11 Incredible Illusions in Fine Art

Any good work of art deserves a closer look, but the illusions in these masterpieces really reward the viewer who makes a thorough inspection.

1. “The Ambassadors,” Hans Holbein the Younger, 1553

This sumptuous dual portrait of Jean de Dintevill and Georges de Selve emphasizes their wealth and worldly knowledge. The top shelf and bottom shelf contain objects representing the celestial sphere and the terrestrial sphere, respectively. Also on the bottom shelf is a lute with a broken string, a common symbol of strife. Given the particulars of the painting, here it is thought to specifically reference the discord brewing as Henry VIII prepares to break from the church.

The painting’s most obvious feature is a distorted image in the foreground that breaks sharply with the striking realism of the painting. The elongated blob is revealed to be a skull, but only when the painting is viewed from a certain angle, a technique known as anamorphosis. The skull is a common, unambiguous symbol of death and mortality but the illusionary rendering imbues it with a little more nuance — the skull can only be seen when the rest of the painting is obscured, and vice versa.

2. The Secret Portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie, 1700s

In the case of “The Ambassadors,” the anamorphosis was employed as an artistic flourish within an otherwise conventional painting. But the technique could be used to obscure an entire image. Such is the case with this “secrete” portrait of Charles Edward Stuart, a Jacobite pretender to the English throne. After a rousing defeat at the Battle of Culloden, the Jacobite cause was effectively eliminated and to support Stuart’s claim to the kingdom was considered treason. Those still loyal to Charles, however, could continue to raise a glass in his honor with this tray. When a reflective glass was placed in the middle, the meaningless blur would reveal a portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

3. “Eye Scream Sunday,” Aakash Nihalani

Street art is increasingly recognized and respected as a medium, and Aakash Nihalani has found an untapped niche with his use of neon tape to create bold geometric shapes that challenge the viewer’s sense of perspective. The illusions created are relatively simple, the same way you can draw a cube that looks three-dimensional, but his work takes advantage of the cityscape and, in his latest series, even city-dwellers.

4. “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln (Homage to Rothko)”, Salvador Dali, 1976

Of course you can’t talk about illusions in art without talking about Salvador Dali, whose surrealist paintings played on a number of optical illusions. In this painting, Dali is exploiting a specific feature of how the human mind processes images. Dali had read a Scientific American article about the number of pixels necessary to identify a human face. In response, he created this work which, when viewed from close up seems to portray Gala watching the Mediterranean sun, but when viewed from twenty meters away is a portrait of Abraham Lincoln composed of 121 distinct “pixels”.

5. “Enchanted Beach With Three Fluid Graces,” Salvador Dali 1938

The “Graces” here appear to be an amalgamation of the Greek Graces, beauty, charm and joy, and the Three Fates, who control the life thread of every person. In Dali’s depiction of them, the figures are seamlessly woven into their surroundings, with features that appear humanoid from a distance but are actually comprised of entirely separate objects upon closer inspection. Facial features are formed from rocks or horses or even other people. The most ethereal of the Fates on the far left actually appears to be part of a skull, if you look at it just right.

6. Andrea Pozzo's dome at Sant'Ignazio, 1691–1694

The dome, apse, and ceiling of this Jesuit church in Rome feature some of the most incredible examples of di sotto in sù (“seen from below”) and quadratura, techniques developed during the Italian Renaissance that employ different theories of artistic perspective to give flat ceilings the appearance of grandiose depth. The fresco presents not only an artistic masterpiece but a visual illusion that the church is more opulent than it really is as well. One particular stretch shows an elaborate scene of heavenly splendor that appears to spring out of the architecture itself.

7. “Escaping Criticism,” Pere Borrell del Caso, 1874

Wikimedia Commons

Di sotto in sù and quadrature are themselves examples of trompe l'oeil (“deceive the eye”), a technique that utilizes forced perspective and hyper-realism to depict objects that appear convincingly three-dimensional. This painting of a boy seemingly climbing out of the frame is just one of many examples from the era.

8. “Bâtiment,” Leandro Erlich," 2012

This art installation in the heart of Paris made it seem like acrobatic pedestrians were dangling from the façade of a four-story building. Erlich created this effect by painting a building exterior, complete with three-dimensional windowsills, on the ground and then reflecting the life-sized image into a giant upright mirror.

9. 3D Chalk Art, Julian Beever

One of the modern masters of trompe l'oeil, Beever paints sidewalk murals that appear to have remarkable depth. With remarkable realism and deft shadowing, he makes the flat surface appear to be the teetering edge of a tall building or a tranquil reflective lake. Because of the forced perspective, all of his drawings only work from one vantage point. When viewed from any other angle, they appear incredibly distorted.

10. Surrealist photographs, Thomas Barbéy

If you think illusions can’t exist in photographs, think again. Barbéy’s images juxtapose radically unrelated photos to create surrealist works of art that make it look as though a piano’s keys grow out of a zebra’s stripes or mountain peaks crest into horse heads.

11. “Evolving Picture” and others, Oleg Shuplyak

Almost all of the oil paintings by Ukrainian Shuplyak employ a similar technique to Dali’s “Enchanted Beach…” Portraits of historical figures are hidden in lush landscapes. The faces of John Lennon, Pablo Picasso, Sigmund Freud and Charles Darwin are rendered in varying degrees of obviousness by smaller figures or related paraphernalia.

John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.

Evening Standard/Stringer, Getty Images
60 Years Later, a Lost Stanley Kubrick Script Has Been Found
Evening Standard/Stringer, Getty Images
Evening Standard/Stringer, Getty Images

A “lost” screenplay co-written by famed filmmaker Stanley Kubrick has been found after 60 years, Vulture reports.

The screenplay is an adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s novella Burning Secret, which Vulture describes as a reverse Lolita (plot summary for those who forgot high school English class: a man enters a relationship with a woman because of his obsession with her 12-year-old daughter). In Burning Secret, a man befriends an adolescent boy in order to seduce his mother. Zweig’s other works have inspired films like Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (which the director claims he "stole" from Zweig's novels Beware of Pity and The Post-Office Girl).

Kubrick’s screenplay adaptation is co-written by novelist Calder Willingham and dated October 24, 1956. Although the screenplay bears a stamp from MGM’s screenwriting department, Nathan Abrams—the Bangor University professor who discovered the script—thinks it’s likely the studio found it too risqué for mass audiences.

“The child acts as an unwitting go-between for his mother and her would-be lover, making for a disturbing story with sexuality and child abuse churning beneath its surface,” Abrams told The Guardian. It's worth noting, however, that Kubrick directed an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita in 1962, which MGM distributed, and it was also met with a fair share of controversy.

Abrams said the screenplay for Burning Secret is complete enough that it could be created by filmmakers today. He noted that the discovery is particularly exciting because it confirms speculations Kubrick scholars have had for decades.

“Kubrick aficionados knew he wanted to do it, [but] no one ever thought it was completed,” Abrams told The Guardian.

The Guardian reports that Abrams found the screenplay while researching his book Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film. The screenplay is owned by the family of one of Kubrick’s colleagues.

[h/t Vulture]


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