Reflective Anamorphosis

By: Matthew Battles
July 15, 2010

No, it’s not a disorder listed in the DSM. It’s a variety of visual illusion in which an image is skewed so that it appear “correct” when viewed in a mirror. The most famous example is Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors with its stretched-out skull at the bottom:

Holbein’s image doesn’t need a mirror to unravel; looking at the picture plane from a sufficiently raked angle will do (hint: put your nose on the lower left corner of your monitor). But images made to reflect correctly in cylindrical mirrors have been popular optical playthings since at leas the 18th century:

Video artist Ross Ching adds a revelatory twist to the game in his film “Distortions:

Distortions from Ross Ching on Vimeo.

The circular renderings in Ching’s film make me think of the tiny planet in The Little Prince. But viewed as rotating spheres and cylindrical speculations, they seem to be saying something about our wired world as well: as the lenses and mirrors multiply, so do the chances for discovery.


Kudos, Spectacles

What do you think?

  1. I always wondered why Holbein decided to drop that skull in that painting. It’s so out of place. It’s like putting pepperoni on a birthday cake.

  2. Exactly – it was to emphasize the ephemerality of worldly possessions and success. Often a portrait like this would have a skull on the table, amongst the books and globes and golden knicknacks, as a kind of “you can’t take it with you.” Holbein might have been a bit of a technophile in tweaking his skull in this way. The painting is so crowded with detail and pattern that some viewers miss it on first seeing it. But – it takes up the entire center of the carpet!! I have to imagine that his patrons were technophiles too, or they’d have made him paint it out, and we’d need infrared instead of a cylinder to see it today.

  3. I get the momento mori but such a large one, in the middle of the floor is just compositionally peculiar. I’d expect to see it somewhere a little more subtle (for lack of a better word) like a mirror or a window. Reflected in a kettle or something.

  4. Holbein’s tricky memento mori has been the cause of much spilled ink, but no one has offered a convincing explanation. My favorite, more for its vividness than its rigor, comes from Kaskia and Pohl (1979): “Holbein was an asshole.”

    But I buried my lede! I wanted to direct readers’ attention to Ross Ching’s invigorating video, which employs the cylindrical-mirror trick on the side of life.

  5. Ross Ching’s video is lovely. There is also something sweet and wonderful about needing a sacred object to unlock the distortion of a high-definition projected surface. Our environment arrives broken.

    PS I want a “Holbein was an asshole” tshirt. Maybe with the skull on the back in glow-in-the-dark ink.

  6. I don’t think it’s burying the lede as much as it is the Holbein is the logical lead-in to a discussion of the Ching. In the painting the anamorphism requires only that you incline your head, and once you’ve done that you can see it, raked, even straight on. But it’s only “right” within a tiny sliver of perception, as is even more apparent in the second example.

    The Ambassadors is not only incredibly well-painted, apparent even at 72dpi, but floats a conceptual dissonance with the grotesquerie and surrealism of the skull. The warring messages compete — on top of the world vs 6 feet under; tempis fugit vs the persistence of painting; the mercurial nature of political power; colorful eye candy vs existential emptiness. From one perspective, worldly wonders; from the other, death.

    This conceptual dissonance is picked up and extended by Ching. Not only are the “right” images perceived in his cylinder, but the “wrong” images swirling around them are their equal in beauty and fascination. The movement in the video makes their relationship to clouds and tides, and other effervescent fractal ephemera, more apparent. But it also swirls the conceptual disconnect to a new level, one where the “right” images and the “wrong” ones don’t seem so far apart after all. Let the right one in? Well which one might that be? And which way is “in?” How about let everything out to run around! Or at least admit that there may be more right ones, and more ways in, than yet dreamt of in our philosophy.

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