A Trick of the Hand and Eye: Optical Illusions in Art

Is it two faces or a vase? Could it be a young woman or an old crone? For centuries optical illusions have fascinated onlookers of every age and background. I’m certain the majority of us can remember staring at images of ziz-zagged lines and complementary colors waiting for them to magically twirl or shift.  Unsurprisingly, this fascination with perception resonates throughout the art world. Artists employ techniques such as trompe l’oeil, literally translated as “deceive the eye”, to make flat works appear 3-dimensional or imbue patterns with patterns that create multiple images. For those of you wanting to have some fine art with your trickery, here are a few books in the Art Library that discuss the use of optical illusions in various artistic styles.

Masters of Deception: Escher, DalÍ & the Artists of Optical Illusion, by Al Seckel  (ART LIB N 7430.5. .S414 2004)

Surrealist Salvador Dalí and Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher are the undisputed experts on illusionistic images in art. This text juxtaposes a short biography of these figures with a large number of their most enigmatic works, including Dalí’s well-known painting The Hallucinogenic Toreador—in which portions of human faces can be seen on the mid-section of the Venus de Milo—and Escher’s’ print of a Waterfall that continuously flows upstream through a Rube Goldberg-style mechanism to fuel itself. Alongside these two are included more obscure artists, my favorites of which include 16th century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo—who fashioned portraits out of flowers and pieces of food—and Vik Muniz, a contemporary multi-media artist who works with food, soil and other refuse and whose chocolate version of Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa can be seen at our very own Speed Art Museum.

Guiseppe Arcimboldo, Summer, 1573

Op Art by Cyril Barrett (ART LIB N 6494 .O6B B28 1970b)

The use of optical illusions in art is so pervasive that critics and theorists took it upon themselves to designate the trend an artistic style. The term Op Art has since become an integral part of the art historical lexicon. Barrett’s text begins by considering the historical background of Op Art, citing the style’s origins in Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism, Futurism and modernist Russian movements. It then goes on to detail, in depth, certain aspects of the style, such as the effectual properties of color, line and other common features—a discussion illustrated by examples from famous figures like printmaker Bridget Riley, painter Josef Albers and Hungarian artist Victor Vaserely. Although Barrett’s work was published in 1970, and therefore excludes artists working in the same tradition today, it’s a worthy introduction to the history of the movement and a number of its early proponents.

Victor Vaserely, Zebras, 1932-42

Quilts of Illusion, by Laura Fisher(ART LIB NK 9112. F57 1988)

Optical illusions aren’t only found in more traditional media. Fabric and textiles artists have also found fascinating ways to incorporate deceiving designs into their works. This text includes multiple examples of quilts (a medium one might not perceive to be conducive to tricking the eye) that in fact fool the senses as well as any canonical style of art. Included are sections on various patterns, such as tumbling blocks and windmill blades, which form a particular illusionistic subset of quilting. For those interested in local art forms, the vast majority of these examples are culled from Kentucky and the surrounding areas. What’s more, there’s even a chapter at the end of the text that contains instructions on how to create your own entrancing artwork!  If you’re at all intrigued by textile arts, this book is a great introduction to awesome styles a little off the beaten track.

Hattie McWilliams, Target, Kentucky, c. 1930

For more information on optical illusions in art visit the Art Library in Schneider Hall.

Written by Arts & Sciences senior Colton Wilson, student assistant in the Art Library.



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