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