Illusion in Contemporary ArtBy: Henry Noe


How illusions affect our brain:
The brain controls many of our bodily functions and affects how we think, move, and breathe. Our memory and our perception of the things around us all all controlled by our brain. The brain and art, although the two may not seem directly related, are linked together; the brain is wired in such a way that line, color, and patterns make sense to us and stand out.

Visual illusions are defined by the dissociation between the physical reality and the subjective perception of an object or event. When we experience a visual illusion, we may see something that is not there or fail to see something that is present. Because of this disconnect between perception and reality, visual illusions demonstrate the ways in which the brain fails to re-create the physical world. By studying this disconnect causing the brain failures , we can learn about the computational methods used by the brain to construct visual image or experience (4). Many artists have found ways to create illusions in their art to trick the viewer's brain (1). The artists accomplish this by manipulating depth or brightness to make something seem real when it is not.

The format of illusions and the history of illusions in art:
In the 19th century, Impressionists began to study how the use of color can create illusions in their pieces of art. It was found that a cooler tone make an object seem farther away than if it was painted with a warmer tone (3). During the abstract art resurgence, many illusionary techniques were explored more systematically and were used to evoke the perception of form without suggesting a literal meaning. Specifically, Op Art in the 1960's was dedicated to the exploration of discernible illusions (3). Swedish Artist Oscar Reutersvärd created isometric illusory art as early as 1934 (5). One example of the Reutersvard illusion is called the “Penrose triangle.”
The Penrose Triangle
The Penrose Triangle

This illusion appears to be depict a triangle made of three bars of square cross section that are all affixed to one another to make a triangle. If one corner of the triangle is covered, the three bars appear to be properly fastened at right angles to each other at the other two corners that form a normal and geometrically sound triangle (5). However, once the one corner is uncovered, the deception and the illusion is obvious. The two bars that connect at that corner would not be near one another if the bars were properly joined at the other two corners (5). The Penrose triangle depends on false perspective. This illusion depicts an ambiguous sense of depth which is called “isometric depth ambiguity.” (5)

Artwork that depicts visual illusions:

Maurits Cornelis Escher was born on June 17, 1898 in the Netherlands. He was the youngest of four children. His father, George Arnold Escher, was a civil engineer, and his mother was Sara Gleichman. Escher was the youngest of 4 children. Although he had poor grades, Escher excelled at drawing and the arts. He attended the Haarlem School of Architecture and Decorative Arts in 1919 where he initially studied architecture but later transferred to Graphic Arts(7). Escher became famous for his works that combined impossible reality, infinity, and tessellation. Over his entire artistic career, Escher created 448 woodcut prints, lithographs, and wood carvings. He died on March 27, 1972 at the age of 73 (7).

The Waterfall was made in 1961 by M.C. Escher. This lithograph print represents how an artist's choice of form can completely manipulate how the viewer perceives the work of art. At that point in art history, many two-dimensional artists used relative proportions to create depth in images, Escher chose to use peculiar and extraordinary proportions to create his paradoxical image (6).
"The Waterfall"
"The Waterfall"


The 1961 lithograph depicts a small city set in a high aqueduct with a waterwheel serving as the central image. The aqueduct seems to turn three times, one to the left, twice straight ahead, and once towards the left. The water at the base of the waterfall runs downhill which is along the path the water takes before it reaches the top of the waterfall. Based on Escher’s image, water would need to be added to the moving aqueduct. In this image, the water seems to flow upward which is perplexing and adds to the illusion (6).







René François Ghislain Magritte was born on November 21, 1898 in Lessines, Belgium. Magritte’s surrealist work was known to alter the understood laws of reality. Magritte was the eldest son to, tailor and textile merchant, Léopold Magritte and Régina (née Bertinchamps) Magritte. He studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels from 1916 to 1918 but he found instruction uninspiring. Magritte died due to pancreatic cancer on August 15, 1967 at the age of 68 (8).

The Human Condition was made in 1933 by Magritte. This piece showcases the illusionary nature of art and perception (3). Magritte, in this piece, depicts the ambiguity that is present between a real object, its painted representation, and one’s mental image of the object. Magritte made two copies of The Human Condition, one of the copies was completed in 1933 and is being showcased at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. The second copy was completed in 1935 and it is a part of the Simon Spierer Collection in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Human Condition depicts a painted canvas in front of an open window. On the canvas, the landscape that the viewer cannot see is painted. The painting and the landscape blend together and become one image. Magritte infuses illusion cleverly in this painting, he depicts the unpainted left edge of the canvas and the canvas' stand to remind the viewer that the painting is just that, a painting. Magritte said this about his 1933 work, “In front of a window seen from inside a room, I placed a painting representing exactly that portion of the landscape covered by the painting. Thus, the tree in the picture hid the tree behind it, outside the room. For the spectator, it was both inside the room within the painting and outside in the real landscape."
"The Human Condition"made in 1933
"The Human Condition"made in 1933

"The Human Condition"made in 1935
"The Human Condition"made in 1935















Belvedere was made by Maurits Cornelis Escher in May 1958. This lithograph print is modeled after a panel on Hieronymus Bosch's 1500 triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.The ridge, visible in the background of the painting, is designed after the Morrone Mountains in Abruzzo; Escher had visited the mountain range many times when he lived in Italy during the 1920’s and 1930’s (10).

