“- Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel?
– By th’ mass, and ’tis like a camel indeed.
– Methinks it is like a weasel.
– It is back’d like a weasel.
– Or like a whale.
– Very like a whale.”
There are pictures which it is not enough to simply look at: a measure of intuition is also required for their perception. From the above text, it seems that Polonius possessed just this ability, or at least he played as if he did, in order to satisfy the provocative Hamlet. Of course, this capacity can also be developed. “Nova invenzione di speculazione”, i.e., the new method of speculation – proposed Leonardo, as if he wanted to offer a mission for the revival of art, whose essence was that artistic imagination could find new, rich imagoes in splotches of plaster work, cumulus clouds or coloured pebbles. – “One only has to throw a sponge full of paint at a wall, and it will leave a stain, in which beautiful landscapes can be seen, human faces, different kinds of animals, battle scenes, cliffs, seas, clouds and forests and other such things.” If we can believe some of the research concerned with the beginnings of the arts, already prehistoric man in Altamira set to work in such a way that he got an “insight” into the image of the animal to be painted on the relief of the cavewall, and its pigmentation. If this is indeed how it happened, the explanation pertaining to the theory – namely that this intuitive method of working would be some sort of primitive creative form befitting prehistoric man – can hardly be substantiated. Such depiction would postulate the presence of a combination of two fundamentally different representational systems – let us call them iconic and symbolic, or quite complex cerebral function. The scientists would most certainly say that the synchronised function of the more intuitive right hemisphere and the more deliberate left hemisphere is the key.
The majority of “intuitive” pictures, or those of double meaning, which 21st century man brings into connection with playfulness, were often the result of serious intellectual speculation. It would suffice only to recall the strange, allegorical compositions of Giuseppe Arcimboldo. To our eyes, the portraits constructed from natural forms, animals and plants are facile, playful brainchilds, although we can also see in them the essence of Mannerism condensed into an emblem. He painted his most characteristic pictures in Prague, in the court of Rudolf II, whom many considered to be insane. Sublimated decadence, apolitical isolation from the one standpoint, and a mental force of attraction expanding across all of Europe, open to every novelty, and even a quite free cultural atmosphere, if we consider the other side. Mediaeval magic and modern natural sciences fit well together in Prague, in fact, often merged together. Kepler, Bruno, Dee. The worldview of the natural scientists bustling about Prague was fundamentally anthropomorphic: they imagined the universe as a single living, gigantic organism, which does not obey external physical laws, but is rather driven by the spirit striving for harmony.
To perceive the human in the environment, to discern that from the microcosmos to the macrocosmos which resembles man, and to endeavour to depict that. And vice versa, as well: to discover nature in man, the universe on a small scale. In fact, Arcimboldo attempted to evoke the thinking of Rudolf’s natural scientists and philosophers with the tools of painting. If one is well-versed in the sphere of thought of the era, the birth of Arcimboldian “anthropomorphic painting” is not in the least surprising; moreover, it was predictable – practically calculable. If we seek the origins of the Arcimboldian solutions, the transformations – how the objects will become portraits and the landscapes figures, it is worth mentioning Ovid, and the Metamorphoses, which was once again rediscovered about this time, and which was used as a “pagan Bible”, with many treating it as the source from Balassi to Shakespeare and Raphael to Rubens.
The fact that the Archimboldian pictures are literally metamorphoses: sea creatures, plants, fruits, or just a stack of books that transform before our eyes into a human portrait, is evident, but they also metamorphically cross over into the language of artistic representation. Just as sentences are built up from words of autonomous meaning, the “phrase” of the Arcimboldian picture is constructed in the same way. All the depicted real objects are in actual fact the words used for the denomination of that certain super-real creature. This concerns a lifting out of the empirical world, and this ensuing staircase of reality obviously bears a correlation with Platonic ideas on the one hand, and with Surrealism on the other… “Two representations in a single picture”, or as it was phrased by the rediscoverer of the 20th century, Salvador Dalí, “two truths in a single position”. Furthermore, two “truths” opposed to each other. Since the large-scale exhibition in Venice in 1987, for which they attempted to gather many such images, which demonstrated similar effects, art history has designated this method the Arcimboldo effect.
