
3. Examples of anamorphic art, artists and modern usage.
Artists were able to create secret images hiding erotic drawings or politically sensitive pieces. On the left hand side of Was siehst du? by Erhand Schön 1538 (see Image A below) are a man and woman sitting together on a bed. On the right is what looks like a landscape with a boat floating down a river. Looking at the picture from the right at a sharp angle (Image B below) the riverscape resolves itself into the couple getting up to bedroom tricks!
His piece Vexierbild 1535 (see image below) disguises the comic portraits of Charles V, Ferdinanc 1, Pope Paul III and Francis 1. When viewed from the front the picture appears to be of landscapes with coastlines, ships and villages.
One of the most famous examples of oblique anamorphic perspective is Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors 1533 (National Gallery, London) – see image below, which shows an anamorphic skull in the foreground. One theory suggests it was possibly placed on a staircase and would be seen correctly from this angle. It has to be viewed close to the painting from the right hand side.
Many trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) murals blend the background architecture with painting using anamorphic perspective. In 1685 Andrea Pozzo painted the illusion of the inside of a dome and vault in the Church of St. Ignazio in Rome (see image below). The illusion was perfect in only one spot. To see the painting clearly the viewer had to stand on a golden disc set into the floor of the nave. Elsewhere the painting looks distorted. The painting was created on a flat ceiling.
Kurt Wenner is an American artist who gave up his career as a graphic design artist with NASA and moved to Rome, Italy where he now lives. One of his best known chalk drawings entitled Dies Irae (see below) depicted twisted human creatures emerging from a crater in the pavement. The picture becomes clear only if you stand at a certain spot.
Julian Beever is a British chalk artist who draws images on pavements. Using anamorphic perspective the subject appears quite real and three dimensional when viewed from the right location.
A fascinating chain letter has travelled the Internet since 2004 containing images from both Wenner and Beever. The images are real though many speculate they are digitally enhanced.
The contemporary artist István Orosz creates catoptric anamorphic paintings. His Jules Verne Anamorphosis:
is well known, as is his drawing of M. C. Escher:
A conical mirror needs to be placed on the plane drawings to see the undistorted images.
Modern usage of anamorphic perspective can be seen every day from our cars. Warning signage on roads is painted so the words are clear at a foreshortened vantage point. When you look through your windscreen at the word LEFT painted on the road with a left curved arrow above the word, both the word and arrow appear to be in proportion. However, in reality the arrow is painted twice the size of the word to accommodate the viewing angle.
Wide-screen filmmaking takes advantage of anamorphosis. IMAX and Cinemascope are able to project surround pictures from flat film using this particular type of perspective.
A subset of linear perspective, anamorphosis has been employed by Western artists since the Renaissance and has practical use today.
Phillip Kent has created a piece of software named Anamorph Me! which creates both oblique and catoptric images. Well worth a few hours playing!