In Belvedere, Escher depicts a rectangular three-story building. The upper two floors are open at all four sides with the top floor and the roof supported by pillars. The man that is seated in front of the building is holding an impossible cube. He is sitting beside a window that is closed with an iron girdle that is geometrically valid yet practically impossible. All of the pillars on the middle floor seem equal in length yet the back pillars are set higher than those in the front. By the corners of the top floor, the angle is different than that of the rest of the structure. These design choices make it possible for the pillars on the middle level to all be at right angles but, the pillars in the front support the back side of the top floor and the pillars in the back support the front side of the top floor (10).
The Impossible Cube
The Impossible Cube

Belvedere, by M. C. Escher
Belvedere, by M. C. Escher


Hans Holbein the Younger was born in the year 1497 in the city of Augsburg. His father, Hans Holbein the Elder, was a painter and owner of a workshop in Augsburg. In 1526, Holbein moved to England in search of work. Thomas More, a notable humanist at the time, welcomed Holbein into his circle causing Holbein’s reputation to skyrocket. By 1535, he was the royal artist of King Henry VIII. As the royal artist, he not only produced paintings and portraits but also designed for silverware, jewelry, and other precious materials. Holbein died between 7 October and 29 November 1543 at the age of 45.

The Ambassadors (1533) is a painting by Holbein. The painting is made of oil of an oak canvas and it was made in the year 1533. In the painting, two figures are depicted leaning on a table. One of the figures is dressed in secular clothing while the other is dressed in clerical clothing. Within the painting, many different items from different cultures are shown to emphasize the voyages and expeditions of the two men depicted in the painting. To showcase this conglomeration of different cultures, Holbein includes: two globes, the carpet on the upper shelf which serve as an example of oriental carpets in Renaissance painting, a polyhedral sundial, and various textiles including the floor mosaic. The table is flanked with open books, symbols of religious knowledge and even a symbolic link to the Virgin Mary: the inclusion of the religious symbols, the items from different cultures, and the two men dressed in secular and religious clothing is believed to represent the unification of the church and capitalism (11).

The most notable symbol within The Ambassadors is the large distorted skull in the center of the painting. The skull is depicted in the anamorphic perspective. This perspective is designed to be a visual puzzle as the viewer must observe the painting from high on the right side, or low on the left side, to accurately see the skull. It is unknown why Holbein gave the skull such prominence in the painting. Some scholars believe that the painting represents three levels: the heavens (portrayed by the objects in the upper shelf), the living world (portrayed by the two men and the items on the center table), and the underworld (portrayed by the anamorphic skull) (11).

"The Ambassadors"
"The Ambassadors"






Works Cited
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  2. Landau, Elizabeth. “What the Brain Draws from: Art and Neuroscience.” CNN, Cable News Network, 15 Sept. 2012, www.cnn.com/2012/09/15/health/art-brain-mind/. Accessed 1 June 2017.
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  4. Macknik, Susana Martinez-CondeStephen L. “The Neuroscience of Illusion.” Scientific American, www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-neuroscience-of-illusion/. Accessed 2 June 2017.
  5. Simanek, Donald E. “The Principles of Artistic Illusions .” The Principles of Artistic Illusions, www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/3d/illus1.htm. Accessed 2 June 2017.
  6. “The Waterfall by M.C. Escher – Facts & History of the Painting.” Totally History The Waterfall Comments, totallyhistory.com/the-waterfall/. Accessed 1 June 2017.
  7. “M.C. Escher Biography (1898-1972) – Life of Dutch Graphic Artist.” Totally History MC Escher Comments, totallyhistory.com/m-c-escher/. Accessed 2 June 2017.
  8. “René Magritte.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 June 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9_Magritte. Accessed 4 June 2017.
  9. “The Human Condition (Magritte).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 6 May 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Human_Condition_(Magritte). Accessed 1 June 2017.
  10. “Belvedere(M.C.Escher).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belvedere_(M._C._Escher). Accessed 2 June 2017.
  11. “Hans Holbein the Younger.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hans_Holbein_the_Younger. Accessed 1 June 2017.
  12. “The Ambassadors (Holbein).” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ambassadors_(Holbein). Accessed 2 June 2017.