Many years ago, during my poster-drawing studies at the Academy of Applied Arts, it came to my mind that precisely the poster, which we often see from a great distance, and at other times we practically bump into, this mural advertising would be an especially suitable medium for representations of double meaning. One image for the distant observer, and the other for the one who is willing to come closer. The revival of the genre could also have come to my mind, since until then the poster had been considered as the most clear-cut entity to be drafted and to least incur trouble or wasted energies. Also for reasons of content, it was exciting at the time to raise the question of multiple representations in a single picture, since we were living in the era of censors hunting for hidden messages. Or was it already the era of the vexation of censors? In the case of the so-called applied arts – my acquired profession of poster and book illustration and the like – the problem of curtailed independence also always emerges. Well, I believed, perhaps naïvely, that with the second, the mask of the often concealed depiction, I could enjoy greater freedom. Of course, understood within the capaciousness of the notion of freedom was also the compulsion nestled in the possibility of choice: we have to decide: here are not ready panels, but only possibilities. The viewer is actually a partner in creation: s/he takes a stand alongside one of the meanings of the picture. Or does not accept it and gives up. We are sentenced to freedom. Perhaps it is not by chance that Shakespeare characterised Hamlet, this herald of existentialism, who was tending toward despondency, with the habit of seeing images in the irregular forms of clouds.
The phenomenon of a hidden image within the image is a specific case when the technique of anamorphosis aids in concealing or discovering the secret. In this chapter, I have selected two anamorphically distorted images. In art history, we use this expression for those compositions which have been distorted to become unrecognisable through a sophisticated geometric construction; yet if we examine them from a particular viewpoint, or if we place some sort of bject with a reflective surface on top of them, then the hidden image appears after all – resuming its original form. In accordance with two methods of this “retransformation”, there are two types of anamorphism. The first, which was employed already in the early Renaissance, is the group of so-called perspectival anamorphoses, while the other – which appeared only during the period of Mannerism and the Baroque – is the reflective anamorphoses. Shakespeare was certainly familiar with perspectival anamorphosis; moreover, a few lines from Richard II refer so obviously to anamorphic distortion, that we can rest assured that the technique called “perspective” was not unknown to theatre-goers in a London either.
“For sorrow’s eye, glazed with blinding tears,
Divides one thing entire to many objects;
Like perspectives, which rightly gazed upon
Show nothing but confusion, eyed awry
I have been engaged with anamorphoses for quite some time (I drew the first sometime in the second half of the seventies), but naturally, not only the resurrection of this antiquated genre stimulates me, but I also experiment with its continued development. “Nothing but confusion”, we read from Shakespeare; but I would like if instead of the “confused depiction”, there was a basic anamorphic depiction as well, and this image of autonomous meaning would gain a new sense, a second meaning, if we were to inspect it from another point-of-view. If we regard my etching entitled Shakespeare’s Theatre straight on, as we do traditionally, we see a London theatre from the late 16th century, with actors, audience, on-lookers. If, however, we stand to the right side of the wide panorama, and we look from a very flat angle, so that the wide picture tapers into a slender, vertical ribbon, then the elements of the theatre disappear: more precisely, they transform into a portrait of William Shakespeare.
The other picture belongs to the group of reflective anamorphoses. The virtual portrait of Edgar Allan Poe appears in the mirror, moreover in such a way that the horizontal elements of the drawing, appurtenances of the illustration for The Raven create the details of the portrait. If we lift the cylinder, the face disappears, and the empty, yawning room remains, together with the scattered objects, shadows, and the dreaming-remembering man inclined toward the face. The anamorphic technique, in fact, corresponds to the poetry compsition model suggested in Poe’s essay entitled, “The Philosophy of Composition”. The artist should first dismantle and deform reality, then with the aid of fantasy and the intellect, fashion a new, but unreal world from these elements of reality. In this creative work – at least, according to Poe – there is no need for so-called inspiration, nor is there a place for irrational melancholy or for subconscious instincts. The arts should be delimited from uncontrollable emotions, creativity should be led by the intellect, and thus, pure art can be produced on a purely mathematical basis. Whether we re-read his poetry, or Poe’s self-dissecting study expounding the origins of The Raven, the feeling strikes us that Poe was deliberately concealing something: it is as if the mystical-metaphysical obscurity of his poetry and the cleverly provocative brain-storming of his The Philosophy of Composition were merely aiming to divert attention: lest we detect the despondent agony of a conflicted soul, lest we take seriously the first person singular narrator of the poem, and naturally, lest we identify him with Poe. While I attempted to work with the deliberateness and calculation recommended by Poe, I too suspected the obstacles to this scholastic consistency. And I would like to continue to believe that the “inexplicable” plays a role in every creative work, and not a trifling one. I think that Poe, too, however much he tried to hide it, was of the same opinion.